Brinkmanship is a losing proposition in the Eastern DRC

The Democratic Republic of the Congo must secure its people’s safety if it wants lasting peace in the east.

The resurgence of the March 23 (M23) Movement, a non-state armed group mainly comprising Congolese Tutsi fighters, has spurred armed violence and population displacement in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The M23 was dormant after being defeated and forced out of the DRC in 2013 by Congolese armed forces, with Southern African Development Community Force Intervention Brigade support and international community pressure.

Although just one of the many non-state armed groups currently operating in the volatile Eastern DRC, the M23 is prominent due to its history, political agenda and alleged relationship with neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Kinshasa has persistently accused Kigali – and to a lesser extent Kampala – of supporting M23, which even United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledges is better equipped than UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) peacekeepers. M23 has ‘more advanced weaponry,’ he says.

A cocktail of political, diplomatic, humanitarian and military challenges has emerged, which, if not comprehensively addressed, will probably further complicate peace and stabilisation efforts in the Eastern DRC into the foreseeable future.

Heightened diplomatic tensions between the DRC and Rwanda distract from the root causes of the endemic crisis in the Eastern DRC. The tensions are fanning anti-Congolese Tutsi sentiments and increasing Congolese mistrust in regional and international partners. The crisis also provides an opportunity for political opportunism in the DRC’s upcoming elections, with Kinshasa’s apparent prioritisation of a populistic military approach over diplomacy and negotiation.

Excluding Rwanda from the solution in the Eastern DRC would probably worsen an already bad situation

By labelling the M23 a terrorist organisation, Congolese officials have excluded it from the ongoing Nairobi Process peace talks. The general disposition among the DRC’s political leaders and the population is to oppose peace talks with the M23, insisting on the group being defeated militarily for sustainable peace in the east.

Kinshasa is frustrated with the cyclical and endemic violence on its eastern borders. However, the spiralling diplomatic quarrel with Rwanda, the confrontational approach towards international partners such as MONUSCO and others, and the outright rejection of talks with M23 will surely be counterproductive.

An escalation with Rwanda, focusing on a military response against the M23, and excluding Rwanda from the solution in the Eastern DRC would probably worsen an already bad situation. This given the general absence of DRC state authority in a region quite close to Rwanda. Kigali’s geographic proximity – within 180 km of Goma in the Eastern DRC – raises its stake in discussions about peace and security in an area it considers its backyard, and which lacks effective governmental control and authority.

For peace to stick, Rwanda must be brought on board, and its security concerns regarding the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – a Hutu rebel movement hostile to Kigali – must be addressed constructively through meaningful dialogue. That dialogue must include the engagement and management of Rwandophone or Banyarwanda populations in the Eastern DRC. This long-standing and crucial issue dates back to the DRC’s pre-independence and immediate post-independence political history and is a bone of contention for several presidents, including Mobutu Sese Seko.

Political leaders must focus on internal reforms that build effective state institutions that can protect the DRC

Although Kigali denies providing support to M23, DRC officials and UN experts claim to have evidence of Rwanda’s effective engagement in what they say is a proxy war. They say it’s been waged at the expense of the Congolese to secure Kigali’s economic and political interests in the resource-rich Eastern DRC.

Even with support from the East African Community Regional Force, a military response by the DRC is unsustainable. And it wouldn’t address the multifaceted political, socio-economic, institutional and structural root causes of the country’s crisis, which have serious historical ethnic undertones.

The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), let alone other state institutions, lack resources and are unlikely to sustain effective long-term combat against the plethora of armed groups. The FARDC doesn’t have the capacity to assume effective control of the east or to guarantee the population’s safety.

Even if defeated militarily – as it was in 2013 – the M23 Movement and their grievances will continue if not addressed comprehensively through dialogue and the provision of identity-based protections and security guarantees. More so, a military response is likely to exacerbate an already devastating humanitarian crisis, including eroding safety assurances for refugees and internally displaced people.

Also, the DRC’s confrontational and accusatory approach towards MONUSCO and some strategic partners, including the United States, United Kingdom and France, is counterproductive. The diplomatic pressure to initiate action and commitment from these partners is important. But it must be managed to avoid their estrangement as key stakeholders at a time when Kinshasa needs support for ongoing peace efforts from those partners.

Good governance, rather than political rhetoric and victimhood, is key to addressing the situation in the DRC

Despite its limitations, MONUSCO’s diplomatic, military and logistical input is still needed to support stabilisation in the DRC, including for next year’s elections. Another complication is that the elections, scheduled for 20 December 2023, a year from now, are likely to influence the political calculus regarding managing the crisis in the Eastern DRC. That politicians take advantage of the crisis won’t be new, and may make resolution even more complex given the importance of the east in electoral calculations.

Despite regional mediation and support from external partners, the DRC problem can only be addressed sustainably by the country itself. Blaming international actors and partners isn’t a substantive approach to addressing the root causes of the crisis. State officials must prioritise dialogue with key domestic and international partners – including Rwanda – to address the fundamental issues that make the Eastern DRC, one of the world’s richest places in natural resources, vulnerable to predation.

Although the DRC is a victim of internal and external predation, its political leaders must focus on internal reforms that build effective state institutions that can protect the country, its people, and its resources. Good governance, rather than political rhetoric and victimhood, is key to addressing the situation.

To avoid the ongoing death, displacement and deprivation that over 10 million Congolese in the Eastern DRC face, the state must guarantee security, provide justice, fight corruption, generate economic opportunities, and provide socio-political reassurance to people. Anything short of addressing these fundamental needs, through governance efficiency and effectiveness, won’t bring sustainable peace to the region.

Koffi Sawyer, Senior Research Consultant, ISS Pretoria


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