Guest blog: The M23 rebellion and the dead-end street of military integration in eastern DRC

This is a guest blog by Maria Eriksson Baaz, Associate Professor at the Nordic Africa Institute and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden; and Judith Verweijen , PhD Candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy. 

Recent events in the Kivu provinces have highlighted, once again, the dangers of never-ending armed group integration, as well as its deleterious effects on the Congolese army. This blog post addresses some issues which, so far, have been absent in discussions of the new rebellion. By placing the M23 in the context of armed group integration into the FARDC, we intend to shed light on the processes that contributed to its formation, the weak response of the FARDC, and most importantly, what a potential peace-deal with the M23 should avoid.

The Congolese Government has officially, so far, refused to negotiate with the M23, and has expelled its leading officers from the FARDC’s ranks. This could be judged as a non-constructive engagement from the Congolese side. However, we would argue that this position could be seen as a positive sign, reflecting a potential commitment to the recently declared non-compromising policy towards army defectors and re-mobilized armed groups.

 The vicious cycle of military integration and erosion

Let us begin by attending to the question why the FARDC, yet again, (so far) have proved unable to hold ground or make significant advances  in spite of the fact that several foreign-trained elite units (by Belgium, the US and South Africa) were deployed as reinforcements. What certainly plays a role is the relative strength of the M23, bolstered by Rwandan support in the form of the supply of ammunition and weapons, new recruits and direct operational interventions by Rwandan troops. However, the most important explanations must be sought in the weak combat capabilities of the FARDC. The main problem here is not the lack of training, as suggested by some observers. It is much more systemic and is, as we argue, to a large extent a result of the “carrots without sticks” politics of military integration.

One explanation for the FARDC’s disappointing performance is the lack of centralized and efficient command and control, logistical support and organizational capacity. Combat requires seamless command chains and a high level of coordination and organization, as the military units involved need steady supplies of especially ammunitions, rations, medicine, and transport for rapid (re)deployments. This support has, yet again, been insufficient. Secondly, the constant leaks of military intelligence have deprived the FARDC of the element of surprise. Parts of the ex-CNDP have remained integrated into the FARDC, but are suspected to maintain links with their former colleagues. Despite some efforts to redeploy the most distrusted commanders and units, the dominance of the ex-CNDP in North Kivu’s command structures as well as their in-depth knowledge of the area and of the combat tactics of their opponents have made it both impossible and undesirable to entirely remove them from the scene.

Thirdly, the relative lack of material (e.g. salaries) and non-material (e.g. social status, recognition) rewards for FARDC soldiers weakens their enthusiasm to risk their lives on the battlefield. It should be acknowledged that motivation has been stronger this time than previously, in that the resentment against the privileged position of ex-CNDP troops was strongly felt among military personnel. Furthermore, the demonstrated involvement of Rwanda has fully revived deeply rooted anti-Rwandan/Tutsi sentiments and unleashed a wave of popular support for the FARDC, now newly branded as patriotic heroes. However, this has not been enough to compensate for the absence of other factors generating incentives to engage in the risks involved in combat (e.g. unit cohesion and minimum standards of service conditions concerning salaries, rations, medical care and social services).

The three factors mentioned above have been immensely aggravated by what we would argue is one of the main problems in the DR Congo’s defense sector, namely the Government’s “carrots without sticks” politics of military integration. The absence of serious military pressure on non-integrated forces, the lack of sanctions for defectors, and the promises of high ranks and good positions for those (re)joining the military, has made defecting from and then renegotiating back into the FARDC an attractive option for military entrepreneurs. This has contributed to creating incentive structures that promote the proliferation of armed groups as well as army desertion, with the military becoming a revolving door for armed factions.  The M23 seems to be a direct product of this logic: rather than directly challenging the established state structures, it initially appeared to be mostly geared towards the creation of a strong position for future negotiations, although it has gradually also obtained a momentum of its own.

Aside from creating incentives for insurgent violence, never-ending military integration has weakened the military. By allowing autonomous power networks to remain partly intact, it has promoted the proliferation of parallel structures of command within the military, thus negatively impacting on its performance. Additionally, continuous armed group integration has created feelings of unpredictability and unfairness within the ranks of the FARDC: who would want to risk their lives for an enemy that might very well be welcomed back again into the army, perhaps in an even more privileged position than before? While desertion is considered the most grave form of indiscipline in other armies, subject to severe punishments, the Congolese authorities –often encouraged by the international community –  have regularly welcomed defected units and commanders back into the fold, sometimes even rewarding them (at least on paper) with better opportunities. Apart from gravely undermining cohesion within military units, this has profoundly shaken up soldiers’ understanding of the military profession and their own role and identity.

Tackling M23: reproducing or reducing violence?

A vicious cycle has been created in which military integration has undermined the improvement of military capabilities, rendering the military defeat of armed groups infeasible. This, in turn, has encouraged the DR Government to co-opt rather than to combat armed groups, in this way further weakening the FARDC. Moreover, by allowing integrated groups to stay in their former strongholds, and granting them autonomous control over lucrative areas of deployment, this process has become intractable. In the case of the ex-CNDP, Rwandan support has exacerbated this autonomy, rendering the gradual dilution of its influence in the FARDC, as was the rationale behind its original integration, merely hypothetical.

If this cycle continues there is little hope for progress in the military reform process. It will further demoralize already demoralized troops and feed indiscipline and continuous internal conflicts and parallel chains of command. Additionally, it will encourage a further militarization of the economy and administrative functions in the Kivus, as violence continues to be rewarded.  In this respect, it is important to stress the absence of vetting mechanisms, allowing past abusers to obtain time and again important positions in the military, sets a dubious example both within the FARDC and for society at large.

To be clear, we are not saying there is no other solution to the M23 rebellion than a military one. However, any negotiation with this group and its foreign and domestic backers should recognize that they deserted from the army and that welcoming them back in again will have serious detrimental effects both on the military reform process and the prospects for reducing violence and armed group activity in the Kivus.  Military integration has proved to fuel rather than to reduce the militarization of eastern DR Congo: let’s not drive into this dead-end street again.

Posted by Jason Stearns at 1:07 PM