In the last 30 years the country that is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the DRC has been a hotbed of nearly unceasing civil war. Beginning in the mid-late 1990s economic and political strife has left the Congo region completely destabilized without a strong enough government to hold the country together. One of the primary concerns in this region is the vastly different ethnic groups living in this nation, as well as the fact that many of these groups share ethnic backgrounds with neighboring countries. This is why in the last decades the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have dragged nearly all of the nation’s neighbors into the wars as they feel obliged to help their specific ethnic group.
One of the most interested nations in the Congo has been Rwanda, particularly in Kivu (the most eastern province), whose population is made up of Hutu and Tutsi groups, two of the predominant groups in Rwanda. To make matters worse between these two countries, during the Rwandan genocide the Hutu population in this area had supported the rebel groups carrying out the genocide against the Tutsi population. Rwanda in the past has directly accused the DRC of assisting in the genocide as well as carrying it out in the Congo. It then became in Rwanda’s best interest to become involved in the conflict as it began to spill over into their country pulling them deeper into the conflict under the current President Paul Kagame.
The Past is Not the Past
In 2009 a formal peace agreement had been signed between the official rebel groups to become political parties instead of military groups in exchange for peace and the release of political prisoners. The full treaty can be read here. At this time the majority of people in the Congo felt that this step was one towards peace, but in 2012 a section of the government military mutinied against the president. They felt that the elections that year were rigged, and Joseph Kabila had cheated to become president after the death of his father. This new rebel group named themselves The March 23 Movement or just M23, under the supposed leadership of Bosco Ntaganda a convicted war criminal and Sultani Makenga, both major players in the Rwandan civil war. The charges against Ntaganda for conscripting child soldiers can be read here. After the formation of the movement former Tutsi Rwandan soldiers began to join the movement as they battled with government forces throughout the Kivu region, crossing the Rwandan and Ugandan border multiple times. For the next year the rebels and government forces would continue to fight until late 2013 in which a peace agreement was reached after the surrender of M23.
While the official agreement had been signed, it became clear that pacifying the region and stabilizing it would be a nearly impossible task. One of the core issues that hurt the negotiating abilities was the backing of M23 by foreign powers, namely Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of arming and backing them. This has led to the United Nations to officially condemn Rwanda for supporting this movement who has committed crimes against humanity as well as broken international law in regard to military recruitment. In an official UN resolution they outlined the demandsthat all foreign powers stop backing this movement and cease any interference with internal affairs of the DRC. Due to these accusations Rwanda has lost international support from both the U.S. and the U.K. in both military and financial aid. Rwanda denies any involvement in this movement officially.
M23 Returns to the Congo
In the last few years M23 has made a return to the stage in the Congo as breakaway members of their movement who do not recognize the peace agreements have continued to fight against the DRC government. In late May of this year M23 had begun the largest offensive against the government since the peace accords back in 2013. According to a tweet by the Rwanda Defense Force, they have accused the DRC of firing into their country while the DRC has claimed it was staged as an excuse for larger Rwandan operations in Kivu. While both sides have reports of the other side attacking them, it is unclear as to what is actually happening in the area due to how many different factions are actively fighting one another as well as the convoluted backing of militia groups by foreign powers.
If the backstory here is taken into account by both sides, it is likely that the M23 militia group has effectively become an arm of the Rwandan military. This directly violates the sovereignty of the DRC as well as an aggressive push by the Rwandan government to interfere in Kivu. Their long-term plans for this region have also become contested as if M23 successfully creates a breakaway state it is unclear whether not this will later become part of Rwanda or remain an independent country. While it has not been considered a direct declaration of war, it seems that the DRC government has taken these actions as an invasion and will respond with means they feel fit. The DRC has made it clear that they feel that these actions are Rwandan but what this means has not been outline yet, as the DRC could eventually push the war into Rwanda proper.
International responses have also been just as unclear about their stance other than being generally anti-war. The International Conference on the Great Lakes region has said in their statement that
The Secretariat of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) expresses great concern about the attacks of the rebels of the ex-M23 against the positions of the FARDC supported by MONUSCO in the territory of Rutshuru, North Kivu since the beginning of this week.
The Secretariat of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region strongly condemns these attacks and calls on the ex- M23 rebels to comply with the Nairobi Declaration signed in December 2013 and to participate unconditionally in the political process initiated by the Regional Conclave of Heads of State on the Democratic Republic of Congo in Nairobi, Kenya on 21 April 2022.
While condemning the existence of all armed groups operating in the eastern DRC, the Conference Secretariat awaits the conclusions of the report of the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) which deployed a Joint Verification Team (JVT) on the ground since 24 May 2022, in order to refer the matter to the decision-making bodies of ICGLR.
While this sentiment is one strongly supported by the international community their lack of a direct response has become worrying to a rapidly destabilizing conflict that may bleed into multiple different countries in the cooperative zone. The long term consequences or how this situation will resolve has not been seen clearly yet, but the way the DRC responds to Rwandan incursions will likely come to light in the next few weeks.