On November 5th, the March 23 (M23) rebel group in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo announced the end of its insurgency following a joint offensive operation by the national army (FARDC) and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO). The majority of the members fled into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda where they surrendered, and international media was quick to respond with widespread optimism for peace in the region. As a joint statement between the parties has failed to materialise, social relations in the region are growing marginally cooler than their native environment.
M23 was defeated after an 18-month long insurgency and a year of holding power in the provincial capital of Goma. The rebels seized control of the city in November 2012 despite the presence of 1500 UN peacekeepers and 7000 FARDC soldiers in the city. In an effort to give the peacekeeping mission in the DRC muscle needed to end insurgency in the country, Security Council resolution 2098 (of 28 March 2013) established the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) on a one-year basis with the prerogative that should it prove successful it could be further extended. The brigade is a 3000-strong special unit, and the first of its kind in United Nations history, with heavy artillery, drones, helicopters, snipers and tanks. So far as offensive operations go, it has proved a considerable success.
On November 5th 2013, a coordinated military operation by government forces and the intervention brigade managed to flush out M23 from Eastern DRC. M23 announced a cessation of hostilities the same day. Some surrendered and others fled, most to Uganda, where they have received temporary amnesty pending a peace agreement.
Rwanda and Uganda have both been accused by the United Nations for running interference in the DRC by supporting armed military groups such as the M23. After the group declared its capitulation early November, most members ended up in exactly these two countries, where Uganda in particular took a strong stance by refusing to surrender the rebels to its neighbour. Although pressure from the US, UK and several European countries by means such as reduction of aid seems to have curtailed Rwandan interference for now, it is clear Uganda is as involved in the conflict as ever.
Uganda demanded the signing of a peace treaty between the DRC government and the M23 before taking a position on what to do with the rebels that crossed into their territory. This treaty was expected the following week on November 11th, but representatives of the DRC failed to show up to the signing ceremony of the agreement.
The BBC reported controversy over the title of the document, labeled a peace accord, but believed by the DRC to rightly be a declaration so as not to legitimize the M23 and entitling them to amnesty. The delegation from Kinshasa further objected to a provision in the document that opened up for reintegration of all M23 fighters (except some 100) into FARDC, the very army they mutineered from less than two years ago. Uganda, hardly a neutral mediator, has refused these changes and the situation has been in a stalemate ever since. At this stage the peace deal, according to Pan Butamire, “is dead as a dodo” (The New Times Rwanda).
Controversy sparked as the Ugandan government’s spokesperson, Ofwono Opondo, stated the M23 leader Sultani Makenga “is not a prisoner, he surrendered himself”, and further cautioned that the rebels could still regroup should the peace talks between the government of the DRC and the M23 fall through.
Although re-taking Goma and defeating the M23 was a big step in the right direction for re-establishing the rule of law in DRC, demobilization of the group has not yet occurred.
The international community has demonstrated remarkable salience in its willingness to invest in a comprehensive and expensive United Nations mission ($1596378300 annually) that has carried considerable risk to peacekeepers (death toll 61). It is evident the international community is invested in ending conflict in the great lakes region. The mission takes a multilevel approach by protecting civilians, supporting the government and encouraging regional cooperation. The latter, sadly, seems to be the major challenge. Should the DRC and M23 fail to come to an agreement about the future of the rebels, Uganda will have a difficult choice to make.
These hurdles once overcome; there is reason to hope however. Rwanda has signalled its wish to cooperate with the DRC on dealing with the FDLR (which opposes the Rwandan government) and the United Nations (29/11) reports the Sheka Mai Mai militia in Eastern DRC is ready to put down their weapons after the Intervention Brigade and the national army liberated the town of Pinga from under its control late November.
The DRC president Joseph Kabila is currently undertaking a tour in the newly liberated areas, addressing his hope for peacebuilding and asking the locals to refrain from taking out revenge on each other. Although some seem to be cautiously hopeful, one man, identified as Bienfait, told the BBC he believed the root causes of the conflict were regional, and in need of a regional solution before peace could be sustained. “There is nothing to indicate” he said, “that there won’t be an M24 tomorrow or an M25 after that” (BBC News 29/11/2013).
The recent victory over M23 may be a welcome development in a country plagued by multiple insurgencies, corruption and severe humanitarian crises, but it is still only a limited victory at that. The FDLR and Sheka Mai Mai will hopefully be next. Yet as more than 30 armed groups (according to Oxfam) are currently operating in the DRC, it is evident the country, and indeed the region, still has a long way to go. Militant groups have a way of jumping countries whenever times get tough, which is made possible through a history bad neighbourly relations in the region. Although recent developments have been facilitated by a strong international commitment to peace, the current stalemate of negotiations in Uganda works to further accentuate deep-rooted bi-lateral issues between the two countries. As long as efforts are state-centric and fail to address the frigid relations between neighbours the sustainability of recent victories are highly questionable.
- BBC News. 12/11/2013. “DR Congo Refuses to Sign M23 ‘Accord’ in Kampala”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-24915550
- Marc Jourdier. 12/11/2013. “DR Congo Peace Deal Teeters on Brink After Talks Collapse”. Agence France-Presse: http://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/no-dr-congo-m23-rebel-peace-deal-talks-continue
- Paul Butamire. 22/11/2013. “Why North Kivu Deserves and Independent Observer”. The New Times Rwanda: http://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/index.php?i=15549&a=72315
- New Vision. 30/11/2013. “DR Congo Militia Ready to Surrender: UN” http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/650018-dr-congo-militia-ready-to-surrender-un.html
- BBC News. 29/11/2013. “DR Congo President Joseph Kabila Eyes End to War”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-25151130