Quo vadis M23?

In between the Amani Itakuya series (next contribution tomorrow by Prof. Godefroid Muzalia), a short note on recent events in Rutshuru territory, given numerous massive changes on the ground. In re-conquering the towns of Kiwanja, Rutshuru, and Rumangabo not even within 48 hours, FARDC has – with the support of the Force Intervention Brigade of MONUSCO – achieved a landmark win in what has been a months-long counteroffensive against M23 rebels who had been at the helm of much that is Rutshuru territory for over a year.

With reports becoming more and more congruent over the day, it became clear, the Goma-Kiwanja axis (through Rumangabo and Rutshuru) is not under control of government forces. Despite constant accusations of FDLR (and other groups) being instrumentalised for the offensive, there is no indication other than a joint effort of offensively mandated blue helmets (one Tanzanian peacekeeper killed in action) and FARDC had effected this current state of the art in the ground. Numerous sources have witnessed ‘a feeling of liberation’ among the adjacent local populations, while it remains to be seen to which extent this does reflect reality across settlements and urban zones in the concerned areas. Today witnessed SRSG Kobler addressing Kiwanja’s population together with North Kivu’s governor Julien Paluku.

In what has been hailed as a definitive turning point by MONUSCO’s leadership under Martin Kobler, many question marks still stand. First rumours indicate the Congolese army marching further toward Bunagana, but these reports need valid confirmation still. However, M23’s retreat into the triangle between Bunagana, Cyanzu, and Jomba has been confirmed by leading members of the group itself, “taking back to their hills”. So it has by a range of observers. Notwithstanding the ongoing contest over whether neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda ever have provided support to M23 (and this piece is purposely not making any comments on that) it now seems clear that Kigali is not (or more precisely, at least not in the immediate future) interested in the rebel movement regaining a position of strength on the battlefield. Rather, the political agenda of DRC’s eastern neighbour might be framed towards increased pressure on MONUSCO to quickly engage in effective disarmament action towards FDLR.

The grand picture now suggests a modest success for the UN’s most recent approach of helping to decimate M23 sufficiently to broker a political solution that grants a disproportional advantage to the Kinshasa government. Two options arise: Either, FARDC continues its offensive on M23 positions, most likely moving towards Bunagana (along the hills in Cyanzu and Jomba decisive military action appears to be harder to achieve given a weakened core of M23 troops may still effectively resist attacks from their base positions) or clashes are brought to a halt as a new and possibly last round of Kampala Talks are set up. Given that parts of the respective delegations (government, rebels, facilitators) continue to be present in the Ugandan capital, there is reason to believe the UN is pushing for this option. This does not exclude though, that MONUSCO forces may still, at least from behind, support a possibly ensuing offensive toward the remaining M23 strongholds.

In the wake of Joseph Kabila’s speech on the state of the nation, it is obvious that, while the M23’s ability to torpedo meaningful negotiations is lessening, the willingness of the government to make concessions is certainly not increasing. Arguing from a position of temporarily military strength, DRC’s president has, without explicitly naming it, favoured military action over peace talks “sans perspective immédiate”. The list of M23 cadres not eligible to amnesty will not shrink under such conditions. While this may not play a role anymore depending the evolution of the situation around Bunagana, it will certainly influence medium-range peacebuilding, disarmament, and reconciliation efforts.



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