New Report by Stearns Documents Evolution of Armed Movement in the DRC

As another attempt at peace talks begins, international attention is once again focused on the armed group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the allegations of Rwanda’s puppet control. But is the portrayal of Machiavellian machinations towards a compliant group of discontented soldiers a convenient oversimplification of a complex relationship? Of course. As Jason Stearns’ report “From CNDP to M23: The Evolution of an Armed Movement in Eastern Congo” (November 2012) demonstrates effectively, the actors and tensions under the microscope at the beginning of 2013 are neither new nor unprecedented.

Media commentators frequently refer to the “nine-month rebellion” waged by the M23 rebel group in the DRC, but as Stearns’ report comprehensively details, current events are only the latest manifestation of a web of alliances and groups whose longevity predates the resurgence of April 2012. Stearns explains the long shadow cast over the region by ethnic tensions and deeply held mistrust between groups, individuals, and governments—a mistrust that has precipitated alliances and deals in the name of “security” for land owners, military commanders, businessmen, and Rwandan officials. Power has fluctuated between ethnic groups, and as each clash brings offences on both sides, fears persist on all sides that any peace deal will result in prosecution for past actions.

Stearns’ portrait of the M23 group and its origins in the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) movement clearly demonstrates how it is impossible to view the DRC’s rebel group through a solely Congolese lens. The migration of ethnic groups across national lines as well as the relative geographic proximity of Kigali to eastern Congo (Kinshasa is 1,200 miles and a world away from Goma) has contributed to the formation, nature, and demands of the group. While keen to point out that the M23 is no passive puppet of the Rwandan government, the report acknowledges that Rwandan involvement has been expedient but is by no means assured for the group. However, the rebels and the Rwandan government do, for the moment, share a lack of confidence in the Kabila administration to deliver stable governance in the region and to protect ethnic groups from further persecution.

One of Stearns’ key recommendations to neutralize this paranoia is the decentralization of Congolese government. Whether this would succeed in dismantling personal and institutional power bases and breaking the cycle of retaliation would depend on further reform of the Congolese governance structure and ethnic reconciliation. Attempts to do so in the past, as Stearns points out, have resulted in rebel groups using the ceasefire to regroup; integration into the national armed forces has given groups greater access to weapons and supplies, and currently powerful stakeholders have little to gain from democratic reform which would give minority groups less control than at present.

As the M23 rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire on January 8 ahead of a second round of peace talks with the Kinshasa government, what hope does Stearns give us for the success of the talks? He sounds a cautionary note when considering the Goma conference in January 2008, which he commends as a positive and cathartic experience. As in recent months, the conference was precipitated by a military defeat of the Congolese army by the CNDP in December 2007 and the conference was acknowledged to be a change of approach to the rebels by the government. It was an attempt to tackle the root causes of the conflict and promote reconciliation between the factions.

Stearns notes, however, that the peace deal which emerged from the conference sidelined community leaders and only committed the armed groups at the conference to a ceasefire (excluding those not at the negotiating table); it also contained only non-specific commitments to refugee return and army integration. The result was that the conference created more new armed groups who formed in the hope of getting some of the spoils of the peace deal. If the current round of talks is to avoid the mistakes of the past, he urges the Congolese state to incorporate the rebels into the national armed forces, address institutional reform, regional economic integration and grassroots grievances, and the Rwandan government to cease its interference, both passive and overt.

As with all resolutions, the support of friends can help when the initial resolve wavers, so both the M23 and the DRC will need continued backing from international bodies, and regional neighbors who must resist the urge to tempt them back to old ways. By adopting as their name the date of the agreement between the Kabila administration and the rebels (March 23 2009) which the group claims was reneged upon, the rebels remind us that it’s one thing to make a commitment; it’s another to implement it.

Fiona Blyth is an intern in the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.