Fact-checking the M23 rebellion

Over the past weeks, a lot of accusations have been thrown around regarding the conflict in the Kivus. Let’s take a closer look at some of them:

The M23 rebellion is the result of the international community pressing for Bosco Ntaganda’s arrest.

Not really. The real reason behind the M23 mutiny/rebellion is Kinshasa’s desire to get rid of the ex-CNDP parallel chains of command in the Kivus. The CNDP – Gen. Laurent Nkunda’s armed group – had been integrated into the Congolese army in 2009 through a deal brokered by the Rwandan government. That deal proved providential for the ex-CNDP, as they received top positions in the operational command, with around 20 per cent of senior positions in South Kivu (I don’t have figures for North Kivu), along with control over smuggling and taxation rackets (often in complicity with non-CNDP). Other, non-CNDP officers were resentful of this arrangement and have been sending signals since at least last year that they want to break up these ex-CNDP networks. So when pressure piled up in March to arrest Bosco it provided the trigger, but not the underlying cause, for the mutiny.

(Another myth is that Kabila called for Bosco’s arrest in April in Goma. He said, in Swahili: “There are a hundred reasons why we could arrest him,” but never explicitly called for his arrest. Since then, however, the governor of North Kivu has called for his arrest.)

The M23 rebellion was formed because Kinshasa had not lived up to its end of the March 23, 2009 agreement.

This is a bit disingenuous. The M23 are called thus because they claim that all they want is the March 23, 2009 agreement with the Kinshasa government to be implemented. (As a reminder, here and here are the terms of the deal.) It is true that there were shortcomings – more could be done to promote the repatriation of Congolese refugees from Rwanda, although the issue is complex. There certainly were tensions and insults traded between ex-CNDP and other FARDC commanders, and the implementation committee had not met in many months.

But to say that the ex-CNDP did not receive their proper salaries is a bit rich, given that many ex-CNDP officers benefited royally from their deployments to mining areas and their control over smuggling rackets. Bosco in particular became rich through smuggling minerals across the border; his men even burglarized banks in Goma in broad daylight.

As for the operations against the FDLR, which the M23 claim had been insufficient, the past three years had seen major advances. According to the UN, 4,914 FDLR combatants returned home via MONUSCO between 2009 and February 2012, with almost as many dependents. That could be anywhere between 50 and 75 per cent of all FDLR troops, although it does not account for fresh recruitment and the original estimates for the FDLR strength may have been slightly off.

In addition, the Congolese government has continued to allow a Rwandan special forces company of around 200 soldiers to maintain a base in the eastern Congo (bizarrely, until today) and conduct operations against the FDLR. These, again, have been very successful (although often at a great humanitarian cost) – with their help, the FDLR Chief of Staff Col. Mugaragu was killed, as were the influential battalion commander Col. Kanzeguhera (aka Sadiki Soleil) and several other important officers.

There were certainly problems with the integration of the ex-CNDP and insincerity on both sides. But those problems should have been solved at the negotiation table, not on the battlefield.

Allegations of anti-Tutsi discrimination are just a pretext for Rwandan meddling.

Slow down, this isn’t quite so simple. There is no doubt that deep resentment and prejudice persists against the Tutsi community in the eastern Congo. And there have been many incidents of abuse against Tutsi civilians and soldiers over the past years, ranging from summary execution to torture and hate speech. All communities in the eastern Congo have experienced abuse, but the Tutsi perception of discrimination is accentuated given their particular history. This fear and ethnic solidarity is very real.

But allegations of anti-Tutsi discrimination are not always well-founded and have at times been manipulated. Since the mutiny began, there have been accusations of anti-rwandophone attacks, particular in Masisi. While there have not been exhaustive investigations, the UN and international NGOs have looked into these allegations by sending teams to the field and have not been able to to find proof of systematic abuse (there appear to have been isolated cases of rape and murder, which are reprehensible, but not widespread). In particular, the allegation voiced both by the Rwandan government and the M23 that 43 ex-CNDP Tutsi were killed in Dungu during anti-LRA operations has not been corroborated by either Congolese civil society or international NGOs based there. There have indeed been Tutsi and Hutu civilians arrested by the Congolese army and intelligence services under suspicion of collaboration with M23, and some of these civilians may have been beaten. Investigations are ongoing.

It is worthwhile pointing out that many of the units deployed against the M23 in the Mushaki-Kilolirwe part of Masisi were initially from the 601st battalion, which included many Tutsi and Hema officers at the company level. Also, the sector commander who took over from the M23 in Masisi is Col. Innocent Kabundi, a Tutsi himself from Masisi, and many of the staff officers commanding operations in North Kivu are Tutsi (Col. Jonas Padiri, Col. Innocent Gahizi, Col. Aaron Nyamushebwa, etc.).

The US government delayed the UN Group of Expert’s report from being published.

Yes, although the US government was divided on this matter. According to several sources within the State Department – in Washington, Rwanda and the Congo – the outlier was Ambassador Susan Rice, the US Permananent Representative to the United Nations.  She had some misgivings about the information in the report and especially whether this was the best way to air these allegations, thinking it would be best to address this behind closed doors to avoid an escalation. Almost everybody else in the State Department, including the embassies in the field, as well as Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, agreed that the addendum to the report should be published.

The Congolese army is collaborating with the FDLR in their offensive against the M23.

This is an allegation to Rwandan government has made, largely in private. There is no hard proof so far to substantiate this. The most serious claim was the visit of FDLR Col. Pacifique Ntawunguka (aka Omega) to Goma in May, allegedly to meet with Congolese Gen. Didier Etumba and to receive money to fight the M23. Other allegations have been made of suspicious troop movements toward the front in Runyoni. Also, this past week an FDLR delegation visited Goma from Brussels, as reported in Rwandan newspapers. According to several sources in Goma, this delegation had been organized by a Norwegian NGO to help sensitize the FDLR, but were arrested by the Congolese army once they were there. It is not clear whether there was some ulterior motive to their visit.

While the Congolese army has collaborated with the FDLR in the past – most recently in 2008 – there has not yet been independent verification of any systematic collaboration against the M23.

The M23 mutiny is not the most serious conflict in the east; we should focus our attention elsewhere.

Yes, while the M23 has the most significant geopolitical implications, the most serious humanitarian situation in April and May was the fighting between Raia Mutomboki along the border between North and South Kivu. Hundreds have been killed there since late last year and tens of thousands displaced. The Rwandan government has pointed this out, suggesting that we should focus our attention there.

But here, again, it may well be more complicated. Some of the armed groups active there – in particular the Forces pour la défense du Congo (FDC) and Sheka Ntaberi’s Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) – have direct ties with Bosco Ntaganda and perhaps even Kigali (see the Group of Experts’ report here). There are now allegations, which have not been substantiated, coming from civil society and the Congolese government, that similar ties exist with the Raia Mutomboki. That would be strange, given the extreme anti-rwandophone bent to the group, but these kinds of alliances contre nature have popped up previously.