January 9, 2014

A Dispatch From The Congo, Where Rebels Rise And Fall

By: Joseph Hammond

The defeat of M23, rebel fighters also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army, by a combined United Nations (MONUSCO) and Congolese Army offensive in early November was just one small victory stabilizing the Congo. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, the Congo has had a series of tiny wars within small ones that, taken together, have claimed more lives than any conflict since World War II. Even though the overall level of violence in the Congo is down, and the capability of the government in Kinshasa has grown extensively in recent years, there are still as many as 50 armed groups scattered across Congo from North Kivu to Katanga.  The majority are located in the Eastern Congo and many are mere local militias, known as Mai Mai, whose raison d’être is self-defense from other armed groups.

Because M23 wanted social programs, it cultivated administration and even turning the eastern town of Rutshuru  into a “Potemkin village,”  which media were taken to see the benefits of M23 rule over the people of the Congo. Other armed groups in the Eastern Congo have no such agenda; for them the Congo is merely a base to attack Rwanda, Uganda, or Burundi.  In the face of a joint Congolese Army-United Nations offensive, such groups could simply melt away across the border.

While M23 was a local group, there is no denying that M23 had a special relationship with Rwanda. Though accused by the United Nations of receiving material support from Rwanda (and Uganda as well), M23 denied this accusation vehemently. Yet, many M23 cadres had spent time in Rwanda. While walking about the market of Bunagana, M23’s de facto capital, I encountered one vendor selling just two types of belt buckle: one with the image of English football star Wayne Rooney and the other with the image of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

With the defeat of M23, attention turns to other most troublesome rebels in the Congo, FDLR. The group includes individuals directly responsible for the Rwandan Genocide, the most deadly genocide of the modern era.  Rwanda still faces terrorist attacks it blames on FDLR; I was witness to one such attack on a market in Kigali during Rwanda’s parliamentary elections this year.  Rwanda has accused the government in Kinshasa of supporting FDLR, which Kinshasa denies. FDLR has also made alliances with various local militias, or “Mai Mai,” and another Hutu extremist group, the FLN, which has conducted a number of large-scale massacres – most notably the 2004 Gatumba massacre, which left over 150 people dead and prompted two resolutions of condemnation from the United Nations.

Two other foreign groups operate in the Eastern Congo. The Alliance of Democratic Forces has secular origins, but it is increasingly seen as an Islamist threat possibly supported by the Somali group Al-Shabaab.  Congolese government spokespersons conceded that the fight against M23 meant that operations against FDLR were shelved.  Prompted by the sudden emergence of M23 in 2012, United Nations resolution 2098 authorized a foreign intervention brigade to target M23 and other armed groups in the Eastern Congo. That mandate is scheduled to end in March 2014.  It will likely be renewed, but the worry is that the United Nation’s attentions may shift elsewhere. Already, UN peacekeepers in the Congo have been re-assigned to operations in the Central African Republic (CAR), where clashes between rival ethnic groups are on the rise. In recent months, the United Nations has also struggled to find peacekeepers for both its mission in the CAR and Mali. The situation in the South Sudan is also prompting a new look at problems in Africa.

While these issues deserve serious attention. the United Nations must seize on the initiative gained by the defeat of M23 and work quickly to ensure lasting peace in the Congo.

Follow Joseph Hammond on Twitter. Image of men on the Congo River courtesy of Big Stock Photo.