This week, M-23, a feared rebel group operating in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, announced that they would lay down their arms in surrender. Following 20 months of fierce fighting, the displacement of tens of thousands of Congolese, and international posturing, the rebels have agreed to undergo DDR, or disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. While the end of the M-23 uprising is good news, we should not breathe a sigh of relief just yet. The cessation of fighting between the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, or FARDC (the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo), and M-23 does not mean peace and stability for Congo.
International media, human rights groups, and the Congolese government have erringly focused on the M-23 rebellion as the cause of instability in Congo and, in doing so, missed the forest for a few trees. Yes, the M-23 fighters contributed to the crisis in Congo, conquering large swaths of territory and even occupying the lake-side city of Goma at one point. But M-23 is not the reason that the DRC has experienced instability, violence, corruption, and shockingly low rates of development since independence in 1960. M-23 is not the reason that Congo ranked 186th out 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index in 2012. To fully understand the roots of instability and fighting in the eastern region of the DRC, the very roots that nurtured the creation of M-23 and other violent rebel groups, we need broaden our historical lens and look at events preceding this most recent crisis.
How far back should we go? While Congo’s current state can be traced to the genocidal violence and exploitation under King Leopold II, the “pillage first, govern last” policies of the Belgium colonial government that followed, and the kleptocracy that was Mobutu’s post-independence dictatorship, we will focus on the “recent” instability in Congo beginning in the early 1990s.
In 1994, Congo was marred by ethnic strife and civil war that was compounded by the massive inflow of refugees following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. These refugees, among whom were members of the murderous Interahamwe militias and the Rwandan Armed Forces, the very perpetrators of the genocide, proved the catalyst for two major wars that drew in countries throughout Africa, the toppling of the Mobutu regime, the assent and assassination of a new president, Laurent Kabila, and the rise of Kabila’s son and Congo’s current president, Joseph Kabila.
Overlooking for now the complicity of the French government in facilitating their flight, supporters of the ousted extremist government and perpetrators of genocide found themselves assembled in refugee camps along Lake Kivu, the partial boundary between Rwanda and the DRC. A natural alliance developed between the ousted military and the Interahamwe. This coalition experienced a number of reincarnations along the way but their primary goals, terrorizing Rwanda and perpetrating anti-Tutsi violence in Congo, remained constant. Eventually they coalesced to form the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation) a particularly violent and reviled rebel group.
FDLR violence, two consecutive wars, and waves of violent instability spawned others rebel groups, including the loosely organized Mai Mai and the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), the antecedent of M-23. Again, a widened historical lens is needed. The CNDP formed in part to combat FDLR violence against the Banyamalenge, an ethnic group with Tutsi origins that has experienced discrimination in Congo. They emerged only after the DRC’s national army refused to protect the Banyamulenge. The CNDP eventually reached a peace agreement with the Congolese government that resulted in their integration into the FARDC. As a result of dissatisfaction with the Congolese government’s treatment, many former members rebelled in May of 2012. Stop me when this begins to sound familiar. Their name, M-23, was a nod to the date of the failed peace agreement, March 23, 2009.
Now, 20 months later, the M-23 has agreed to dismantle their military wing. So one rebel group is out of action but what of the Mai Mai groups, the FDLR, and one of the primary perpetrators of human rights violations in Congo, their national army? While the Mai Mai have not made headlines recently, they have been responsible for gruesome human rights violations and continue to exist on the fringes. The FDLR continues to exist and maintains a small core group of fighters who perpetrated the Rwandan genocide. The FARDC’s lawlessness recently drew condemnations from the United Nations. After multiple instances of gang rape and violence perpetrated by several battalions, the UN mission to Congo, Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo (MONSUCO), publically threatened to suspend joint operations with the FARDC. And Joseph Kony’s group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group known for enslaving children and horrific violence, has been spotted in the northeastern region of Congo as well.
To varying degrees, these armed groups, the FARDC included, are driven by the struggle for power, economic motives such as access to minerals and other natural resources, including tin, tungsten, tantalum, coltane, and gold, and ethnic agendas. Many claim to be protecting the rights and interests of their communities while they continue to violate them.
Who is to blame for this crisis? It may be convenient to accuse regional powers, Rwanda and Uganda, of supporting M-23, an accusation vehemently denied by Kigali and Kampala. Blaming them is analytically simplistic and indicative of a disturbing scapegoating trend that overlooks the history of instability on their shared borders. In the end, Congo is in charge of fixing Congo. Ideally, a strong government could bring peace and security to the region but that appears to be a far way off. Joseph Kabila’s government has borrowed from the legacy of Mobutu and corruption remains the foundation of local, regional, and national governance. Their military forces continue to terrorize the population to the point that civilians flee when they approach. Some may look to the international community for a solution. MONUSCO, the UN’s largest mission, has been reprimanded by human rights organizations for the number of atrocities committed under its watch. It has been implicated in some instances of complicity in violence and mineral exploitation and, in other instances, of inaction and bias.
So while this week’s news regarding the surrender of M-23 is a positive step towards peace in the DRC, it does not mean the end of fighting in the region. M-23 did not develop in a vacuum nor was it the cause of violence, it was a symptom born in response to pre-existing instability and violence. Before the international community begins a round of self-congratulatory pats on the back, it must look to the roots of instability, not its symptoms, and develop a strategy for sustainable peace in the Congo.