Skip to main content
Blog post

Director's Discourse: Implications for Sustained Peace after M-23 Defeat in DRC

thumbs up bulengo camp drc - att oxfam intl

The news out of Africa over the last two weeks has been dominated by the defeat of the rebel group M-23 at Bunagana in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This had led to subsequent "peace talks" conducted in Kampala, Uganda, between the Government of the DRC and M-23 leaders. Mediated by Uganda, these talks have stalled as of this writing, with the DRC government refusing to sign an agreement, reportedly over the way in which the agreement is labeled.

Many longtime observers are struck in the first instance by the nature of the peace talks and lack of regional representation.  Although M-23 operated in Eastern Congo, mainly in the Ruthsuru area, it was not a group that emerged in rebellion against the state of the DRC. In fact, until two years ago, the M-23 leadership was part of the National Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC ).  Rather, the group is the latest manifestation of determined Tutsi militias operating in this area and supported by the Rwandan government, despite its continual denials of such support. This should not come as a surprise, as Rwanda has been supporting one Tutsi group or another since 1994-95 in its continuing effort to neutralize the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Mai Mai militias, Hutu groups of soldiers who fled Rwanda in 1994 after the genocide. It is, therefore, very legitimate to ask why Rwanda and Uganda are not a part of these peace talks, not just DRC and M-23.

Wherever these talks lead and whatever occurs with M23 and its leaders, many of whom may face prosecution in Kinshasa or at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, it is unlikely that M-23's demise means the end of violence in the eastern DRC unless a number of other things occur. The first, and foremost, thing that needs to happen is a change of policy by the Rwandan government.  Future factions and leaders similar to M-23 are likely to emerge in the wake of this surrender as long as Rwanda continues to send support to these Tutsi rebel groups.  There is no indication that Rwanda has overcome its fear of the threat of Hutu militias like FDLR, Allied Democratic Forces, and Mai-Mai Cheka  to reenter Rwanda and cause havoc there.

However, the situation is not without some hope, because the international community is now taking a far more aggressive role in changing the paradigm of competing Hutu/Tutsi forces in the eastern DRC. The first element in this is exemplified by the UN role in defeating M-23.  After a short but intense campaign, FARDC, backed by the newly formed UN Forward Intervention Brigade (FIB), captured all of M-23's strongholds and pinned it down in a small, isolated area on the border of Rwanda and Uganda at Bunagana, which led to its surrender.  The difference from past inept operations by FARDC, who have been repeatedly routed by M-23 and its predecessor, CNDP, was the presence of FIB and its active engagement.  According to press accounts, the FIB provided artillery and logistics support to FARDC, including the use of attack helicopters.  FIB is made up of 3,000 veteran African troops, primarily from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, and, most important, has finally gotten a mandate from the Security Council that allows them to engage in offensive operations.

The use of the UN Intervention Brigade in combat operations represents a sea change in the way the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is conducting its mandate and puts real "teeth" into their military effectiveness.  Under its new head and Special Representative of the Secretary General Martin Kobler, MONUSCO has become more aggressive and independent. In the past, as a partner of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUSCO worked only in consultation and in tandem with the government and FARDC. While it continues to do so, it has recognized that the governments of the DRC and Rwanda are also to blame and have been stirring up violence in Eastern DRC, where FARDC troops have been just as guilty of rape and pillage as the M-23, and Rwanda keeps its support flowing to its surrogates.

So how can such complex and competing forces be tackled?  Kobler's most recent assignments prior to taking up his DRC post were in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this appears to have provided some useful insights into how best to work in Africa. It may be that these tough posts have given Kobler insight on how to separate the U.N. mandate from the policy objectives of a national government when that government was corrupt, ineffective, and contributing to internal divisions and violence.

Regardless, M-23's surrender comes at a time when the international pressures for a permanent solution to this situation are increasing on both Rwanda and the DRC.  On February 24, the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC was signed in Addis Ababa. The agreement resulted from an initiative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in response to the continued fighting, rape, and mayhem being caused by M-23 in the east of the country. Ban pointedly threatened sanctions against neighboring countries that continue to support rebel groups, implying their culpability without naming them. An agreement was therefore signed by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the United Nations, as well as numerous individual countries in the region.

With the appointment of Kobler, as well as former Irish President Mary Robinson as a UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region and former Senator Russ Feingold as the new U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, there now seems to be in place a high-profile, effective international mechanism for holding these recalcitrant leaders to their oft-stated but never implemented commitments to sustainable peace in the region. It is significant that Kobler was reported this week to have said that his next target will be the Hutu militia, FDLR, and any other such armed groups fighting in eastern DRC. Ironically, should the FDLR be defeated, that would remove one of the concerns – or excuses, depending on one's perspectives – of Kagame's Rwandan government. Should that serve to dry up Rwandan support for dissident Tutsi militias in the DRC, then, combined with this new firm international and regional leadership, there might be real light at the end of this tragic tunnel.

Photo attributed to Oxfam International via Flickr Commons: Thumbs Up, Bulengo Camp, DRC.

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more