Dispatch

The Rebirth of Congo’s Rebellion

The M23 rebel group is back, threatening to take much of the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and sparking wider regional tensions.

A Congolese army tank heads toward the front line.
A Congolese army tank heads toward the front line.
A Congolese army tank heads toward the front line near Kibumba in the area surrounding the North Kivu city of Goma, Congo, on May 25 during clashes between the Congolese army and M23 rebels. ARLETTE BASHIZI/AFP via Getty Images
By , an independent journalist who has been covering the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2010.

BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of the Congo—In his newly appointed office in this border town next to Uganda, M23 rebel spokesperson Willy Ngoma was all forced smiles and nervous gestures. He was attempting to explain why his comrades have again taken up arms for another round on the rebellion merry-go-round that has tormented what used to be known as Zaire for decades.

“The government doesn’t keep its promises. We need good governance to solve the violence in the east and put an end to tribalism,” he said with a straight face, as his military detail kept watch in the courtyard outside, armed to the teeth.

The feeling of déjà vu is unshakable, recalling a similar conversation a decade ago with another former rebel spokesperson selling the same spiel. M23—the latest iteration of a rebel group that has wreaked havoc across the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998—is on the warpath again and following an all-too-familiar pattern. In recent weeks, using the same military tactics they did a decade ago, the rebels have taken strategic positions, forcing the retreat of the Congolese army and Monusco, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. After seizing a pair of hills on the border with Rwanda, high vantage points where the army could not dislodge them from, the rebels came down to take Bunagana, a town straddling the border with Uganda and a vital trading hub for both countries.

BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of the Congo—In his newly appointed office in this border town next to Uganda, M23 rebel spokesperson Willy Ngoma was all forced smiles and nervous gestures. He was attempting to explain why his comrades have again taken up arms for another round on the rebellion merry-go-round that has tormented what used to be known as Zaire for decades.

“The government doesn’t keep its promises. We need good governance to solve the violence in the east and put an end to tribalism,” he said with a straight face, as his military detail kept watch in the courtyard outside, armed to the teeth.

The feeling of déjà vu is unshakable, recalling a similar conversation a decade ago with another former rebel spokesperson selling the same spiel. M23—the latest iteration of a rebel group that has wreaked havoc across the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998—is on the warpath again and following an all-too-familiar pattern. In recent weeks, using the same military tactics they did a decade ago, the rebels have taken strategic positions, forcing the retreat of the Congolese army and Monusco, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. After seizing a pair of hills on the border with Rwanda, high vantage points where the army could not dislodge them from, the rebels came down to take Bunagana, a town straddling the border with Uganda and a vital trading hub for both countries.

If past is prologue, a host of other towns could fall in the weeks and months to come. Goma, the capital of North Kivu province and its 2 million inhabitants, would be in sight. Already, more than 170,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, fleeing east into Uganda or south toward Rutshuru, Congo, where humanitarian organizations have struggled to deliver aid due to the threat posed by deteriorating security there.

In the deserted streets of Bunagana, the town’s inhabitants, fleeing as the rebels came in, padlocked their doors. “We have a feeling of great frustration,” said Joseph Kabuya, a farmer now staying with relatives on the other side of the border in Uganda. “We invested so much to rebuild after the last war, and now, we are back to square one.”

Worryingly, the rebellion’s resurgence has led to escalating tensions among Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo, which accuses its neighbors of providing support to the M23 rebels just as they did a decade ago. For the first time since a peace agreement put an end to the Second Congo War in 2002, the specter of open warfare is looming once again over a region scarred by hate speech and genocide.


M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma poses for a portrait in his office in Bunagana, Congo, on June 23.
M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma poses for a portrait in his office in Bunagana, Congo, on June 23.

M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma poses for a portrait in his office in Bunagana, Congo, on June 23. Mélanie Gouby for Foreign Policy

Named after a failed peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009, the M23 is the direct heir to three successive rebel movements—the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, and the National Congress for the Defence of the People—rooted in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its deflagration across the border into Congo. Recruited and armed by officers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who seized power in Rwanda in the wake of the genocide, the rebels initially found purpose in pursuing Hutu militias responsible for the massacres, who had found refuge in Congo.

But with each new iteration of the rebellion, the armed group’s raison d’être became increasingly more complex, as its sponsors in Rwanda and Uganda consolidated their power. Access to Congo’s mineral resources and land as well as the defense of the Tutsi community and the continued presence of armed groups hostile to neighboring countries have all played a role in the continued support of those governments.

“For these political-military movements, supporting armed groups is, to a certain extent, how you do politics,” said Judith Verweijen, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sheffield. “These are regimes where elites have disproportionate influence on their country’s foreign policy. What this current crisis shows is that the region is stuck in a pattern of militarized politics.”

For the rebels themselves, taking up arms and being combatants is also simply what they do. Over the years, the rebellion has attracted people like Ngoma, men with no ties to the initial cause defended by the rebels but who have spent their youth bouncing from one armed group to another. Ngoma was raised in Kinshasa, the capital, by an officer of the Zaire Armed Forces and became a sort of mercenary, at one point serving as a bodyguard to Étienne Tshisekedi, father of current Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi. In 2006, he began joining forces with the officers who would go on to form the M23. “I was asked to move to Ituri [a province in northeastern Congo] and become their local point of contact,” he said. Over the years, he kept good relations with them and finally joined the M23 in 2012.

Armed groups can also make a killing—financially. The March 23, 2009, agreement gave the rebels high-ranking positions in the Congolese army, creating a parallel chain of command and allowing them to run a sort of mafia, taxing businesses and mines in the region. When the government threatened to revoke their positions in 2012, they defected. And then started fighting again.

The rise and fall of the M23 took place from 2012 to 2013. The rebels initially swept across the region and briefly took Goma before international pressure and the formation of a new force operating under the auspices of Monusco tipped the balance in favor of the Congolese army. The rebels fled into Rwanda and Uganda. 

Gen. Sultani Makenga (center), head of the rebel M23 group, walks on a hill in Bunagana, Congo, on July 8, 2012.
Gen. Sultani Makenga (center), head of the rebel M23 group, walks on a hill in Bunagana, Congo, on July 8, 2012.

Gen. Sultani Makenga (center), head of the rebel M23 group, walks on a hill in Bunagana, Congo, on July 8, 2012.MICHELE SIBILONI/AFP/GettyImages

“I ended up in Uganda with Gen. Sultani Makenga, [the rebellion’s military leader],” Ngoma said as we walked along an empty street in Bunagana. He recalled how for four years, the battle-hardened fighters languished in camps, playing soccer to pass the time and teaching French to Ugandan military officers. Ngoma and the M23 men awaited the implementation of a deal that would see them repatriated to Congo under certain conditions and on a case-by-case basis. “I have four children, and I never met my youngest daughter, Liliane,” he said.

But no offers came. Congolese authorities, focused on the country’s bigger political crisis as then-Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s final constitutional term was coming to an end, had no time for them. In January 2017, Makenga and his men decided it was time to go back to Congo on their own terms.

Ngoma paused to point to Mount Sabyinyo, an extinct volcano looming over the town on the eastern horizon. A storm formed around its peak, shrouded in dark clouds, and thunder rumbled. “We spent five years there, living on the slopes,” Ngoma said, a shadow coming across his face. Under his wide-brimmed hat, the rebel’s face looked almost gaunt, emaciated by the years spent hiding on the mountain’s flanks, underfed and fighting illness. “I got sick. Very sick. We barely saw another human soul during that time.” 


M23 rebels withdraw from the city of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 1, 2012.
M23 rebels withdraw from the city of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 1, 2012.

M23 rebels withdraw from the city of Goma, Congo, on Dec. 1, 2012. PHIL MOORE/AFP via Getty Images

The rebellion’s resurgence did not come out of the blue, but the swiftness of its conquests took most people by surprise. What’s less clear is whether Rwanda, and to a lesser extent Uganda, have been supporting the M23 this time around, even though the rebellion began, as they always had, on the hills along the Rwandan border. Ngoma and others in the movement said they had left arms caches in the forest along the border before they fled in 2013, but it remains hard to square how the group survived five years on an inhospitable mountain with the sudden, spectacular conquests of recent weeks.

Recent regional developments might explain the rebels’ sudden change of pace. Congo recently joined the East African Community, an intergovernmental organization striving for greater economic integration among its members, opening Congo’s east to new markets and investors from Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan—threatening Rwanda’s hegemony. Plans for a new road linking Goma to Kampala, Uganda, will also bypass the tiny landlocked neighbor. 

“Clearly Rwanda is increasingly isolated in the region,” said David Himbara, an economist who served as an economic advisor to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. “Uganda has been developing trade with the DRC, and that relationship has further evolved to form a military alliance. I think Kagame was alarmed. DRC is the bread and butter of Rwanda.”

On the ground, Congolese army sources claim that the firepower and military capacities of the M23 are massively propped up by Rwanda. A recent report by U.N. experts said drone footage confirmed the presence of individuals wearing Rwandan army uniforms in M23 camps. In a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Monusco head Bintou Keita said, “During the most recent hostilities, the M23 has conducted itself increasingly as a conventional army rather than an armed group. The M23 possesses firepower and equipment, which is increasingly sophisticated,” including precision fire against aircraft. 

Rwanda has strongly denied all allegations that it supports the armed group. In an interview, Kagame suggested that Tshisekedi resolve his own “internal” problems.

Another thing that seems to have rattled Rwanda is Uganda’s intervention in Congo to combat an Ugandan Islamist armed group based there since the mid-1990s. But Rwanda and Uganda appear to have recently patched up their relationship. Some indications that Uganda might be backing the M23 once more have unsettled Congolese officers who have been collaborating with the Ugandan army in operations against the Islamist group. At the border post in Bunagana, Ugandan authorities seemed absent, letting people come and go as they pleased between rebel-held territory and Ugandan soil. 

“It’s extremely confusing. For us at the tactical level, it does not make sense,” said a high-ranking Congolese officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Should we consider Uganda as we consider Rwanda? We wait to learn more. But it is a situation that benefits no one. We had made a lot of progress with Ugandans.”

Demonstrators carry a poster honoring the Democratic Republic of Congo armed forces during a protest in Goma on June 15. Several thousand people demonstrated to show support for the Congolese army.
Demonstrators carry a poster honoring the Democratic Republic of Congo armed forces during a protest in Goma on June 15. Several thousand people demonstrated to show support for the Congolese army.

Demonstrators carry a poster honoring the Congolese Armed Forces during a protest in Goma, Congo, on June 15. Several thousand people demonstrated to show support for the Congolese army. AUBIN MUKONI/AFP via Getty Images

A decade ago, strong diplomatic pressure on Kagame and a freeze on foreign aid played a decisive role. This time, the international community has remained largely silent. France, which played a key role in mustering international support for Congo by leading the creation of an intervention force in 2012 and 2013, is too entangled in a recent reckoning of its own role in the Rwandan genocide while the British government has its hands tied by its recent migration pact with Rwanda. The United States is the only country to have issued a statement expressing concern about the “signalled presence of Rwandan forces on Congolese territory.” All eyes remain on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. 

Yet in private, the region’s diplomats express deep concerns. Rwandan trolls were complaining about hate speech coming from Congo even before any appeared. “It’s very clever. Kagame has learned to manipulate the memory of the Rwandan genocide,” one foreign diplomat told Foreign Policy. 

How quickly the situation could unravel was illustrated several weeks ago by the recklessness of one Congolese soldier who crossed into Rwanda at a border post in Goma and shot at Rwandan police officers. The soldier had lost his brother in the fighting near Bunagana and had sworn to take his revenge by killing five Rwandans. He was shot to death on the spot. After hours of negotiation—during which a roaring crowd had gathered, threatening to run over the border post—his body was finally repatriated.

Where this leads in the months to come may now be out of the hands of the rebels. 

Makenga and several high-ranking officers have long lists of alleged war crimes attached to their names and will not be granted amnesty by Congo. And although they may be getting support from Rwanda and Uganda for now, it is a fickle prop. Former rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is under house arrest in Rwanda, and another rebel leader, Bosco Ntaganda, is serving a 30-year sentence at the International Criminal Court in The Hague after Rwanda turned its back on them.

After the fall of Bunagana, Ngoma called Congolese army Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge to taunt him and tell him the M23 will soon be in Goma. The general had some thoughts.

“I told him that I am not afraid to die because I will be buried as a hero on Congolese soil,” Ekenge said. “But that is not true for him. He’ll die for other people’s benefit. Uselessly.”

Mélanie Gouby is an independent journalist who has been covering the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2010.

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