Since its creation last April, the M23 rebel movement has routed the Congolese army, with foreign support. It is no longer a secret, since the publication of UN experts’ report in early July that the M23 has received some Rwandan support. But the UN’s apathy has helped tremendously. Unless, things change radically, the Congolese state is not likely to impose its rule in Eastern Congo before a long time. The M23 is now equipped with mortars and other weapons far superior to what the Congolese armed forces (CAF) have. As the director of a UN agency in Kinshasa points out, the presence in the M23 ranks of former fighters of the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, who were demobilised and reintegrated in Rwanda, can hardly happen without Kigali turning a blind eye. Besides, the rebels’ training camp is on the border, somewhere between the Mikeno and Karisimbi volcanoes. Obviously, they consider both Rwanda and Uganda as zones of strategic retreat in case of necessity.
Some political decisions in Kinshasa may have triggered the rebellion. Threats by Congolese authorities to arrest the Rwandan-backed Congolese Tutsi General Bosco Ntaganda – who replaced Laurent Nkunda as the head of the CNDP (National Council for the Defence of the People) – prompted Ntaganda to defect from the Congolese army and go back to the bush with a group of former CNDP fighters. The move from Kinshasa was largely owed to western diplomatic pressures on President Joseph Kabila to hand over Ntaganda to the International Criminal Court. Yet another event plaid a role: the transfer of 1,000 ex-CNDP troops from Goma to Bukavu triggered not only defections of other ex-CNDP fighters from CAF, but also the creation of the M23. For the ex-CNDP troops, this operation was a violation of the March 23, 2009 agreement with the government not to transfer them outside the Kivus, where they can protect their families and properties.
Apparently, Kigali’s support of the M23 is a motivated by fears that the transfer would make it easier for the DFLR Hutu rebels to attack Rwanda. Some sources also claim that the M23 are protecting the interests of a few Rwandan businessmen in the Kivus.
Last July, both Rwanda and Uganda denied supporting the M23. A regional summit on the 8 August in Kampala decided to deploy a neutral force at the borders with Uganda and Rwanda to prevent arm supplies to the rebels but all ended with empty words. In such context, there is a risk that M23 positions may be consolidated before the next regional meeting which should take place in September.
Initially, the rebels were asking Kinshasa for the full implementation of the 2009 agreement, which means giving them more relevant slots in the army and in administration. The rebels are now adding new demands. On August 17, they presented a sort of political cabinet which looks very much like a shadow government. They are now trying to get new allies within Congo, calling for “good governance” or for the respect of the people’s will, in the wake of the rigged elections of November 2011. A cynical call, since their offensive provoked the exodus of 500,000 people.
The M23 is currently controlling a rectangle of some 1,000 square kilometres including Bunagana, at the Ugandan border, the town of Rutshuru, 75 km North of Goma, the military camp of Rumangabo, 45 km North of Goma and Kibumba, 22 km North of Goma. The short term objective is to cash tolls at the border and road blocks. The area is full of resources, including beans, charcoal, coltan and cassiterite. According to the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature which manages the Virunga National Park, charcoal trafficking alone amounts to an annual total of US$ 35 million.
One of the paradoxes is the spectacular imbalance between the M23 – which only rallied 700 fighters –the CAF, with 100,000 troops, and the UN contingent of 18,000. Moreover, the retreat of the Congolese army has allowed other movements – such as Uganda’s ADF NALU, the Mai Mai Muamba Liaki, the Mai Mai Pareco and the DFLR – to consolidate their positions inside the Virunga National Park.
The Congolese army is definitely not in a position to recover the lost territory. Most of its officers have not received a proper military training. Several units have been trained by Belgium, the US, South Africa or Angola, but they lack logistics and communicate between themselves by cell phones, only when they have coverage. The morale is low. Many have defected over the last months, some to the M23. Above all, Congolese army officers seem quite happy with the situation and embezzle the money sent by Kinshasa to buy provisions for the troops.
Unlike the Congolese army, the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Congo (MONUSCO) has the means to counter the M23 with a tremendous logistical advantage given by armoured vehicles and helicopters. Yet, UN troops failed to defend the positions abandoned by Congolese soldiers. They claim that their job isn defending civilians and not to go hunting for rebels.
At this point, even without Rwandan or Ugandan support, the M23 could still hold out for a while. Indeed, the UN clearly lacks the political will to regain the lost territory. Observers remind that MONUSCO in the past has been reluctant to arrest Ntaganda, who was playing tennis with his officers, ignoring the International Criminal Court’s demands.
It is against this background, that the DRC is organising the next francophone summit in Kinshasa in October. President François Hollande confirmed he will participate, causing an outcry from human rights NGOs, both in France and Congo. Civil society organisations and the Congolese opposition argue that holding the summit where human right activist Floribert Chebeya was assassinated by the police and where key opponents are being jailed without trial, Hollande and other francophone heads of state will be sending a very bad signal.