Escalating violence in eastern Congo threatens regional stability

Escalating violence between the DRC army and M23 rebels, supported by Rwanda, threatens to escalate into a wider conflict involving regional forces.

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Activists gesture as they march during a demonstration calling for an end to the fighting between the M23 rebels and the Congolese army and denouncing the international community's silence on the conflicts in Goma, North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Arlette Bashizi

Violent clashes between the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the M23 rebels intensified, led by Tutsis and backed by Rwanda, in eastern Congo. These clashes have resulted in numerous fatalities and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

This escalation in hostilities, occurring within a longstanding conflict spanning decades, heightens the potential for a full-scale war between Congo and Rwanda. Such a conflict could draw in neighbouring countries and regional forces, including South Africa, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi.

In both the capital Kinshasa and the provincial capital Goma in North Kivu, Congolese citizens have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the deteriorating security situation in the east. They have also criticized the international community for what they perceive as inadequate efforts to hold Rwanda accountable for supporting the rebels.

Who are the M23?

The M23, named after the March 23 date of a 2009 agreement that ended a previous Tutsi-led uprising in eastern Congo, represents the latest iteration of Tutsi-led insurgent groups opposing Congolese forces. The group accuses the Congolese government of failing to fulfill the terms of a peace agreement aimed at fully integrating Congolese Tutsis into the military and administration. The M23 pledges to protect Tutsi interests, particularly against ethnic Hutu militias like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The rebels have recently advanced towards Goma and are currently positioned in the hills near Sake, 25 kilometers from the city. By blocking major access routes to the north and west of Goma, capturing the city would mark their most significant military achievement in over a decade.

What triggered the latest uprising?

In 2012 and 2013, the M23 seized control of substantial territories in eastern Congo, including Goma, before being expelled by Congolese and U.N. forces into Uganda and Rwanda. In March 2022, the group launched a series of offensives, seizing large swaths of eastern Congo, citing defensive actions against FDLR attacks, which it alleged were aided by the Congolese army. The Congolese military denies collaborating with the FDLR.

Rwanda’s involvement: How and why?

The Congolese government, along with U.N. officials and Western powers such as the United States and Belgium, has accused Rwanda of providing support to the M23, including arms and troops, despite Rwanda’s persistent denials. Rwanda and Uganda have a history of military interventions in Congo, dating back to invasions in 1996 and 1998, justified as defensive measures against local militias.

The United States has urged Rwanda to withdraw its military personnel from Congo and dismantle surface-to-air missile systems. Rwanda attributes the escalation to Congo’s decision to terminate the mandate of regional peacekeepers and cites threats to its national security as a justification for its actions.

Involvement of regional forces

Despite numerous ceasefires brokered by regional leaders and the United States in 2022 and 2023, fighting has persisted. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of regional troops, particularly from Kenya, in enforcing rebel withdrawals, Congo opted to terminate the mandate of the regional force, prompting its withdrawal in December.

In May, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) approved a military mission for eastern Congo to address instability and combat armed groups. Unlike the East African forces, SADC troops, comprising personnel from South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania, possess an offensive mandate to assist the Congolese army in combatting rebel factions. South Africa has committed to deploying 2,900 troops and has reported casualties in the ongoing conflict.

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