by Marta Cavallaro
The last few weeks have been marked by an increase in violence in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with fatal consequences for the civilian population. On Thursday, 9 March, an attack by the Allied Democratic Forces (FDA), a Ugandan rebel group affiliated with the Islamic State, killed at least 36 people in the village of Mukondi. Meanwhile, according to Associated Press reports, clashes between government forces and the M23 armed group broke out again near Goma, capital of North Kivu, despite intense diplomatic activity that had led to a ceasefire between the two sides a few days earlier. Civilians are paying the price for the latest escalation: according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the clashes have displaced some 300,000 people in February alone.
To date, the DRC remains a country torn apart by conflicts of different causes and nature. According to a report published by the Congo Research Group, there are about 120 armed groups still active in the east of the country. Prominent among the rebels is the M23, which was declared defeated 10 years ago and resumed its activities in November 2021. The offensive triggered a new humanitarian crisis that highlighted the failures of government forces, international missions and regional diplomatic efforts to consolidate peace and restore stability. However, tracing the entire crisis in the country to the M23 would be reductive, given the presence of other groups – e.g. the FDA, responsible for last Thursday’s attack – that have conducted equally brutal and destabilising campaigns and attacks in recent years.
Despite the diverse panorama of rebel groups, the international community’s attention and efforts have recently focused on the M23. In the aftermath of yet another failure of negotiations between the rebels and government forces mediated by Angola, Angolan President João Lourenço decided to take strong measures, announcing his intention to send troops into North Kivu. Already present in the region are an East African Community mission, deployed last year to support the Congolese army’s efforts, and UN forces, operational in the country since 1999 under the MONUC banner, which was given a stronger mandate in 2010 and renamed MONUSCO.
Until now, military efforts have not been more successful than diplomatic ones. One only has to think of the events of last summer, when the exasperation of the civilian population at the escalating violence led to strong protests against the Blue Helmets that culminated in the demand for the total withdrawal of UN forces from the country. The mission was accused of being unable to protect the population or combat the armed groups active in the DRC, despite decades of experience in the field.
Complicating the matter is the worsening diplomatic crisis between the DRC and Rwanda. Kinshasa accuses its neighbour of supporting the M23 offensive. Kigali, on the other hand, accuses the DRC of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), another DRC-based rebel group that has carried out incursions into the neighbouring country in the past. Although Rwanda continues to deny any connection with the M23, the international community has in recent months sided with the DRC following the publication of a report by a UN panel of experts that appears to confirm the army’s involvement in several rebel attacks against Congolese soldiers. Since then, the United States and the European Union have come out in favour of the DRC, urging Rwanda to stop supporting the rebels.
Congolese President Tshisekedi has reinforced his anti-Rwanda rhetoric, repeatedly stating that Kigali is the main problem in North Kivu and going so far as to call the clashes with the M23 an “external aggression”. Statements of this kind allow Tshisekedi to hide the failures of the government’s efforts to contain the crisis in view of the elections scheduled for the end of 2023. Rwanda, for its part, has defended itself by declaring that the real cause of the violence is the weakness of the Congolese state and army and accusing the international community of aggravating the situation.
Tensions escalated last month when the Rwandan army hit a Congolese fighter jet flying over Goma with a missile. With one wing on fire, the plane managed to land at Goma airport without loss of life. However, as debris from the aircraft fell on the city and videos circulated on social media, the incident led many to believe that the two countries were now at open war.
The latest failures of diplomatic and military efforts increase the risks of a prolonged conflict. New and original approaches will be needed to reduce tensions and avoid further escalations of physical violence and rhetoric. What is certain is that without an all-encompassing view of the conflict and the myriad actors involved, there will be no concrete results.
Cover image: militiamen of the M23 rebel military group (source: Wikipedia)