A New Tragedy in the Eastern DRC


Nyambura Githaiga, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Nairobi Office

Last Friday, 30 June, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) celebrated 52 years of independence. Yet conflict and insecurity continue to plague the nation. The tragedy of the DRC lies in the cumulative effect of historical injustices, the distribution of national resources predating independence, protracted conflicts rooted in greed and grievances, proliferation of conflict actors in the vulnerable east and the devastating impact of all these issues on the local population. 

As the country commemorates this important date in its history, the resurgence of insecurity in in the east of the country is a tragic case of déjà vu. Again, the media fingers the usual suspects named in reports as the harbingers of today’s conflict in the Kivus. Already this latest episode of conflict, which started in April 2012, has led to the immense displacement of people internally and externally to neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. It has also caused new alliances among and operations by illegal armed groups and has strained relations between the governments of the DRC and Rwanda. 

The situation in the eastern DRC certainly does not bode well for the future, especially because of the similarities it shares with past conflicts.  It is, as in the past, characterised by impunity and indifference. The level of impunity among conflict and insecurity actors makes them bold enough to repeatedly employ similar tactics to threaten national and regional security and an element of indifference exists among peace and security actors whose engagement is not cohesive or comprehensive enough to effectively deal with the emerging situations.

The recent release of the interim report of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC caused huge controversy over who is to blame for the current crisis in the eastern DRC. Two earlier reports credited to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) variously implicated Rwanda in the mutiny by the rebel M23 on the basis of fleeing M23 fighters who claimed to be citizens of Rwanda, recruited and trained in Rwanda. 

M23 is so named in reference to a 23 March 2009 agreement between the DRC government and former Congrés National pour la Défense du People (CNDP) rebels that saw their integration into the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). M23 now claims its mutiny is in protest against the government’s failure to meet its demands set out in the agreement. It also importantly coincided with DRC President Joseph Kabila’s move to arrest rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda, an ex-CNDP leader, was key to their integration into the FARDC. It earned him a top post in the FARDC and alleged protection from an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC). In response to a number of army desertions, the DRC government redeployed troops to the Kivus, suspended other key military operations in the east; envisioned restructuring the army command and set about to arrest Ntaganda. This led to more desertions by ex-CNDP members, which became the M23 mutiny. 

The controversial UN report prompted the DRC government to protest the alleged involvement of Rwanda, who categorically denied it, creating renewed tension between the two states. This tension is also likely to have influenced the caution displayed in the release of the interim report that was delayed to allow the government of Rwanda time to respond to an addendum implicating senior Rwandan officials in directly supporting M23 politically and financially, and the Rwandan army of providing equipment and supplies to M23. 

At this stage the M23 is holding its ground in Virunga National Park bordering Rwanda. Against this background, insecurity is increasing, with the reorganisation of local illegal armed groups such as the Forces Populaires Congolais (FPC) and new alliances and operations of groups like Mayi Mayi Cheka with M23 and the new opportunities this present for groups like Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). The FARDC has also faced many challenges with its own military integration, as evidenced in reports on activities of criminal elements within the army, an alleged parallel structure of command for integrated ex-CNDP members and unenviable conditions of service, calling into question its capacity and morale to eliminate this emerging security threat.

Given the history of conflict between the DRC and Rwanda, with counter-accusations at the time of the DRC harbouring anti-Rwanda insurgents and in turn accusations against Rwanda of supporting anti-DRC insurgents, suspicion is almost as dangerous as proven guilt. Yet, while there may not be much love lost between the two countries, there is sufficient interdependence to warrant a level of cooperation by virtue of factors such as proximity, trans-border nationalities, historical ties and the current mobility of the population. 

Also, focusing solely on possible Rwandan involvement in this conflict creates a reductive narrative that ignores, among other factors, historical issues of nationality and ethnicity, a weak state presence inducing conflict susceptibility of certain regions through multiple insecurity actors, socio-economic challenges and a vulnerable local population.

Clearly for some, conflict in the DRC is still a viable means to an end while for others, the DRC conflict defines intractability and defies all existing attempts towards sustainable peace. An analysis of the conflict actors illustrates in various capacities a demonstrable lack of political, economic and social will to end conflict in the DRC. One may rightly ask, where is the critical mass, the community of conscience, that could rally across borders and national interests to ensure peace in the DRC? 

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