Rwanda's connection to the M23 rebels must not be ignored

Many of the drivers of conflict in eastern DR Congo lie within its borders, but an analysis that ignores the role of Rwanda in recent years is inadequate to the task of disassembling the cycles of violent insurrection. Français.

Pete Jones
18 October 2012

First published on openSecurity 1st October 2012.

Eastern Congo’s descent back into bloody insurrection this summer marks just another chapter in a depressing tale of cyclical violence in the region. Andrew Wallis, writing in these pages, suggests that the roots of the violence must be dealt with if enduring peace is to be secured. He is, surely, correct in this.

For Wallis, the cause of and solution to the on-going instability in the region lie within Congo’s broad boundaries; the Congolese government is dysfunctional and mismanages an army barely worthy of the name. The truth of this analysis, he says, can be seen in the mass of defections by underpaid (if paid at all), underfed and poorly-supplied soldiers to M23, only the latest rebel movement to launch an insurrection in Congo’s eastern Kivu provinces. Kinshasa has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing M23, but Wallis argues that this is merely a smokescreen which serves to ‘displace political embarrassment over the large-scale defections from the [army].’

Rwanda foments discord

As much as shortcomings in Kinshasa have much to answer for in spawning this and other crises, there is clear evidence of Rwandan support for M23 and it cannot – must not – be ignored. The United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo, research organisations such as Human Rights Watch, independent journalists and national intelligence agencies have all heard testimony and seen evidence of consistent Rwandan support for the rebels. Interviews with hundreds of deserters from FARDC and various armed groups, including M23, revealed the extent of Rwandan support in recruiting and arming M23 fighters. A number of M23 deserters independently and credibly claimed to be Rwandans who were recruited in Rwanda before being transferred to the rebel positions across the border. Interviews with FARDC commanders and intelligence officers, current M23 soldiers, and political and community leaders have all revealed Rwandan involvement inM23. The UN Group of Experts also uncovered incriminating radio communications, text messages and photographs, all of which are laid out in an addendum to their most recent report.

Wallis urges interested parties and observers to ‘ditch the blame-game’ as they seek solutions to the crisis in the Kivus, but Wallis only seems to be keen for people to stop blaming Rwanda. By failing to even analyse the evidence of Rwanda’s culpability, Wallis is whitewashing Rwanda’s role in the on-going instability in eastern Congo. It is true that the ‘blame-game’ and political point-scoring are unhelpful, but an honest assessment of who is driving the conflict, and why, is not done for petty reasons. To accede to Wallis’ demand would be to turn a blind eye on one of the many roots of the violence that must be understood and resolved if peace is to return to this region.

Understanding the insurrection

It is impossible to speak about M23 without referring back to its predecessor, the Congrès national pour le défense du peuple (CNDP). The CNDP, led by Laurent Nkunda and backed by Rwanda, fought a bloody insurrection against Kinshasa until a peace deal, signed in March 2009, integrated the rebel soldiers into the army. Rwanda played a key role brokering the deal, arresting Nkunda to pave the way for talks where General Bosco Ntaganda represented the CNDP at the negotiating table. Much has been made of the Tutsi connection – the Rwandan government is Tutsi-led and the CNDP were self-proclaimed defenders of Tutsi interests; M23 has, to an extent, inherited that mantle. But the majority of M23 fighters are, as Wallis points out, ‘estimated to be from the Hutu, Bashi, Nande, and Barega groups’. It is important to remember that though tribe and ethnicity may play a role in these conflicts, naked financial greed and political ambition are the fundamental drivers.

The final 2009 accords granted significant privileges to CNDP fighters joining the army, including disproportionate numbers of high ranking positions and influence over North and South Kivu. While Nkunda remained under house arrest in Rwanda, the ex-CNDP networks in the Congolese army (the Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo [FARDC]) set about establishing a parallel chain of command and a lucrative smuggling racket. The Kivu provinces are rich in mineral resources; from 2009 these minerals were smuggled into Rwanda in huge quantities, with Rwandan exports of certain minerals outstripping domestic production. The ex-CNDP networks also provided security for the numerous Rwandan business interests in the Kivus. Kigali’s interests in maintaining ex-CNDP influence in the region were clear.

The M23 story began in April this year with a small mutiny by Ntaganda who, fearing arrest for ICC charges of crimes against humanity, fled to the bush with some loyal soldiers. Wallis tells us that this small band of soldiers would quickly become the M23 movement that today occupies a significant swathe of territory in North Kivu and has even established its own alternative government. Rightly dismissing the idea that this rapid expansion could be attributable to Ntaganda’s ‘military genius’, Wallis blames discontent in the FARDC, arguing that this prompted sudden mass defections to the rebels’ cause.

The truth, as is often the case, is far more complicated. Ntaganda’s personal plight did not command a great deal of sympathy among his ex-CNDP colleagues. Only when Congolese President Joseph Kabila threatened to rotate ex-CNDP soldiers out of the Kivus in a bid to break up the ‘mafia’ controlling the east of the country did the rest of the ex-CNDP fighters react. Up to that point the FARDC had made significant gains against Ntaganda and his men in Masisi territory. Only when a second front of angry ex-CNDP fighters opened up on the Rwandan border did M23 begin to make progress.

Wallis repeats claims made by the Rwandans and M23 that redeployment of ex-CNDP fighters is resisted because some 50 were killed as soon as they were sent to Dungu in Province Orientale, though to my knowledge these deaths have never been independently confirmed. In reality, it was the attempt to smash the ex-CNDP parallel chains of command, which had been mooted for some time, that sparked Rwanda and men like Colonel Sultani Makenga – now M23’s military leader – into action.

The stakes

The extent of Rwanda’s involvement is a vital and as yet unanswered question. Wallis says that it is very difficult ‘to find proof that well-trained and heavily armed Rwandan troops are present across the border,’ however that is a rather misleading statement; most often the charges levelled at Rwanda have accused key army and government figures of managing the recruitment of civilians and reservists who are then armed and marched over the border to reinforce M23 positions, rather than of providing the rebels with ‘well-trained and heavily armed Rwandan troops’. Rwanda has also apparently provided other logistical support and intelligence for M23, while allowing individuals (including Nkunda) to operate from Rwanda to drum up support for the rebels. For Wallis to demand evidence of fully armed Rwandan battalions fighting against Congolese troops on Congolese soil is disingenuous; Rwandan support is more subtle, though no less serious, than any such extravagant claims.

M23’s stated aim is to negotiate with the Congolese government in order to fully implement the terms of the 2009 peace deal signed with the CNDP; it seeks, in effect, to secure and strengthen the ex-CNDP control of the Kivu provinces. This, again, is clearly in Rwanda’s interest. Wallis is absolutely correct to say that Kinshasa’s mismanagement of the army, soldier indiscipline, prejudice against Tutsis, the on-going presence of the extremist Hutu rebel group the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda and the inadequacies of the UN stabilisation mission in the Congo are all key drivers of the current crisis. But to ignore the role of Rwandan geopolitical interest in the Kivus is to fatally undermine any effort to address the root causes of instability in eastern Congo.

Honest discussion

It may be politically inconvenient for supporters of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s regime to admit Rwandan culpability in the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Congolese, but if parallel interests that run contrary to Kinshasa’s ambitions continue to control the Kivus, peace will never come. Even Rwanda’s staunchest western allies have taken unprecedented steps in freezing aid to a country that has been touted as the success story of western donor policy; what is needed now is an honest discussion on how best to address the causes of the fighting and resolve the crisis, not efforts to whitewash Rwanda’s role in perpetuating the cycle of violence in eastern Congo.

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