Congo’s M23 rebels flee

The conflict between rebels and government, after the last round of fighting, seems to be drawing to a close.

Scores of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the last year in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But now it looks like the conflict between the M23 rebels and the government, after the last round of fighting, might soon be drawing to a close.

The rebels defected from the Congolese army in April last year, and civilians fled their homes en masse in the fighting that followed. After taking the regional capital of Goma in November, and then pulling back out under regional and international pressure, M23 then sat down with the Congolese Government in Kampala, the capital of neighbouring Uganda, to negotiate peace.

But at the end of February, just as a deal was coming together, the rebel group split in two and fought each other, sending thousands of civilians on the run once again. 

The breakaway faction was led by General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court for his role in previous conflicts in Eastern Congo. Ntaganda was amongst those who defected from the Congolese army in April last year, but M23 always denied he was involved in the rebellion. The UN’s Group of Experts on DR Congo and Human Rights Watch both claimed he was amongst M23’s leadership. I have spoken to journalists who say they have seen his convoy, on occasion, in M23’s territory over the last eleven months.

Any peace deal between M23 and the Government will likely involve the rebels being reintegrated back into the Congolese army. However it would be highly controversial for Ntaganda to be amongst them. Kinshasa was already coming under international pressure for having an ICC indictee in the ranks of its army before the rebellion started, and so the pending peace deal may well have been the reason for the split. As the now-dominant group of M23, led by General Sultani Makenga, himself on a UN sanctions list, had discussed reintegration into Congo’s army, Ntaganda and his followers may have felt they were running out of options, and so broke away.

After nearly three weeks of on-and-off fighting between the two factions, hundreds of Ntaganda’s men have now fled. Some surrendered to UN peacekeepers in Congo, others to Makenga’s faction of M23, and many ran, along with civilians, into neighbouring Rwanda. The Rwandan Government said it received about 600 combatants, who were disarmed and detained.

What happened to Bosco Ntaganda?

The head of M23’s dialogue delegation in Kampala said Ntaganda is hiding in Virunga National Park in Congo. They said he is now out of their reach, but he claims M23 still plan to arrest him and hand him over to the ICC.

The Congolese Government instead said Bosco Ntaganda crossed into Rwanda. Other security sources have said the same. The Rwandan Government has not yet clearly denied, or confirmed if he is there. When asked on Twitter if Rwanda would hand Ntaganda over to the ICC, Government spokesperson and Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo @LMushikiwabo tweeted “Rwanda believes in justice, not judicial colonialism”.

Ntaganda is reportedly very wealthy, owns several businesses in Rwanda and in Eastern Congo, and seems to be a master at making deals with either Government to keep himself safe, depending on which way the wind blows. People in both the Rwandan and Congolese Governments might also be feeling anxious about Ntaganda ending up in The Hague, in case secrets about deals made during Eastern Congo’s past conflicts come spilling out.

However if it turns out that Rwanda is sheltering him, it will also attract international criticism. Rwanda was last year accused by the UN Group of Experts of supporting, and even commanding the rebellion, in its earlier stages. Rwanda consistently denied the allegations. As a result several European donors cut bilateral aid to Rwanda. Many commentators think this prompted Rwanda to stop supporting M23, bringing the rebels to the table.

What will happen to the rest of M23?

The peace talks in Kampala are due to resume after a week. Both the M23-Makenga delegation and the Congolese Government now seem optimistic that a deal can soon be reached. That will likely entail Makenga’s fighters being integrated back into the Congolese army and an end, at least for now, to one of the conflicts troubling Eastern Congo.

Winners and losers

Militarily, M23 proved to be stronger than the Congolese army throughout the eleven months of conflict. They were strong enough to take the city of Goma in November, and gave it up under international pressure – they were not forced out. However this was before the group split in two, and their superiority is also widely thought to have depended on foreign support. If there is no more external support available to them, then maybe reintegration into the Congolese army is their best remaining option.

Regional analyst Angelo Izama, a Fellow of the Open Society INstitue, told us in an interview that he thought Rwanda and Uganda (also previously accused by UN experts of supporting M23) had lost the public relations battle to Kinshasa, and so lost their stake in the conflict. After the allegations of foreign support came out, he says the international community came down on Kinshasa’s side, Rwanda and Uganda had to back out under pressure, and so lost control over what many say was a proxy rebel group operating in Eastern Congo.

The greatest losers of all though have been, without doubt, the hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled their homes, not to mention those who lost their lives. If a peace deal is reached and if it lasts, for those who are now living in camps in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, it will still take many months, or even years, for them to return home and start rebuilding their lives.

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