Rebel Group Quits in Congo—Just 50 More Rebellions Left to Put Down
The Congolese army’s military victory over M23 is an astounding turnaround, but there’s still lots of work to be done
The M23 rebel group has been a fixture in the violent political landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1996. It underwent numerous name changes, moving from acronyms like AFDL over RCD and CNDP to its current moniker M23, but it has shown a surprising consistency in personnel during that time.
Most of its mainly rwandophone fighters were of Congolese origin, but cut their teeth in fighting for the Rwandan rebel group RPF, which took power in Congo’s neighbor after the genocide in 1994 and still rules there. Not surprisingly, therefore, was M23’s role as a Rwandan proxy force in Congo. M23 was motivated by local grievances but supported and supplied by Kigali.
But after a series of astounding military victories of Congo’s army, supported by an aggressive U.N. peacekeeping force, the political wing of the M23 has officially declared the movement’s armed resistance against the Congolese state to be over.
With its fighters largely turning themselves in to Congolese and U.N. authorities and its leadership scattered, it seems like the era of rwandophone rebellion in eastern Congo is over.
But peace is by no means guaranteed. While the chances haven’t been as good for a long time, numerous other rebel groups, complicated regional politics and structural weaknesses of the Congolese government should give everybody pause before we pop the champagne.
Keep Rwanda happy
Arguably the most important factor in the recent military success against M23 wasn’t the greater prowess of Congo’s army nor the aggressive actions of the U.N. Force Intervention Brigade — although these have contributed. Rather, M23’s most important ally, Rwanda, kept out of the fight for a change.
Since 1996 the Rwandan government has taken great care to have access to a potent proxy force in its more than 90-times-larger neighbor. From a political point of view, this is understandable: Congo was supportive of the Hutu-led government that ruled Rwanda until 1994 and instigated the genocide.
Under its dictator Mobutu, Congo sheltered the remnants of the génocidaires and cooperation between anti-Rwanda rebel groups and the Congolese military were common until some years ago. Furthermore, the Rwandan government, its army and important Rwandan businessmen have considerable economic interests in eastern Congo.
But times are changing. Rwanda’s role in Congo has come under a lot of scrutiny by the international community. Rwanda is still reliant on large sums of foreign aid, especially from the U.S., and those donors have sent clear signals that overt military intervention in Congo is not to be ignored any longer.
The Rwandan government has also likely accepted that rebel groups like the FDLR, which operate from Congolese territory, are not supported by the Congolese army any more and have ceased to be a viable threat to internal Rwandan stability. A buffer zone along the border, controlled by friendly forces, is thus no longer necessary.
But Rwanda could decide to renew its commitment to the destabilization of Congo any day. Its army is one of the continent’s most capable fighting forces and more than a match for everything that Congo and the U.N. have to offer. It is therefore extremely important that the Congolese government and the international community keep Rwanda happy by addressing its outstanding concerns.
Beating M23 is just the beginning
High on Rwanda’s wish list is likely the complete disbanding of the FDLR and associated groups. The campaign against M23 could be seen as a model for this: Congolese army and U.N. forces use their new-found strength to hunt down the FDLR and destroy its remaining military capacity in a short, forceful offensive.
Unfortunately, while the FDLR is militarily much weaker than M23 ever was, it is still the harder enemy to fight for a superior force.
While M23 was a centralized movement, operating in a relatively accessible terrain, the FDLR has favored guerilla-style operations for years. Its area of operation is largely covered by dense forests, making logistics and aerial support much harder. Its leaders have been targeted by Rwandan hit squads and commandos repeatedly and the organization is more a collection of loosely associated groups, rather than a well organized military organization.
It will likely be easy to marginalize the FDLR further, pushing it into less inhabited areas and curtailing its economic activities. But completely disbanding it will require a much longer and nastier campaign than was necessary against M23.
This is true for most of Congo’s 50-odd other rebel groups, as well. None of them are as strong as M23 was at the pinnacle of its power, but they are deeply entrenched, their fighters are parts of the local communities and pacifying them will be as much a political task as a military operation.
And while Congo’s government proved it has the will to make some changes to give itself a fighting chance against M23, it’s much less clear if it is prepared to start the painful process of national reconciliation that is required for lasting peace in eastern Congo.
Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.