Conflict Alerts # 519, 1 June 2022
In the news
On 27 May, the UN said 72,000 people had been displaced in clashes between the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s army and the M23 rebel group near Goma city in the east; of this, 7,000 fled to Uganda. The rest sought refuge in Goma and nearby shelters.
On 28 May, the DRC government summoned Rwanda’s ambassador and suspended RwandAir flights for Kigali’s alleged support of the M23. On the same day, The New Times reported that Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta responded to the allegations at the African Union’s Extraordinary Summit terming the DRC’s allegations baseless. Biruta said if there is a lack of political will, the DRC and Rwanda “will remain in a vicious cycle of undesirable and destructive conflicts.”
On 30 May, Senegal’s president and chair of the African Union Macky Sall tweeted that DRC president Felix Tshisekedi and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame had held a telephonic conversation to discuss possible solutions to the ongoing tensions.
On 31 May, Rwanda’s foreign minister said Kigali will respond if they are subject to more attacks, allegedly from the DRC. The minister said Rwanda will not remain idle because it has the right to protect the security and citizens of the country.
On 1 June, hundreds of people protested outside the Rwandan embassy in Kinshasa. AFP quoted a rights group activist who said the protesters were demanding the expulsion of Rwanda’s diplomat.
Issues at large
First, a brief background of the M23. The M23 group was formed in 2012 by members of a former militia group in the DRC, the National Congress for Defence of the People (CNDP), which was supported by Uganda and Rwanda. On 23 March 2009, the DRC and Rwanda signed an agreement to integrate the CNDP rebels into the DRC’s national army. In 2012, a group of soldiers (formerly CNDP members) mutinied and formed the M23 rebel group, deriving the name from the agreement signed on 23 March. By 2013, the M23 had captured large areas in eastern DRC, including DRC. The rebels were forced to flee to Rwanda and Uganda in 2013, with the help of UN-backed troops.
Second, the resurgence of attacks. In November 2021, the DRC army said the M23 had re-emerged and captured two towns near DRC’s border with Uganda; the towns were recaptured by the army. Since March 2022, a series of attacks, including the targeting of two army positions near Rwanda and Uganda, have been linked to the M23. In the most recent attack, the UN said the M23 had attacked peacekeepers and called for an end to hostilities. However, the M23 rebels accused the UN of targeting their positions and of supporting other militias. The M23 has also accused the DRC government of not adhering to existing peace agreements.
Third, instability in eastern DRC. The instability and violence date back to 1994 when several Rwandan Hutu rebels, accused of carrying out a genocide against Rwandan Tutsis, fled to eastern DRC. Rwanda accused the DRC army of assisting the Hutu armed groups. In 1996, Rwanda invaded the eastern borders of the DRC to attack several Hutu groups, thereby sparking the First Congo War. In 1998, the Second Congo War was fought between forces and rebels from nine African countries. Despite several peace agreements being signed since 2002 and numerous counter militia operations, rebel groups continue operating in eastern DRC. As of February 2022, the UN said an estimated 120 armed groups exist in the DRC’s east. The Norwegian Refugee Council says at least 5.5 million are internally displaced in DRC, facing a risk of starvation.
Fourth, frictioned relations between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. In 2019, Tshisekedi was elected as president of the DRC and he initiated several initiatives to improve relations with Rwanda, including signing agreements for bilateral cooperation in various sectors. Tshisekedi proposed joint military operations with several east African countries would help tackle the militia in the east. Uganda welcomed the idea; Rwanda, however, termed it a threat. When the M23 resurfaced, Rwanda and Uganda accused each other of supporting the rebel group.
First, the resurgence of the M23 has renewed the tensions between the DRC and Rwanda. The spillover from the violence to Uganda, along with the accusations from Rwanda, could disturb the regional dynamics of East Africa.
Second, the M23’s resurgence indicates the failure of the DRC government and regional efforts to implement peace agreements, hold full-fledged joint military operations and reconcile with rebel forces, despite decades having gone by.
Third, the relationship between the DRC and Rwanda cannot be improved unless historical issues are resolved. Meanwhile, the humanitarian cost of the instability will continue to rise, with the DRC witnessing one of the highest rates of displacement in the world.