“Rebel Tetris” and M23 gambits spark Kivu mayhem

Much has been happening on the ground in Congo’s Kivu provinces during the last two weeks. Hereinafter, some of the most striking visible as well as some less visible developments shall be put together. On the political level, the withdrawal of US military aid for Rwanda in consequence of UN Group of Experts interim report addendum. Its allegations, though controversially debated (as discussed here) have most certainly played a role in that decision. After that, US officials came up until threatening Kagame with ICC prosecution (notwithstanding that the US has not signed the Rome Statute). He, on his turn, was surprisingly active by giving various interviews to international media where he invariably smashed to bits any critical question. On the regional level, capitals have become more quiet again and the creation of a multinational, neutral force to fight M23 and FDLR while securing DRC-Rwanda borders, is still far from being materialised. During their special summit at the margins of an AU summit in Addis Ababa, the Foreign Ministers and (a couple of days later) the Heads of State of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) had agreed upon this, among other, measures in order to maintain (or regain) control over the Kivutian battlefields. Given the fact that the ICGLR for the first time mandated such a force, it is doubtful whether it will 1) be given birth to at all, 2) become operational soon enough to play a role, and 3) consisting of ICGLR, AU, or UN troops or a mix out of these. Decisions on that are to be taken during another special summit of ICGLR Defense Ministers (including accused Gen. James Kabarebe of Rwanda) in early August.

Meanwhile, in North Kivu, fighting between FARDC and M23 resumed on July 24th (after two relatively calm weeks). M23 started an attempt of retaking Rutshuru and surrounding localities (Kiwanja, Kibumba, Rugari, Rumangabo, etc.) by force. These moves have shortly after been rectified by FARDC violating sort of a “buffer zone” which is supposed to have existed around Rutshuru. The government army’s response was fierce and prompt, but despite helicopter gunship support by MONUSCO troops, M23 finally managed to take several villages. Throughout almost two days of armed clashes (which are not necessarily over at the moment of writing) FARDC was reported to maintain a good stance against the mutineer army, but later lost ground, allegedly due to troop supply for M23. The latter recruited a lot of new combatants during the “ceasefire” and might also have received material supply (apparently through Rwandan and Ugandan borders) and additional personnel (more on that later). Finally, Kiwanja, Rutshuru and other localities went under M23 control. Reports about Rumangabo are contradicting but FARDC appears to regain ground there. Journalists on the spot did also report of captured M23 fighters and other fleeing back into the Virunga mountains as FARDC and MONUSCO are intensifying heavy bombardments.

All that indicates that M23 has either strengthened its ranks or changed its strategy. The former is more likely taking into account that they previously have been restrained by a certain lack in numbers (while training and supply had been sufficient from the very beginning). The question thus is: Where do additional M23 troops come from? To answer this question – which can in any case only been done tentatively as of now – it would be too simplistic, however, to fall back to classic rumours of Rwandan military. Although it cannot be excluded at 100% that camouflage RDF units may take part in certain manœuvres there is much more going on behind the scenes: One month ago, another article argued that a “new” combined front of militias might rise in South Kivu (Kalehe, Mwenga, Shabunda). As of now, it seems that this has not become reality. In South Kivu, Raia Mutomboki as a rather poorly centralised militia in a way forms a front, but apart from attacks into North Kivu (Walikale and Ngungu) they are still operating quite locally. Their coordination structure grew a little when Col. Delphin (former Mayi Mayi Kifuafua) came up as some sort of spokesperson, but most probably only for few segments. A few weeks ago, these were also said to move upwards to join M23 in another alliance contre nature negotiated via FDC-Guides or alternatively Col. Albert Kahasha (this claim was countered by rumours telling that Raia groups wanted to attack M23). Other efforts made by  Kahasha (UPCP) and Gen. Kakule Sikula (Mayi Mayi Lafontaine) aimed at bringing together Mayi Mayi groups, Raia franchises and others.

Roughly one month ago, the strategy must have been changed. Kahasha and Lafontaine left South Kivu and went upwards until Lubero. In exchange the placed different Nande people (traders, maybe also fighters) in their turf – some sort of exchange programme – as sources reported. The actual rationale for that move remains unclear. From Lubero, Kahasha, Lafontaine and their men established closer contacts to M23 and began do join the latter’s military trainings – and perhaps even – fighting against FARDC. Important to notice that, the fact of the two commanders being in Lubero and in touch with Makenga and Co. (or around) is confirmed while the active involvement in M23 could not yet be validated. Beyond some splinter groups that have joined M23 and Kahasha before, the FDLR appears to be idle in the whole game. Sheka Ntaberi’s NDC is concentrated in Walikale and around where it is responding to Raia assaults and maintaining close ties to Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who has returned to Masisi after larger  disputes with the Makenga (or Nkunda) side within M23. He brought along a small personal militia and settled down back at his farm according to sources. Unclear is the current state of the arts for the following actors: FDC-Guides (apparently internal beef due to the commanders hidden alignment to M23), Mayi Mayi Nyatura (involved in some fighting in Kalehe?), Mayi Mayi Yakutumba and FNL (probably far away from the major conflict spots at the moment), and Chiribanya’s UCDD. The newly emerged COGAI in Ituri, as well as its major component FPRI under Banaloki Cobra Matata though, are due to their proximity, more likely to be involved but solid information is lacking.

Finally, what are the aims within this “rebel tetris”? Most notably, the M23 is still punching towards negotiations and bit by bit increases leverage through military gains. The notion of “tukate nchi” (let’s cut the country) has albeit not completely vanished and it appears as if within M23 at least some different streams prevail. But what do Kahasha and Lafontaine want? While for Lafontaine it is difficult to say and might be linked to a lot of opportunism, Kahasha has mentioned grave discontent with Kabila as a reason to defect from FARDC. Interestingly he was the only high-ranking FARDC defector not directly becoming part of M23 (and he is still not, officially). He further pointed out that the main aims consisted more effective civilian protection (which raises the questions why he went up to Lubero) and a possible regime change (not secession!). Still, it cannot be absolutely ruled out that opportunism plays a role. For Raia Mutomboki, revenge against FDLR, hatred of Rwandophone populations (in many instances, at least) and self-defence seem to endure as prime motivations. The FARDC, hugely enforced by special forces redeployed from LRA zones and MONUSCO support, may also still bear some staff-related surprise as not all ex-CNDP officers have defected for M23 and some commander may lose motivation if their superiority in numbers does not rapidly materialise on the battlefield. Summarising it could be argued that after a period of détente and reorganising, the coming weeks could bring a loom of increased mayhem. As to the all aforementioned issues in this article, an emphasis lies on those who have not been mentioned due to lack of knowledge and the sheer impossibility to give a complete realtime account of the Kivus.

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