from Africa in Transition

International Hand-Wringing over the Eastern Congo

November 19, 2012

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Wars and Conflict

International Organizations


Democratic Republic of Congo

M23, a rebel group active in the eastern Congo, advanced on the provincial capital of Goma over the weekend, but has subsequently pulled back. Instead of an attack on Goma, the rebels presented a list of demands to the Kinshasa government that include de-militarization of the city and its airport. It is also demanding the opening of a border post with Uganda, in the town of Bunagana.

This military activity broke a cease fire that had been in place for almost three months.

As M23 advanced on Goma, UN peacekeepers assisted the Congolese army. The UN Secretary General denounced M23 attacks. On November 17th, the president of the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern” about the “rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian crisis” in the eastern Congo, because of M23 military activities. At the same time, the foreign ministers of the eleven members of International Conference of the Great Lakes (including Rwanda and Uganda) have started exploring the possibilities of a neutral international force.

The context of M23 includes issues unresolved from the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the resulting refugee movements, issues between “settlers” and “indigenes,” and quarrels over land use that often have an ethnic dimension. Outside intervention is also a likely part of this witches’ brew. M23 started as a military mutiny within the Congolese army. Its numbers appear to be very small and roots in the local population shallow. UN entities have accused Paul Kagama’s government in Rwanda of supporting M23, and in the past Ugandan elements have also meddled in eastern Congo. Kagame’s government has vociferously denied the UN charges. Nevertheless, M23 success makes credible the accusations that it benefits from outside support. It remains to be seen if the UN Security Council action will induce Rwanda, and perhaps Uganda, to stop supporting M23.