Congo (DRC) one step away from war with Rwanda?

(To Antonino Lombardi)

In the almost total indifference of the media and international interest, a forgotten conflict has dramatically rekindled and continues to claim victims.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the scene of a long and bloody conflict for decades, which revived in May. His army has started fighting the rebel group again M23 which is conducting its most incisive offensive since the 2012-2013 insurgency, when it captured large swathes of territory.

More than XNUMX armed groups are fighting in the mineral-rich eastern region of the country leading to the death and displacement of tens of thousands of Congolese.

Le Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Congo Development Cooperative (CODECO), theM23 and May-May they are among the deadliest groups in North Kivu and Ituri. On May 6, 2021, the President of the DRC, Félix Tshisekedi, declared a state of siege and appointed military governors following growing insecurity in the east of the country.

Which and how many are the conflicting parties? Too many to list and describe here. Summarizing we can say that CODECO is one of the armed groups in Ituri. It is a so-called "self-defense" militia composed essentially of people of the Lendu ethnic group. The ADF group (Allied Democratic Forces) was founded in Uganda in 1995 and then moved to the DRC. It has begun to expand its area of ​​interest in southern Ituri in a more organized way since 2020 following the shift of its operational bases caused by operations of the Congolese army and by interventions of the operation “Shuja”1.

It seems that the ADF established the first relations with Daesh in 2017 and in March of this year, following the death of Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi, the agreements between the two parties were renewed and became ever closer, so much so that in several videos in which beheadings are filmed, slogans of Islamic fundamentalism are pronounced by members of the ADF. On August 16, the group was suspected of killing eight people in the village of Lolwa, in the province of Ituri.

I May-May they are fighters who claim to be protected by the magical properties of water, organized into an armed group in the 1964 rebellion.

THEM23 is the direct heir of the so-called "National Congress for the Defense of the People" (CNDP), a paramilitary formation of Tutsi ethnicity based in the eastern provinces of the Congo since 2006. The group was founded on April 4, 2012. They take their name from an agreement of peace (for them bankruptcy) which they signed with the Congolese government on March 23, 2009, when they were fighting as part of the CNDP. Many CNDP fighters have been integrated into the Congolese army, officially known as the FARDC (Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda).

After its defeat in 2013 by the Armed Forces of the DRC with the support of MONUSCO troops, the M23 group split into two factions: the Revolutionary Army of the Congo (ARC), led by Bertrand Bisimwa, and the Alliance for the Salvation of the People (ASP), headed by Jean-Maria Runiga. In December 2013, M23 signed an agreement with the Congolese authorities that would lead to its disbandment as an armed group. In 2017, however, theM23 he reorganized and settled on Mount Sabinyo in eastern Congo. However, it remained inactive until November 2021 when it attacked the FARDC and members of the Congolese Institute for Conservation of Nature (ICCN) by stealing their weapons and uniforms. L'M23 he has resumed hostilities, under the command of Makenga and Yusuf Mboneza, to ask, according to his statements, for the application of an agreement signed in 2013 with Kinshasa.

International human rights groups say M23 fighters have been responsible for widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rape and the forced recruitment of children. In March 2013, following infighting between two M23 factions, Bosco Ntaganda, a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, turned himself in to the US embassy in Rwanda and was extradited to Hague.

The current situation

Fighting resumed last week between the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the rebels of theM23 in the eastern province of North Kivu. The rebel group is accused of being hired by Rwanda which saw its ambassador Vincent Karenga expelled from Kinshasa. Protests were not long in coming, especially in Goma, against the escalation of insecurity that is raging in the country accompanied by a possible interference by Rwanda in Congolese internal politics.

On 20 October last, the March 23 movement has launched a new, umpteenth offensive against the Congolese army conquering an important portion of the territory of Rutshuru causing the displacement of thousands of people (almost two hundred thousand since the beginning of the year).2 Between 20 October and 1 November about fifty thousand people fled their homes to reach the outskirts of Goma.

The group M23 which claims to protect Tutsis from attacks by armed Hutu groups, notably the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which also includes members accused of participating in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, had lain dormant for several years until the end of last year. L'M23 he accused the Congolese government of failing to honor an agreement to integrate its fighters into the army. This has led to their remobilisation which has exacerbated relations between the states of the Central African area and the DRC, in the voice of its president, Felix Tshisekedi, once again accusing Rwanda of supporting the rebels of theM23 to appropriate the mineral wealth of his country. The UN also stated that from November 2021 to June 2022, the Rwandan army intervened in eastern DRC, directly and in support of the group M23 effecting of military interventions against the armed forces of the Congo and supplying them with weapons, ammunition, uniforms and men.

In November 2021 theM23 attacked some FARDC military posts in the villages of Chanzu and Runyonyi (North Kivu). In March of this year he managed to occupy some areas of the territory of Rutshuru and then the military base of Rumangabo.

Again President Tshisekedi, on Thursday 10 November, asked young people to train "watch groups in order to support the armed forces" to deal with rebel activity in the east of the country adding that the conflict requires "the sacrifice and commitment of all the daughters and sons of the nation".

the rebels ofM23 they recently swept through the DRC's North Kivu province, scoring a string of victories against the army and capturing swathes of territory. Indeed, last November 8 the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo bombed, with jets Sukhoi-25, the positions of theM23 in the Tchanzu area to try to recover some positions from the control of the rebel group. The action, according to the militiamen, would have killed 15 civilians including two children.

Lawrence Kanyuka, spokesman for theM23, accused the army of attacking densely populated areas and trampling on the request for dialogue adding that "this warmongering option is counterproductive and endangers the lives of many citizens in the areas under our control and aggravates the humanitarian situation in the region".

Meanwhile the leaders of the East African Community (Eac) met informally on the sidelines of Cop27 in Egypt to discuss the growing insecurity in eastern DRC.

On 10 November at least four people, suspected members of the ADF, were killed and 10 others kidnapped near the city of Beni in the east of the country. In Kabasha (North Kivu) a shopping center was attacked and the only health center in that area set on fire. The fighting is concentrated in this phase in the Kibumba sector, where the Congolese soldiers have managed to stop the advance of the rebels of theM23 after retreating ten kilometers. On the other hand, the front located near Mabega remains calmer, while the cities of Rutshuru and Kiwanja remain under the control of the rebels of theM23.

Kenyan soldiers arrived in Goma on Saturday Nov. 12 to take part in an East African Community (EAC) military operation approved last June to stabilize the mineral-rich eastern region of Congo. The troops will be stationed about 10 kilometers from the city of Goma, where they will conduct operations in an attempt to restore normality. Kenyan Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Obiero reported their mission is "conduct offensive operations" alongside the Congolese forces and assist them in the disarmament of rebel militias. "Insecurity is something that breaks the social fabric", he added, explaining that the Kenyan contingent will also work alongside humanitarian agencies in an effort to bring stability to eastern DRC.3

The contingents of Uganda and Burundi are also present in North Kivu, where a state of siege has been in force since May 2021. Tensions in eastern DRC have flared up again recently after the conquest by theM23 of the cities of Kiwandja and Rutshuru and the decisive advance of the rebels towards Goma, the capital of North Kivu and center of provincial power.

A UN panel of experts said it had evidence Rwandan troops fought alongside the rebel group M23 in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and provided them with arms and support.

Rwanda has denied allegations by the DRC government of supporting theM23 and that he sent troops into the country and theM23 has denied receiving Rwandan support. The UN report argues, however, that "obtained concrete evidence of the presence and military operations conducted by members of the RDF (Rwandan Defense Force) in Rutshuru territory between November 2021 and July 2022" and that members of the RDF have conducted joint attacks with fighters from theM23 against the army of the Congo also supplying the rebels with weapons, ammunition and uniforms.

Since May, theM23 it embarked on its most sustained offensive in years, killing scores and displacing tens of thousands. Rwandan troops and the M23 jointly attacked the Congolese army camp in Rumangabo. In June, however, theM23 conquered the locality of Bunagana, strategic in cross-border trade between Congo and Uganda and other localities such as Chengerero, Ruvumu, Buharo and Rutokara. On 21 June 2022 in the clashes in Bukenge and Ruvumu theM23 killed at least 17 civilians. The North Kivu authorities have spoken of a violation of territorial integrity by Rwanda, which in turn accuses Kinshasa of supporting the FDLR militias. Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly intervened within the borders of the Congo; we recall the episodes of 1996 and 1998 which were justified as a defense against local militia groups.4

The resurgence of tensions in the region has led the population to accuse the United Nations MONUSCO mission of inefficiency, which earlier this month withdrew troops from the eastern military base in Rumangabo, giving ground in the battle against theM23. On 1 November near Kanyaruchinya, not far from Goma, a UN truck was set on fire as it was withdrawing from an area captured by theM23. During the abandonment operations, two United Nations engineers from Bangladesh were injured.

Regional efforts are underway to cool tensions between Rwanda and the CDR and end the conflict playing out along their shared border.

Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, appointed mediator of the East African Community (EAC), arrived in Kinshasa where he had a long conversation with President Felix Tshiseke. Kenyatta had other meetings with national actors involved in this process, including representatives of local communities, leaders of religious denominations and traditional authorities and said talks with armed groups for peace negotiations would be held in Nairobi within the end of the month. The peace talks between the government of the DRC and the armed groups active in the east of the country has been further postponed, presumably to the weekend. They were initially scheduled for November 16 and subsequently postponed to November 21 but were further postponed. "I didn't come here [Congo] with a prescription, but rather with the idea of ​​listening to our brothers and sisters and hopefully we can make a contribution to bring lasting peace"he said after meeting with interested parties.

Kenyan President William Ruto arrived in Kinshasa on Sunday and is expected to speak with his Congolese counterpart on investment, regional integration and the security situation in eastern DRC.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco also visited Rwanda on Friday and met Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in the DRC on Saturday.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a country very rich in raw materials and rare earths which are essential for new technologies including those at the basis of the ecological transition. The area between Bunagana, Goma and Kanyabayonga is home to important deposits of coltan (used in electronic devices) and the DRC is the world's leading producer of cobalt, an indispensable element for the production of accumulators for electric cars.

It seems quite evident that the clashes between communities and armed groups are fueled by the illicit exploitation and trade of these natural resources which are coveted not only by neighboring states but also by other international actors. The militiamen use the proceeds from the trafficking of these minerals to buy weapons and to bribe civil and military authorities. The international community is watching.

1 Operation Shuja, a joint military operation by the Congolese and Ugandan armies against ADF positions

2 Human Rights Watch

4 to Reuters

Photo: AMISOM Public Information