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  • Writer's pictureWhat is Happening in Congo?

M23 - The Bad, The Worst and The Ugly

As of late, the M23 have dominated headlines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After their defeat by the FARDC with logistical assistance from the SADC's military in 2013, they made a sudden reemergence in the East of the DRC in March of 2022 with a string of deadly attacks. There are a lot of speculations as well as reports stating the militia group receives their funding from the Republic of Rwanda however that does not explain their complex identity and the manner in which they've destabilized the region. Understanding the root of discord and the inception of this group may assist in finding a resolution that will ultimately end the unnecessary bloodshed in North Kivu.

"The Victims were arbitrarily executed with bullets or bladed weapons"- U.N.

So who are the M23 and why are they a threat to the stability of the Democratic Republic of Congo? Their origin starts with their name. The M23 is an acronym for "Mouvement du 23 Mars" which translates to "March 23 Movement". They were named after the accords that were signed on March 23, 2009. Although that's the name they operate with, their inception can be traced to former militia groups, thus commencing their complex identity. To understand the M23 we need to travel back to 1994 after the genocide of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda. The effects of the genocide had a great impact on the stability of eastern DRC. The post 1994 Tutsi-led Rwandan government alleged that the Hutu perpetrators known as the "Interahamwe" of the genocide had fled to eastern DRC to escape prosecution for their crimes and that they were supported by the then president of the DRC Mobutu Sese Seko. These allegations led to the 1996 Rwandan invasion of Congo. This invasion led to the "First Congo War". There were multiple entities involved in the aforementioned war, Uganda and Burundi were involved as well as the militia group "Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre" (AFDL) that was led by Laurent-Desire Kabila and etc. Laurent-Desire Kabila went on to become the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997. In July 1998 he proceeded to revoke Congo's consent to Rwanda and Uganda from being in the country. This in turn caused a Tutsi led rebellion in the East of Congo, one that was allegedly supported as well as developed in Rwanda and Uganda in August of 1998. This rebel group went by the name of " Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie" (RCD), Burundi was implicated in the formation of this group as well. The RCD group based its operation in Goma, North Kivu; a city which tends to be a target of these militia groups. This in turn led to the " Second Congo War". As it often seems to be true in the DRC , it took foreign intervention to cease the fire. All the parties involved went on to sign the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement in 1999, it was one of many agreements that were signed between 1999- 2002. This led to a transitional government being put in place in 2003, controversial former-president Joseph Kabila took the place of his father, Laurent Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in January 2001as the new president.

However, even with a new transitional government insurgency continued. The protection of Tutsi minorities in the east continued to be touted as the reason for the need for insurgency. It appeared as though whilst only the faces of the insurgents changed, the motives, the catastrophes caused and the primary supporters of these groups remained the same. The instability and extreme violence in the region allowed for Congolese minerals to be exploited and countries like Rwanda and Uganda became direct beneficiaries of said minerals.

Amidst the chaos, Laurent Nkunda, a senior officer in the RCD established a new rebel group; "Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple" (CNDP) in December, 2006. Laurent Nkunda was born February 2, 1967 in North Kivu and is a Congolese Tutsi, which appears to be a common denominator amongst the key players in the consistent insurgency in Eastern DRC. Gerard Prunier, a French historian went on to describe Laurent Nkunda as "a persistent source of instability in a chronically volatile region in eastern DRC." It all started for Nkunda when he began his career as a soldier in 1993. At that time he was part of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Then in 1998 he became an officer in the "Rally for Congolese Democracy Goma (RCD-G) upon his return to Congo. RCD-G was a Rwandan-backed rebel group that was responsible for many conflicts in that region with countries such as Uganda and Angola. In 2003, RCD joined the Congolese national army during the governments transitional period. In 2004, Nkunda went on to become the general of the RCD but defied the government and refused to return to Kinshasa as part of the new integrated army. He withdrew with a few hundred troops that were loyal to him. He and his troops retreated to the forests in Masisi, North Kivu. In a surprising move, Laurent Nkunda went on to declare the Congolese government as incompetent and corrupt, he said that it ought to be overthrown in 2005. It is after this that he created the CNDP in 2006 in an attempt to "clean up" Congolese politics. His militia group was mostly Tutsi members; their mission was to protect the local, Banyamulenge ethnic group. An ethnic group that essentially has a geopolitical identity and has effectively been manipulated in the efforts to destabilize the Great Lakes region. Because of their controversial ethnic identity and claims for land they had been caught in the middle of the ongoing conflicts leading to deaths that were not reserved to their ethnic group alone. Nkunda used this as the foundation of his mission statement and exaggerated the attacks on the group to justify his actions in the region against non-Tutsis. Essentially Nkunda could be described as a warlord who has Rwanda as a benefactor. His crimes extended beyond North Kivu and could only be described as atrocious. In Kisangani, a region known for their rich diamond deposits, Nkunda and soldiers committed crimes like torture, rape and inhumane executions according to the Human Rights Watch reports. Around 2008, Laurent Nkunda's second in command, Bosco Ntaganda, began to gain more popularity within their militia group and a power struggle ensued, rendering Nkunda's position in the CNDP volatile. Laurent Nkunda was arrested on January 22, 2009 on the Congo - Uganda border by the Rwandan military. This was a time where there was a renewal of hope in Congolese-Rwandan relations. His arrest by Rwanda was seen as a sign of good faith by the Congolese government as the Rwandan government was widely believed to be the powers that be behind Laurent Nkunda. The Rwandan government was supposed to return Laurent Nkunda to the Congolese so that he could be tried for his human rights violations, however that did not happen. Nkunda is still in Rwanda, under alleged house arrest. According to some reports, many even hail him as a national hero.

Bosco Ntaganda also known as the "Terminator" was born in Rwanda on November 5th, 1973. He was formerly the Deputy Chief of Staff and commander of the operations of the Forces Patriotique Pour la Libération du Congo (FPLC). Like Laurent Nkunda, he too is part of the Tutsi ethnic group. Ntaganda began his military career in the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and was involved in the overthrowing of the Rwandan Hutu regime in 1994. He quickly climbed the ranks and went on to become Chief of Military operations in the FPLC, a military wing of the UPC (Union de Patriotes Congolais). Those who fell victim to Bosco Ntaganda were hunted down on the basis of their ethnicity and were brutally killed. He was implicated in leading the FPLC attacks against Lendu civilians in the gold mining town of Mongbwalu. It was said that there were at least 800 dead. In 2005, Congolese authorities attempted to end the conflict in Ituri by offering Bosco the position of general in the FARDC. Ntaganda refused the position and joined Laurent Nkunda's Rwanda backed rebel group, CNDP. As mentioned before, the CNDP mercilessly conducted violent attacks against eastern Congolese civilians. In 2008, Bosco Ntaganda led the attack of approximately 150 people in Kiwanja, North Kivu and led to the displacement of thousands of locals. From 2009, during his integration in the FARDC, Ntaganda operated with impunity in eastern Congo. He was connected to the targeted assassination of military rivals, accused of being involved in the "disappearances'' of outspoken critics and made a substantial amount of money from his involvement in the illegal trade of drugs. Under his command, his troops also killed at least 270 civilians near the towns of Nyabionda and Pinga, in the western Masisi territory of North Kivu. For his atrocious crimes against innocent civilians as a member of armed militia groups such as M23, Bosco Ntaganda was accused of 13 counts of war crimes as well as five crimes against humanity ( murder, attempted murder, intentionally directing attacks against civilians, rape, sexual slavery, ordering the displacement of the civilian population, conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 into armed groups and etc) that were committed in Ituri. He was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment on the 7th of November, 2013.

A few years prior to Ntaganda's arrest the M23 were running rampant in the east of Congo. After the CNDP's leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested in January of 2009, Bosco Ntaganda took over and the CNDP was absorbed into the Congolese state armed forces and continued the fight against the FDLR alongside Rwanda, who had been granted consent to pursue them in the DRC. On March 23, 2009, the CNDP signed a peace treaty with the Congolese government. They agreed to become a political party in exchange for the release of its members that had been detained by the state. A few years down the line there was a fallout from the March 23 agreement with the CNDP, and this led to the emergence of the M23. On April 4th, 2012, former CNDP members (that had been absorbed within the state forces of DRC) mutinied against the government and the MONUSCO. The M23 also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army cited that their rebellion was due to poor conditions within the national army and that the government had failed to implement the peace deal. The M23 displayed the features of a centralized fighting hierarchical system. The M23 established an administrative authority in the territories where they seized control. They militia group set up a political cabinet, a ministerial department on justice, a security department- including an intelligence service, as well as a police force with five divisions. Mid-April 2012 to the 4th of November 2013 the M23 went on a rampage. They committed grave violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law; including but not limited to violations of the right to life, violations f the right to physical integrity, acts of sexual violence, violations of the right to liberty and security of the person. These incidents occurred in the region of Nyiragongo, Rutshuru, Goma and Sake in North Kivu. May 6, 2012 a press release signed by Muhindo Vianney Kazarama, the former military spokesperson of Operation Amani Leo in North Kivu, was released announcing the beginnings of the operations by the M23. Amani Leo (peace today) military operation replaced the Kimia 2 operation in North/South Kivu. These operations had begun in January 2010 as an anti-insurgency operation that was meant to last three months. Kimia 2 allegedly stopped 5000 combatants of the FDLR by the FARDC with assistance from MONUSCO. Of the 5000 combatants, approximately 75% were said to be Rwandan Hutu rebels in North/South Kivu. If they weren't killed they were repatriated to Rwanda. The goal of the Amani Leo operation was to consolidate the surveillance of Rwandan Hutu rebels in hopes of eradicating them. The M23 went on to take control of Goma in November 2012.

M23 Timeline 2012-2013:

  • April 2012- Former rebels desert from the Congolese army, launching the M23 insurgency in North Kivu.

  • July 6, 2012- After several months of fighting that displaced more than 200,000 people, M23 seized the town of Bunagana on the border with Uganda, making it a major M23 base.

  • Nov 20, 2012- M23 forces take control of North Kivu's capital, Goma. Rebels withdrew from Goma on December 1 and subsequently peace talks took place in Kampala

  • February 24, 2013- Eleven African countries sign a framework peace accord for eastern Congo. It pledged to end any support for armed groups.

  • March 18, 2013- Infighting among M23 commanders leads to fugitive warlord Bosco Ntaganda surrendering at the U.S. embassy in Rwanda to face war crimes charges at the ICR. Sultani Makenga was then left in charge of the insurgency.

  • March 28, 2013- U.N. Security Council approves new U.N. Intervention Brigade for "targeted offensive operations" against armed militia groups in east Congo, including M23.

  • Nov 5, 2013- M23 declares an end to its 20-month rebellion after FARDC. The rebels were driven from their North Kivu strongholds in late October into early November. In August the FARDC had already pushed the M23 out of Goma

Negotiations for peace began in Kampala, Uganda towards the end of 2012. The talks were held under the auspices of the International Conference on the Great Lakes region (ICGLR), Rwanda and Uganda are members of the organization. The DRC received reinforcement from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the form of security resources. In January, 2013 there were rumours of a possible plea deal between the Congolese government and the Sultani Makenga faction of the M23. The rumours dissipated when Bosco Ntaganda intervened out of fear of being arrested for his prior war crimes. The month of February was fueled with infighting between two different factions in the M23 which led to Bosco Ntaganda's defeat. Ntaganda and Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero were on the same side and Ntaganda's defeat was a blow to his presidency of the M23.

Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero is a Bishop and the former president of the M23. He rejected the deadline given by the negotiation talks held in Uganda for the M23 to withdraw from Goma. He was eventually dismissed as the president of the M23, after he signed an accord on February 24, 2013 that pledged to end the conflict. Sultani Makenga accused Lugerero of treason due to "financial embezzlement, divisions, ethnic hatred, deceit and political immaturity". Makenga named him as the orchestrator of the political wing of M23. This caused a split within M23. Runiga eventually escaped to Rwanda through the Gasizi/Rubavu border in March of 2013 and he continues to reside there. In 2016 Lugerero assisted in the creation of a new Congolese political party, the Alliance pour le Salut du Peuple (ASP).

Bosco Ntaganda handed himself over to the US Embassy in Kigali. Bertrand Bizimwa was promoted to the head of the M23 and Rene Abandi took over the reins as the head negotiator of the M23 delegation to the Kampala talks. After these particular talks in Kampala fell through the FARDC with the logistical support of the SADC defeated the M23.

Sultani Makenga and his faction went on to surrender in the Mgahinga National Park. Any M23 militants that managed to escape fell back and fled to either Rwanda or Uganda, where they found refuge. In 2017, under the leadership of Sultani Makenga, they fled Uganda to recommence their insurgency and established a base at Mount Mikeno at the border between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. They launched an unsuccessful attack in 2021. This was followed up by a major attack in February 2022. The M23 cited the non-fulfilment of the conditions of the 2013 December peace deal by the DRC. They also claimed to be protecting Tutsi's from Hutu led FDLR in eastern Congo. Sultani Makenga continues to command the M23 and Yusuf Mboneza leads the ground operations. Bertrand Bisimwa has retained his role as president of the M23. The main base of operations for M23 is found at Mount Sabinyo in the DRC. This camp, along with many others are used as training grounds for new recruits. The M23 is well-equipped with assault rifles, PKM machine guns and light machine guns. Amongst their heavy artillery they are said to own 12.7mm heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, with 60 mm mortars and night-vision binoculars.

On the night of March 27, 2022, M23 re-emerged and launched an attack on Tshanzu and Runyoni in the Rutshuru Territory of North Kivu. The aforementioned villages were also very important strongholds of the M23 during the attacks in 2012-2013. May 26th, 2022 the M23 went on to attack the Congolese military base of Rumangabo. Due to heavy fighting northeast of Goma, in Kibumba, near the Rwandan border. Tens of thousands of Congolese nationals fled the area due to the violence. The M23 spokesperson, Willy Ngoma, released a statement alleging that the Congolese army had started the hostilities. It was at this point that the Congolese government announced that the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) had been fighting alongside the M23 to destabilize the country. Following their statement, the Congolese government went on to impose economic sanctions on Rwanda for their involvement with the "terrorist group" as the Congolese President, Felix Tshisekedi affectionately called them. Rwanda as one may predict, denied the allegations vehemently. The Rwandan government went on to say that any interference they undertook in the region was due to the alleged habouring of the FDLR.

The M23 has continued the push to claim more territory in the East of the DRC, leaving a trail of blood and brutal murders. There are accounts of beheadings, genital mutilations and sexual violence against women and young girls. Toward the end of October 2022 into the first week of November, the M23 seized control of Kiwanja and Rutshuru. It was after these attacks and inflammatory statements by Vincent Karega, the Rwandan ambassador to Congo, who completed his university degree in Katanga, that the Congolese government ordered his immediate return to Rwanda and recalled the Congolese ambassador to Rwanda. The UN reported that between November 29-30, 2022, at least 131 civilians had lost their lives. After an attack in the village of Kishishe, the Congolese government declared that almost the entire village had been killed. The M23 argued against this account and claimed that only 8 civilians had been killed and chalked it up to stray bullets. MONUSCO said that in addition to 102 men, 17 women and 12 children being executed, 8 were wounded by bullets, 60 others were kidnapped and at least twenty-two women and five girls were violently sexually assaulted. The rebel group has been reported to be killing women by cutting off their breasts. In December, 2022 the M23 claimed that they would withdraw and cease the killings after the international community condemned their actions. However the killings have yet to cease, January 24, 2023, there was an attack launched in the areas surrounding Rutshuru. The M23 continues to gain territory while leaving a trail of blood across North Kivu. Due to the incompetence of the Congolese government, past and present, the M23 continues to run rampant. Their insurgency has opened the way for many East African countries to place their armed forces in Congolese territories in an attempt to disarm and defeat the M23. The last time this occurred, the Congo Wars broke out. Every time foreign African countries have been given access to Congolese territories, it led to more bloodshed and pillaging of the minerals found in those regions. We can only hope that this time things will be different.

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