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THE M23 REBELLION

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THE M23 REBELLION

By: David Rilley-Harris – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)

 


The conflict area within the Democratic Republic of Congo (www.berejst.dk/389/Goma.htm).

The end of the Great African War (1998-2003) did not end conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the war had been centred. The resource-rich eastern DRC saw continued militant action in the Kivu region which became known as the Kivu Conflict. One faction in the Great African War had been the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) which was based in Goma, North Kivu. General Laurent Nkunda was an RCD leader who refused to be integrated into the DRC transitional government after the Great African War. Instead, he retained a fighting force and formed the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in 2006 but was arrested after the CNDP splintered in 2009. Under new leadership, the organisation integrated into the DRC military on 23 March 2009, but the hurdles of that integration would prove too great. The CNDP had been accused of war crimes and had made use of child soldiers. They were also largely ethnic Tutsi Rwandans. After years of complaints over bad conditions and the DRC failure to fully implement the 23 March 2009 peace agreement, hundreds of ex-CNDP soldiers rebelled against the DRC military and formed the M23 (March 23rd) movement. The M23 Rebellion began in April 2012 with alleged support from Uganda and Rwanda.

 

In July 2012, M23 attacked several towns capturing Bunagana and the North Kivu provincial capital, Rutshuru. They were advancing with relative ease, pushing the DRC military back towards the large town of Goma and some DRC soldiers were forced to retreat across the border into Uganda. Large numbers of civilians were also fleeing into Goma. The rapid M23 advance gave the movement leverage in discussions of a ceasefire deal but those discussions did not bear fruit. In November 2012, M23 launched a major offensive targeting Goma. The heavy fighting saw the DRC military employing tanks and combat helicopters but despite mounting casualties, M23 continued to advance. With thousands of civilians harbouring in Goma, the United Nations (UN) peacekeepers attempted to assist the DRC military with combat helicopters of their own but the M23 advance was relentless. By the time the M23 rebels were on the outskirts of Goma, the DRC military and government officials were abandoning the city and UN peacekeepers had to hold back as M23 advanced into the city. Goma fell on 20 November 2012 and a few thousand DRC soldiers and police officers joined the rebellion which immediately advanced into South Kivu. Renewed negotiations with M23 focused on the civilian population who were at high risk in Goma. The talks were successful enough to convince M23 to leave the city on 1 December 2012, partly as an act of good faith for further negotiations. The heaviest fighting slowed as negotiations got under way.

 

 


M23 rebels in Goma (Reuters).

The Great African War had partly begun in Kivu making it reminiscent of that war when no fewer than eleven African countries signed an agreement to bring the M23 rebellion to an end. It was signed on 24 February 2013, and while it included talk of integrating the rebels back into the DRC military, the agreement also laid the groundwork for the formation of an offensive UN peacekeeping entity that could take the fight to the rebels if needed. This would become the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) that would supplement the 17 000 strong UN force already in the region. South Africa would provide the largest number of boots on the ground for the FIB. The new UN brigade would be permitted to launch attacks on the rebels independently of the DRC military substantially changing the long-held modus operandi of UN peacekeeping. Unsatisfied with DRC concessions, and possibly suffering from infighting, M23 launched new attacks near Goma in May 2013. By the end of July 2013, the UN was sending M23 threats that force would be used if M23 did not leave the Goma area. In October 2013, the FIB attacked the M23 forces around Goma clearing them from the area within one week. Combined with the DRC forces the FIB also pushed M23 out of their strongholds across much of North Kivu. In only a few days, M23 had retreated into the Virunga Mountains on the Rwandan border. Rwanda called for a ceasefire on 1 November 2013, but M23 continued to be attacked along the DRC side of the border with Rwanda and Uganda. On 6 November 2013, M23 fled across the border and surrendered in Uganda.

 


A South African UN peacekeeper in the DRC in 2013 (Wikipedia).

The M23 rebellion had been stopped but many of their soldiers were never accounted for. Furthermore, original grievances between the DRC and Rwanda had never been resolved. Under the new command of Sultani Makenga, M23 regrouped and began filtering back into the DRC in late 2016. M23 was no longer a mutinous segment of the DRC military but rather an addition to the several rebel groups operating in the DRC. They reinitiated their attacks in the DRC in late 2020 but made slow progress. In late 2021, the DRC agreed to allow Ugandan forces into Kivu to fight another rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). This antagonised Rwanda and soon M23 attacks increased. Being largely Tutsi Rwandans, M23 was angered at the apparent improved relations between the DRC and yet another rebel group made up of Rwandan Hutu militia who had been involved in the Rwandan genocide against Tutsis (1994). In mid-2022, M23 made military gains in much of North Kivu and some DRC soldiers again found themselves crossing the border into Uganda for safety.

 

Over the past year there have been several peace talks, militant peacekeeping initiatives, and skirmishes. M23 has consolidated some of its control in occupied areas and has even been collecting taxes. As Rwanda and the DRC make continued accusations against one another, the international community is prioritizing the avoidance of an all-out war reigniting the Great African War.

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