The M23 Congolese rebel group (Guardian), widely thought to be backed by the Rwandan government, has been making significant gains in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in recent weeks. The rebels occupied the vital city of Goma for ten days in late November, but withdrew this past weekend amid mounting international pressure. The rebels were largely disenfranchised by the internationally mediated peace process following Congo’s 1996 – 2003 war, and their interests in eastern Congo relate both to economics and security, explains Jason Stearns of the Rift Valley Institute. The M23 pulled out from Goma because they needed a "PR boost," says Stearns. But, he warns, the distrust between the Congolese government and the rebels make potential negotiations difficult. "The prospects for a comprehensive deal that would lead to a demobilization and reintegration of the rebels are probably still slim," Stearns says.
Who are the M23 rebels and what are their goals in eastern Congo?
The M23 rebellion was born out of a similar rebellion called the CNDP [National Congress for the Defense of the People]. Both of these rebellions need to be seen within the context of a failed peace process in the Congo. The big picture here is that the Congo was intermittently at war between 1996 and 2003, a war in which nine African countries participated and which split the country into at least five parts. There was an internationally mediated peace process that brought about an end to that war, unified the country in 2003, created a transitional government, and then organized elections in 2006. While there are many causes for the ensuing rebellion, first among them was that the peace process was deeply disadvantageous to the Rwandan-backed RCD [Congolese Rally for Democracy] rebels who controlled almost a third of the country. They were deeply unpopular and stood to be decimated at the ballot box and, in fact, when elections did happen in 2006, they went from controlling a third of the country to controlling only several percent in national institutions. Their presidential candidate won 1 percent of the total vote. So it wasn’t entirely surprising to see the elites in the east of the country—and the Rwandan government—back an armed alternative.
This new armed group, the CNDP, emerged in the eastern highlands as a way to protect the interests both of local elites as well as those of the Rwandan government—these included economic investments, but also physical security, which neither the local Tutsi community nor the neighboring Rwandan government [also ethnic Tutsis] felt Kinshasa [Congolese capital] could guarantee. Thus the CNDP was born, fighting the national government between 2004 and 2009. The rebellion concluded with a peace deal between the Congolese government and the Rwandan government, which integrated the CNDP into the national army.
This peace deal was a very shaky and volatile one in the sense that it allowed the CNDP to maintain an army within an army in the east. Ex-CNDP officers had separate chains of command, and in some cases, entire units that only obeyed their hierarchy. Most egregious for local communities and other officers, the ex-CNDP had preferential access to lucrative mining areas and smuggling routes, making many of them rich. It was just a matter of time before this peace deal would collapse. The Congolese government didn’t like it—on several occasions, it tried to dismantle these parallel structures and deploy ex-CNDP officers elsewhere—and the CNDP knew that this was only a short-term arrangement. So the M23 rebellion is really the result of the collapse of the 2009 deal and the result of the failure of the main peace process that ended in 2006. The M23 was a reaction to Kinshasa moving to break apart the CNDP parallel command structures.
Can you expand on Rwanda’s role in backing these rebels and what is at stake for the Rwandan government?
Rwanda has, more or less, controlled large areas in the eastern Congo, in particular the eastern highlands around the trade hub of Goma, since 1996.
Rwanda has, more or less, controlled or maintained influence over areas in the eastern Congo, in particular the eastern highlands around the trade hub of Goma, since 1996. The dismantlement of the CNDP posed a threat to Rwanda, as it undermined its sphere of influence in the Congo. The eastern Congo is important to Rwanda for various reasons. It has economic [interests] there; it stood to lose a lot in terms of business networks and investments. But you can’t reduce it to economics. The main security challenges the Rwandan government has faced in the past eighteen years since it came to power have come from the eastern Congo. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the army and militias that orchestrated the massacres fled into the eastern Congo; they have continued their campaign against the government since then. Today the group, the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an ethnically Hutu group], probably only includes a small number of people who participated in the genocide and is much diminished. However, it symbolically still grabs Rwanda’s collective imagination in the sense that it includes a few of the members who committed the genocide.
The government in Kigali [capital of Rwanda], the RPF ruling party [Rwandan Patriotic Front], is a former rebel movement itself. There is still a culture of control, especially in terms of its internal threats, which sometimes reaches into the Congo. This culture of control has allowed for a very efficient development machinery, allowing for great strides into terms of social services, but has also resulted in a very aggressive stance toward the neighboring government in the Congo, which many Rwandans think is in complete shambles. They [the Rwandan government] have no trust whatsoever in this [Congolese] government, and they feel the only way they can ensure their own interests is by supporting an armed rebellion.
What else is at stake in Goma and the larger eastern Congo with regards to resources?
The eastern Congo is vastly rich, but those riches are tied up in artisanal mines, pick-and-shovel operations in riverbeds and mountainsides. There are vast amounts of gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten, but there’s almost no industrial exploitation. So the way the armed groups benefit is by taxing these mines and trade routes. The government in Rwanda may benefit, but in a more indirect fashion. There are minerals that are from the Congo that are exported by local companies that have links to the Rwandan government, and some of these minerals are smuggled into Rwanda and exported onto the world market as Rwandan minerals; it’s significant but it’s not a large percentage of Rwanda’s total production. Economics explains part of it, but it doesn’t go the whole way. This is about geopolitics as much as it is about economics.
Why did the M23 rebels recently withdraw from Goma, as news reports in early December said, and are they likely to stay out of the city?
The [M23] look like they’re acting in good faith, that they want to negotiate, and that they’re not aggressors. That was the main way of regaining the moral upper hand in the conflict.
We don’t know exactly why the rebels retreated from Goma, and that decision was fraught with contradictions within the armed group, in the sense that the military wing said one thing, the political wing another. But eventually they did withdraw. But it was clear that they needed a PR boost to look like they were part of the solution and not part of the problem in the eastern Congo. They were getting pummeled by the international media, not only for the support from Rwanda, but just for the fact that they were seen as the driving cause of instability in the region and displacement. They look like they’re acting in good faith, that they want to negotiate, and that they’re not aggressors. That was the main way of regaining the moral upper hand in the conflict.
Rwanda has also come under significant pressure: $220 million in foreign aid has now been suspended, around 12 percent of their total budget. It would not surprise me if Rwanda also played a significant role in telling M23 to withdraw so the pressure would be released, at least in the short term.
Despite this retreat, however, the prospects for a comprehensive deal that would lead to a demobilization and reintegration of the rebels are probably still slim. The Congolese government thinks that they can strike another deal like the one in 2009, which would be essentially a sharing-the-pie deal—the M23 would get a couple ministers, have some positions in the army, and then demobilize and reintegrate. Whereas if you talk to the M23, they want political reforms and a much more comprehensive deal. There is very little faith in the Congolese government living up to its commitments.
What has the role of the international community been in this crisis, and, specifically, what should be U.S. policy in the region?
This crisis has brought about a shift in international donor policy for the region, in particular criticism and financial sanctions against Rwanda, which is something that’s new.
This crisis has brought about a shift in international donor policy for the region, in particular criticism and financial sanctions against Rwanda, which is something that’s new. However, using aid as leverage only makes sense in the context of a larger political process. Bashing Rwanda just for the sake of bashing Rwanda is not a solution. There needs to be a comprehensive political process into which that kind of pressure can be funneled and channeled. But there is no such process at the moment. What you have are talks mediated by a regional body—the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR)—that has the irony of being presided over by Uganda, which is itself playing a role in the conflict by supporting the M23. These talks have been largely limited to an evaluation of the March 23, 2009 peace deal, and the potential formation of a regional military force to deal with the FDLR and M23. But the causes of the crisis run much deeper and involve the failure of local governance, the weakness of the Congolese army, and the persistent meddling of neighboring countries in Congolese affairs.
Since 2006, we have not had a peace process in the Congo with strong international mediation. That year marked the end of the official peace process in the Congo, culminating in the first truly democratic elections in forty years. But the war was not over—violence has escalated in the east since then, but the Congolese government has maintained the fiction that this conflict is an entirely law-and-order problem, that they can deal with by policing and repression, and through backroom deals with Kigali. What you need to have is a comprehensive peace process that deals with the underlying issues, in particular reform of local government structures, justice, administration—that can restore faith in the state. This is not just Rwanda meddling in the eastern Congo, but the decrepitude of the Congolese state.
The international community should, therefore, play a greater role in facilitating that comprehensive peace process?
Yes. There’s already the mention of a UN special envoy; that’s exactly what needs to happen. A UN special envoy with a very hefty mandate to look at not just short-term fixes and how to broker a deal with the M23, but really getting at the long-term problems and maintaining a focus on the region for the next five years. There needs to be a deep peace process to build and strengthen Congolese institutions, prevent meddling in the eastern Congo, and a strong international mediation team with a very high-profile lead mediator to be able to push this process.