M23: Four things you should know about the rebel group’s campaign in Rwanda-DRC conflict
Fighting between the Democratic Republic of Congo’s national army and the rebel group M23 has displaced thousands of people in the eastern border city of Goma. Formed 10 years ago, the Rwanda-backed Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) soon made its first mark when it briefly occupied Goma, a city of 1 million today. An African-led effort resulted in a ceasefire and M23’s demobilisation – until the resumption of hostilities in 2021.
Delphin Ntanyoma sets out the four things you should know about the rebel insurgency, which threatens regional stability.
1. What is the background to M23’s insurgency in eastern DRC?
The current force is what’s left of the original M23 Movement formed in April 2012. M23 was an offspring of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, better known by its French acronym CNDP, a rebel group which fought the DRC government between 2006 and 2009. Both groups draw on a claim that the Congolese Tutsi and other ethnic communities in north and south Kivu are discriminated against. They are considered of Rwandan descent and are commonly referred to as “Rwandophones”. One of the consequences of this discrimination is the presence of tens thousands of refugees in the Africa Great Lakes region.
M23 occupied the city of Goma in eastern DRC for 10 days in 2012. The rapid rise and its links to Rwanda caused alarm and triggered international efforts for a ceasefire. After talks brokered by the Southern African Development Community, M23 ended its rebellion in 2013.
Infighting soon erupted within M23 between two groups. One wing made up of roughly 1,700 soldiers fled to Uganda. The other smaller wing of 700 fighters fled to Rwanda. Many of those fighters thereafter demobilised voluntarily or negotiated their way into the DRC’s national army.
Early in 2017, a few hundred remnants of the Uganda wing left Uganda for the DRC, where they sometimes clashed with the DRC’s national army. But there was no sign of intense recruitment until 2021 when the rebel group resumed attacks.
It is extremely hard to estimate how large the M23 group is currently. Still, this is a region that has been volatile for decades and where countless unresolved grievances simmer under the surface. There are hundreds if not thousands of young men who constitute a ready reservoir for recruitment and mobilisation.
Nonetheless, the M23’s ability to occupy and control several localities in North Kivu with its limited military force has led many experts to believe that the rebel group has received military support from Rwanda and to a lesser extent Uganda. DRC government has strongly opposed any form of peace talks with M23.
What M23’s on-and-off insurgency tells us about DRC’s precarious search for peace
2. What territory do they seek to capture and why?
The majority of M23 rebel combatants originate from North Kivu province and specifically from Masisi and Rutshuru. These territories are close to the border of Rwanda where fighting takes place. They are extremely familiar with this terrain and might enjoy local support from inhabitants. The city of Goma is also within this vicinity.
The area of Rutshuru territory alone is approximately 5,300km², equivalent to a fifth of Rwandan territory. The region occupied by M23 borders Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC and has a huge traffic of commercial trucks carrying goods from the Kenyan port of Mombasa through Uganda to Goma and Bukavu in the DRC. Controlling the border town of Bunagana – as M23 curently does – provides an opportunity to raise additional funds through informal taxation. The region is also rich in terms of natural (forest and mineral) resources. In the past, access and control of these resources have also motivated several actors to support rebel groups.
While moving closer to the City of Goma and based on the 2012 experience, M23 may not seek to easily capture the city. The city harbours a million inhabitants, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced. Fighting near Goma exerts pressure on the Congolese government to open dialogue. But attacking the city would increase more international pressure against rebels and Rwanda.
3. What’s behind their battlefield success against the national army?
Mathias Gillmann, spokesperson for the UN stabilisation mission in the DRC, hinted at their strength as recently as July 2022. He noted the M23 was militarily stronger than in the past.
the M23 operates more and more like a conventional army, relying on equipment that is much more sophisticated than in the past.
Though it has not yet been independently verified, M23 is among the groups thought capable of shooting down a UN mission helicopter that crashed within their stronghold in March 2022. DRC military helicopters were also targeted in this area in 2017.
Military sources have hinted that M23 is currently able to operate around the clock, thanks to night vision devices and equipment. It also has longer-range weapons, such as mortars and machine guns. It’s likely these would have been supplied by a well organised army, which is why Rwanda security services are suspected of supporting M23.
Besides equipment, M23 is fighting a well-organised conventional war in which it has intimidated the national army. It advanced quickly from Sarabwe forest reserve to Bunagana. More recently rebels were in action within 20km of Goma City.
However, it’s also important to understand that the DRC’s national army is extremely dysfunctional, corrupt, ill-equipped and low on morale. It is well known that soldiers’ rations disappear into the hands of the generals. In many cases, soldiers can spend days without logistical support simply because senior officers and military generals are more concerned with accumulating resources even at the expense of their rank and file soldiers.
Rwanda and DRC’s turbulent past continues to fuel their torrid relationship
4. What happens next?
Let’s start with the context. The political agreement that ended M23’s occupation of Goma 10 years ago was never fully implemented. Its combatants should have been integrated into the Congolese national army but were not. And the M23 political wing was to become a recognised political party but was not.
The DRC government, first under President Joseph Kabila and now President Felix Tshisekedi, opted to politically engage its main sponsor, Rwanda formally or informally. Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC dates back to 1996 when it backed the rebellion that toppled long-time ruler Mobutu Sese Seko. Its subsequent involvement through proxies such as M23 has both security and economic motivations.
Relations between Kinshasa and Kigali soured recently after Tshisekedi and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni agreed joint military operations along their border coupled with roads construction. Neighbouring Burundi was also allowed by DRC to pursue rebels across the common border. Burundian rebels operating in DRC have received military and logistical support from Rwanda security services.
This left Rwanda looking isolated in the volatile region. By reactivating M23, President Paul Kagame’s aim was to stir the regional political landscape in which he was feeling increasingly isolated.
For its role, Rwanda has come under intense diplomatic pressure from the international community. This includes key western allies such as the US, the UK and France. Kagame has little choice but to withdraw his military, logistical and political support and get M23 to leave the large area the rebels have occupied. This has happened before. In 2009, CNDP – the precursor to M23 – was dismantled when Kigali secured a deal with Kinshasa that was advantageous to Rwanda but detrimental to the rebel group. In 2013, Kigali again was obliged to withdraw his support to M23 under international pressure.
This time around, Kagame could seek guarantees that the East African Community’s regional force won’t constitute a threat to Rwanda’s security in the same way that a joint operation of Uganda and DRC’s army in North Kivu could have been.
The cost of this to Kagame would be loss of credibility among his shrinking supporters within his Rwandan inner circle . It would also hit his support base, mainly among the Congolese Tutsi in the DRC who count on his support amid violence targeting them in North Kivu.
Rwanda will still remain somewhat isolated in the region. This is because Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan are all allowed the East African Community and DRC specifically to send in their forces to stabilise the Eastern DRC while Rwanda is not.
Rather than back a rebel group and operate through a proxy, Rwanda could still directly intervene across the border with DRC if its security is threatened. But this option requires its security services to show tangible evidence of these threats within the country’s borders.