May there be a hidden rationale for the M23 upsurge?

Here’s to a somewhat tentative analysis (which means: serious comment are very welcome):

As M23 is moving ahead (still controlling the bordering areas between DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda while enlarging its sphere of influence up to Rumangabo) and new desertions towards the group have become known, national and international debates are gaining momentum. Kabila sent his foreign minister and chief diplomat Tshibanda to four neighbouring countries (Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Angola) in order to take a sounding of his colleagues’ views. According to rumours, this will be followed be a diplomatic tour of President Kagame (although this lacks confirmation) – to the same countries. On the international level, the UN Security Council also started dealing with the DRC-Rwanda issue too, as written in a recent Congo Siasa blogpost, especially. The mid-term report by the UN Group of Experts has been submitted and it will be interesting to see how the UN Security Council reacts, given that UN Human Rights Chief Pillay released a statement accusing M23 leaders of mass crimes. As of now it seems the mid-term report does not include pretty much about recent conflict events. A specific annex on that appears to be blocked for prodecural (officially) reasons. Rwanda’s foreign minister was pretty active with another statement issued, on why it is a sheer impossible story to make Rwanda the great backer of M23. Her arguments are convincing, but so are those of the other side (albeit targeting at different parts of the issue). She also went to Kinshasa for extended negotiations with her Congolese homologue and was received by President Kabila. On the ‘other’ side, President Kagame in a widely noticed press conference rejected any responsibility and displayed the problems as genuinely Congolese of nature. DRC foreign minister Tshibanda shortly afterwards submitted an open letter to the UN Security Council asking for all activities directly or indirectly linked to M23 (and FDLR, CNDP…) to be stopped. Without accusing Rwanda directly, he specifically encouraged the country to obey to ‘international law’. Hence, the whole story remains more or less as mysterious as it was during the last weeks, but high-level activity is increasing and the involved actors might be moving towards points of culmination soon.

Much has been written on the possible rationales behind the M23, and their seemingly Rwandan support as well as the Congolese denunciations of the very same. One explanation has been missed by most commentators until now: The greater power constellations in the Kivus and around, and the intertwining of the current situation in North Kivu (M23) and that in South Kivu (partly intruding into southern parts of North Kivu too). The following thoughts are based on a couple of tentative assumptions: First, the security dynamics in both Kivus and its adjacent territories (before all: Rwanda) are almost causally linked to each other. Second, the simultaneous discontent towards the Congolese state in an army included both pro-Rwanda and anti-Rwanda factions in different sub-regions of the provinces. Third, the FDLR is currently too weak to provoke Rwanda taking these huge diplomatic risks by meddling into the M23 issue. Fourth, Kinshasa is extremely weakened by the electoral “effort”, concomitant international pressure, and the ongoing personnel readjustments.

To summarise: The end of 2011 saw a strong increase in military activity in the region. Many operations against FDLR by Amani Leo troops, the intermediate phenomenon of FDC-Guides, which managed to carry out professional, targeted killing operations against FDLR commanders (although they were supposed to consist of local Mayi Mayi fighters). 2012 saw these trends developing further. Under the name of Raia Mutomboki, a new type of loosely connected Mayi Mayi militia, which had in theory yet been existing in 2006, emerged and waged war against others, mainly FDLR. As early as in February/March, rumours of desertion began to poison the politico-military climate. They concentrated on the person of Bosco Ntaganda, who finally left FARDC (few time, after Amani Leo was dismantled/reorganised). Many senior military commanders followed him, at least as many though went another way: Forming M23, which is termed some sort of “logical successor of CNDP” as the predominant group within is formed of ancient commanders of Nkunda’s troops, notably its acting head Sultani Makenga. Ntaganda though he seemed to have left the scene is likely to have joined M23 though maybe not commanding the group (in the meantime he was apparently also seen in Rwanda). Apparently Colonel Mandevu, a former FDLR cadre, assisted him in that. But a few deserting military commanders were neither ex-CNDP, nor did they join M23 or similar. They include a senior commander, known as a diligent and skilled military leader.  His desertion was among the earlier waves, but went largely unreported although he took at least one FARDC battalions with him.

Since then, the traces are scarce. A reason mentioned in the context of his demission was discontent and disagreement with the government’s grand strategy in the Kivu provinces. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he was at the very centre of an interesting development that again, due to attention for M23, went largely unrecorded (aside one small report, I have only known about it through other sources). The deserted senior commander initiated or brokered a ceasefire between one of the Raia Mutomboki chapters and remnants of the FDLR (which is apparently changing its name back to ALIR – whatever this shall mean…). Few time he later, a meeting was convened between him, FDLR, a representative or spokesman selected by all decentralised Raia Mutomboki sections, and several Mayi Mayi groups, including Nyatura, LaFontaine and Sheka, maybe also Yakutumba. It goes beyond information whether other splinter parts of FARDC also play a role in this constellation. Apparently though, this meeting should fortify the ceasefire among the participants and lay some ground for a joint military policy (although Radio Okapi recently reported about new fighting between Raia and FDLR – though this was supposed to have ended last week). The question now is, which is the opponent for such an alliance and is there a common goal at all (Individual goals are sufficiently explored and range from the FDLR’s wish to “liberate” Rwanda, the ex-FARDC’s discontent with their state, the local militias’ aspirations to protect their constituencies, and finally banditry that at least partly informs the activities of Sheka and similar)?

To answer the first question, there are two possible opponents: The Congolese state or the M23. Given the former does currently not very much seem in a shape to fight the regional armed groups without external support, it is more likely such an alliance is, at least indirectly, directed towards M23. This draws on the fourth assumption to some extent. The possibility that FDLR (or ALIR) joins ranks with some of its militia enemies fits to the third assumption and maybe gives evidence on the suspicion that the FDLR as a sole force currently is too weak to remain really operational. The second assumption has already been informed by the fact the mentioned senior commander and his loyal troops had left FARDC units. How to bring in the first assumption on the regional causality of Kivu dynamics? Again, the new movement on the verge of being established coincides with the M23 increase in numbers and territory. At the same time, Rwandan involvement is heavily debated, alleged, and dismissed. Regardless whether in the end is exists and to which extent, yet the mere fact that such a discourse happens might in the extreme case be reason enough for repercussions in the area. A next question is, if there is a new main front growing in the region, which are the concrete intentions of both sides? The separation of the Kivu provinces seems to be almost unlikely as a rebellion aiming at taking power in Kinshasa. M23 rhetoric is still sticking to the (rather defensive) claim of getting their promised share out of the FARDC-CNDP peace agreement. The “other side”, shall it emerge as such, is difficult to examine but a coalition of Mayi Mayi, former loyalist soldiers, and FDLR unifying for a coup d’état might be unlikely in the current situation. What if, in the end it is not primarily or purely about the DRC or the Kivu provinces?

Now comes perhaps a quite adventurous idea on that: Rwanda absolutely needs to protect its security interests in the DRC. It has, many times also represented economic interests and it probably still does but this is part of the less justifiable intervention motive. The mentioned security interests are obvious: Interahamwe leftover forming the FDLR and other, smaller Hutu militias continuously use the DRC forests as rear bases for a possible opportunity they might be able to seize to strike back against Kagame’s government. Although violating the sovereignty of another state represents a capital crime in international law, it is in a way understandable that Rwanda remains vigilant and anxious. But there is not only former interahamwe pit against the Rwandan government. There is Rwandan opposition and Congolese “nationalists” (who consider Rwanda as the prime troublemaker in the Kivus – regardless whether this is right or not), and there is a certain General Kayumba, former head of Rwandan army, suspected of working towards replacing Kagame. He is reported to have already earlier visited South Kivu in order to screen possible alliances to put the Rwandan government under pressure. As of now, no new link was observable between Kayumba (perhaps plus Colonel Karegeya), FDLR, the mentioned Congolese armed groups, and finally the mentioned senior commander. Still, if ever such collaboration was to be put in place, it could clearly explain whichever amount of Rwandan support to a movement such as M23 because in that case, it would be uncertain if the FARDC would cope with such an alliance (which, if it included FDLR and Kayumba would certainly not aim for Kinshasa…). However, this is just a possibility (or, in other words, a substance-based speculation) and should not be taken either for a conspiracy theory (since it is based on factual information and its analysis), or for an objective truth since the region remains to be formed of multiple complex settings, especially in turbulent times such as these days where configurations can change on a daily basis. Certainly though, it is among the different possible explanations for the M23 saga.

PS: I got a couple of comments I do not want to publish here, since their language was not very appropriate. To summarise, they criticised my article for being Anti-Rwandan – actually something I wanted to avoid. If I really did despite my attempt to remain as neutral as possible, please tell me so. Same applies to all other stakeholders I mentioned.

5 Responses to “May there be a hidden rationale for the M23 upsurge?”
  1. George says:

    It isn’t that simple.Rwanda has invaded and messed with DRC since Mzee. If it was always about the FDLR, why did RPA go all the way to Kinshasa and overthrow Mobutu? Kaberebe, a Rwandan becomes head of DRC military…If it was all about the FDLR, why didn’t RPA defeat them in 95-97, in 2003- 2008? With the FARDC in 2009-2011? Then they said they eliminated 90% of FDLR.

  2. ethuin says:

    thank you!

  3. ethuin says:

    I agree to some extent, but your views are way too onesided.

  4. Leo Paulo says:

    You guys, M23 is protecting minorities in Congo. you are talking about eliminating M23 fighters but you kept quite during genocide 1994 and when FDRL is killing people in Eastern Congo. Be realistic when people are being eliminated. M23 is to be supported by people and God

  5. Scott says:

    Very interesting and informative! Keep it up!

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