North Kivu: The M23 war and the spectre of the balkanization of Eastern DR Congo

By Bernardin SEBAHIRE

Researcher at CERPRU


The territory of Rutshuru has been the scene of clashes between the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and the March 23 Movement (M23) for more than a quarter now. The M23 rebellion controls the town of Bunagana, on the border between North Kivu province, Rwanda and Uganda. Bunagana is an important trading and goods transit center, where thousands of dollars a week in taxes and customs duties are collected. The front line is nearby, with the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) positioned at the Rwanguba Bridge, about 25 km from the border.

Eastern DRC, which shares a border with Rwanda, is under daily threat from dozens of armed groups jostling for a share of the region’s mineral wealth, which the world exploits to make electric cars, laptops and cell phones. The M23, one of the most notorious rebel groups, swung into action this year and since June 2022 has seized a key commercial town in eastern Congo.

What is the driving force behind the M23?

The fact that the movement is attracting global attention does not mean that the prospect of a solution is close. At the heart of the crisis is a problem involving Rwanda, local elites and the government in Kinshasa. Since 1996, the region around Goma-especially the Masisi and Bwito highlands, where descendants of Rwandan immigrants predominantly live-has been ruled by elites who have close ties to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in Kigali. Such a history has caught local elites and their constituencies in an inextricable web of self-interest, ethnic solidarity and distrust of the government in Kinshasa. While this network is weakening, it is unlikely to disappear altogether-or to change its perception of Kinshasa.

More than 10 years after the start of the M23 rebellion, no plausible solution was on the negotiating table. Although in September 2012, Kinshasa quietly made contact with the M23, Congolese army commanders continued to insist on a solution on the battlefield. Despite past military failures, they have sent thousands of troops into the Kivus to prepare for the next round of fighting. It is clear that international donors are reluctant to increase their military commitments or spending on peacebuilding in the DRC (with MONUSCO’s costs now reaching $1.4 billion per year). Meanwhile, the M23 has taken advantage of the pause in fighting to forge new alliances and train up to 1,000 new troops.

Regional diplomatic efforts-primarily through the ICGLR-have focused on creating a neutral military force to launch offensive operations against the M23 and the FDLR. If security concerns are difficult to analyze, economic interests are even more opaque. Rwandan mining interests in the Congo during the 1996-2003 wars have been well documented, and the Rwandan mining sector has grown considerably in recent years, accounting in 2011 for some US $164 million.

When did the current crisis begin?

The current crisis erupted in November 2021, when the largely defunct March 23 Movement (M23) militant group struck military positions of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) in the villages of Chanzu and Runyonyi, in North Kivu province, just west of the Ugandan and Rwandan borders. This occurred in the same month that Ugandan forces deployed to the province to pursue the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group that also operates in North Kivu and Ituri. In October and November 2021, Uganda had been the target of suicide bombings that President Yoweri Museveni blamed on the ADF.

Bunagana: M23 makes balkanization official

The young spokesman for the M23, Willy Ngoma, has declared from Bunagana that his network has decided to reopen the border between the Congolese province of North Kivu and the Ugandan district of Kisoro. This news has dismayed the entire Congolese nation and has made it possible to understand the harmful role of Uganda in the Rwandan invasion of Congolese territory. With this decision to administer Bunagana, the M23 is formalizing the Rwandan-Ugandan balkanization of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, under the watchful eye of the United Nations and the African Union, with finely tuned facilitation from Kenya. The consequences will not be long in coming, as the agreement setting up the new regional force puts the greater DRC and the M23, with whom Kinshasa is called upon to engage in dialogue, on an equal footing. This is at a time when all the aggressor states know that Kinshasa will reject this suicidal clause, which aims to reintegrate the rebel forces into the national army. The trap holds on all the way.

Faced with this situation, some civil society actors in the provinces of North and South Kivu are constantly reflecting on ways out of the crisis. Déo Buuma is the coordinator of the organization Action pour la Paix et la Concorde (APC). He makes some recommendations: “The DR Congo needs to build strategies, preventive systems rather than reactive systems. When a rebellion attacks a part of your country, you have to drive that rebellion out by firepower, and there is a question of firepower now being followed by diplomatic force. You don’t start with diplomatic force to respond to an invasion that is already taking part of your territory, it’s paradoxical. A rebellion must be put down by armed force and only then can the diplomatic axes be moved.