In October 2021, the March 23 movement (M23) rebooted its insurgent campaign in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that for 30 years has cycled through iterations of conflict with armed groups. Defeated in 2013, a reconstituted M23 rapidly made landslide territorial wins across the east of the country which borders Rwanda and Uganda. The ensuing crisis has been fuelled by long-standing geopolitical tensions between the DRC and Rwanda and has displaced over 900,000 people, causing a dire humanitarian situation.
In parallel to the M23’s sudden rise, diplomatic relations between Kinshasa and Kigali have reached a historic low. Since January, Rwanda has issued veiled threats to officially intervene on Congolese soil and shot at a Congolese fighter jet, while the DRC has contracted eastern European mercenaries, enlisted a “reserve force” consisting of militias, and rallied armed groups as auxiliaries.
The regional organization East African Community (EAC) has been spearheading efforts to end the crisis, alongside Angola (the DRC joined the EAC in March 2022, becoming its seventh member). Yet the various ceasefires it has brokered were violated almost immediately after they were announced. Also hampering the effort was the months it took for the EAC to field an announced military force, which was finally deployed in April this year and is mandated to observe respect for the latest ceasefire and oversee the M23’s promised withdrawal from certain areas.
While the military situation has abated somewhat, the political stalemate drags on. The conflict has been propped up by blame games, ineffective diplomacy, and the neglect of structural conflict dynamics—specifically, recurring geopolitical tensions and proxy warfare in the Great Lakes region and the Congolese state’s weak commitment to addressing the grievances and elite manipulation that drive armed group proliferation. The current impasse is marked by radically different narratives about the origins of the conflict being spread by the M23, Kigali, and Kinshasa and their respective supporters.
The M23 has long insisted that its political demands be addressed as articulated in the agreement that they signed in December 2013 with the Congolese government in the wake of a military defeat that prompted its commanders and troops to flee to Uganda and Rwanda. These demands center on guaranteeing a safe return to the DRC for its membership and ending the discrimination and insecurity of Congolese Tutsi, including by promoting the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees from neighboring countries.
In 2017, the lack of implementation of this agreement prompted the Uganda-based part of the group, led by Sultani Makenga, to return to the DRC. Intriguingly, the group largely went dormant and seemed satisfied with controlling a small area perched between eastern DRC’s volcanoes.
Why, then, did it begin to escalate attacks in late 2021?
The group claims that it was attacked suddenly by the Congolese army, after Kinshasa had declared martial law in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in May 2021 in a bid to defeat all armed groups that would not voluntarily join a new demobilization program. This came in the wake of a failed effort to resolve outstanding issues with the Congolese government, which had secretly hosted an M23 delegation in Kinshasa since mid-2020. However, the delegation was never received by government officials, prompting anger among the M23.
Kinshasa—which in December 2022 issued a white paper documenting Rwandan support to the M23—advances a very different explanation for the M23’s resurgence. It puts the blame squarely on meddling by Rwanda, following a longer trend of Rwandan sponsorship of insurgencies in eastern DRC. Independent observers, including UN experts, have indeed documented important Rwandan support for the M23, including transfers of arms and ammunition, facilitating recruitment, and even direct combat support by the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF).
This involvement—both historically and at present—stems from a combination of security, political, and economic interests, while also building on the ideological scaffolding of the “Greater Rwanda” idea. This notion refers to contested historical representations of the pre-colonial Rwandan kingdom as extending into parts of present-day DRC, including those areas inhabited by Kinyarwanda-speaking (Hutu and Tutsi) populations that share a common language with Rwanda.
In its fight against the M23, the DRC has rattled Kigali through a renewed partnership with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)—one of a number of armed groups it has partnered with. The FDLR is a key security concern for Rwanda and has origins in the former Hutu-dominated Rwandan army and allied Interahamwe militia that carried out the genocide against Tutsi in 1994. While its military strength has diminished significantly over the past decades, the FDLR continues to recruit and remains a vehicle of genocide ideology. Rwanda therefore perceives the FDLR as a genuine security threat, even as it also stands accused of inflating this threat for reasons of political expediency.
The relationship between Kigali and Kinshasa is also shaped by Rwanda’s considerable interest in cross-border trade with the DRC. Eastern DRC is a key destination for Rwanda’s informal and non-commodity exports, while DRC exports to Rwanda importantly consist of contraband minerals, which are then officially reexported. While Rwanda’s economy has diversified since the heavy reliance on Congo’s minerals during the Second Congo War (1998–2003), these minerals, in particular gold, remain an important source of foreign exchange for a country with a sizeable trade deficit.
However, in late 2021, Rwanda felt that its influence in eastern DRC was waning due to a rapprochement between the DRC and Uganda—a country that Rwanda has had a volatile relationship with in recent years. Kampala landed a number of deals with Kinshasa, including for infrastructure and gold concessions that led to direct competition with Rwanda. While the gold deal seemed to undermine Rwanda’s plans to become a hub for refining and exporting gold in the region, the infrastructure program included the rehabilitation of the Goma-Rutshuru road—an important security buffer for Rwanda, as it runs straight through what it considers its historic backyard. In parallel, Uganda launched a joint military operation with the Congolese army. Ostensibly aimed at the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Uganda-originating Islamist insurgency, “Operation Shujaa,” however, turned out to be mostly about securing road work.
In 2020, the tacit collaboration between Rwanda and Kinshasa that had allowed Rwanda to conduct covert anti-FDLR operations since 2015, both directly and via proxies, fell apart. Squeezed between economic pressure and security concerns, Kigali resorted to the tried and tested strategy of gaining leverage by supporting insurgency. This is an ingrained pattern in the Great Lakes Region, where Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi all have resorted to supporting armed groups operating in eastern DRC as a means to fight via proxies and track their respective enemies. This regional pattern of proxy warfare neatly intersects with the DRC’s own system of armed politics and proxy wars, which is shaped by a Congolese state driven by elite networks and wealth extraction from citizens.
While Kinshasa and Kigali have taken an intransigent stance and display limited commitment to address their differences, efforts to durably resolve the M23 crisis will to some extent need to allay the concerns of all stakeholders. If some believe that the abysmal performance of DRC’s army in the fight against the M23 puts Kinshasa in a weak negotiation position, others maintain that the DRC should not cave to demands imposed on it by force. Yet, concrete steps to defuse tensions may not be the zero-sum game that hardliners suggest.
It is crucial that all governments involved refrain from supporting or using armed groups. The Rwandan government should immediately stop all direct and indirect support to the M23. The Congolese government, for its part, should end any collaboration between the Congolese army and the FDLR. Moreover, while some have argued that the M23 is merely invoking the fate of the Congolese Tutsi community as a smokescreen, the position of this community has drastically deteriorated since the outbreak of the conflict. Kinshasa must therefore take robust measures to guarantee its security, including enabling the return of refugees and tackling the long-standing xenophobia that targets the community.
The economic stakes are a more delicate issue. While some observers maintain that peace can be achieved through economic integration and collaboration, others believe that, owing to its weak business climate, the DRC will lose out from further integration. Most importantly, however, both countries and the Great Lakes region at large should work towards tax harmonization, as uneven taxation regimes remain a key driver of smuggling.
In order for diplomacy to regain momentum, regional players should coordinate their efforts. The EAC has initiated a two-pronged peace process, in which Kenya, hoping to benefit from the DRC’s recent membership in the EAC, plays a crucial role. The process consists of deploying the EAC force as well as holding a dialogue with Congolese armed groups in Nairobi.
Yet both initiatives are beset by troubles. The Nairobi dialogue does not include the M23—Kinshasa has designated them as “terrorists” and refuses to negotiate with them unless they disarm. This resonates with the opinions of much of the DRC’s population—which considers the M23 a Rwandan puppet—and reflects President Felix Tshisekedi’s rally-around-the-flag strategy in view of DRC presidential elections at the end of 2023.
The EAC force has been unable to break the political impasse, even though the main objective of its military deployment has been to facilitate political solutions. Despite Kinshasa’s repeated requests, the force has refused to militarily engage the M23 in order not to antagonize Rwanda, an EAC member state. Kinshasa therefore deeply distrusts the force and has allegedly hampered its activities, including by inciting intimidations against its outgoing commander. It has also requested the EAC to change the force’s mandate and is currently advocating for its termination, claiming it has failed in its mission to pressure armed groups to sign on to the Nairobi process.
Disappointed with the EAC, Kinshasa has reached out to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), some members of which have a more critical outlook toward Rwanda. In March this year, Angola authorized the deployment of 500 troops to the DRC as part of a bilateral deal with Kinshasa to form a kind of “witness force” to oversee the implementation of the African Union-sponsored Luanda roadmap. More importantly, on May 8, SADC announced that it would deploy an offensive force to eastern DRC with a mandate to fight armed groups, including the M23. It is not yet clear, however, whether this force will operate on its own or as a revived Force Intervention Brigade under the banner of MONUSCO, the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation in DRC. This cacophony shows the limitations of regional diplomacy, and how it remains shaped by geopolitical considerations.
For international players, in particular the European Union (EU), the United States (US), and the UN, it would help the process if they acted more consistently and in concert. The EU’s decision to provide €20 million for the RDF’s deployment to Mozambique came at the same time as UN reports of Rwanda’s support to the M23 and thus undermined the EU’s diplomatic efforts and credibility in the region. Reports of an EU plan to support the Congolese army with the same amount, in turn, raise questions as to whether shoring up military capabilities on both sides equally will bring peace any closer. Moreover, while the US and several EU member states have condemned Rwandan support to the M23, none has moved to suspend aid, as in previous crises. The UN, for its part, which still maintains a sizeable peacekeeping force in the DRC, should stop rehashing tired natural resource tropes and instead acknowledge the profoundly political character of the crisis. In addition, it should try to leverage whatever political influence it has left to ensure that the diverse military deployments retain a focus on the protection of civilians.
Even when a peace deal is ultimately achieved, its long-term implementation can only succeed through sustained political commitment from all players involved, including a resolve by neighboring countries to stop conducting proxy wars on Congolese soil. Looking back at three decades of conflict increasingly driven by the legacy of previous unsolved problems, we can observe that peace deals—such as the 2013 deal with the M23—have generally remained on paper. Not only have the structural issues driving the violence remained largely unaddressed, the non-implementation of agreements has often led to renewed violence owing to the resulting grievances. Profound political efforts will be needed to break this vicious circle.
Judith Verweijen is Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at the University of Groningen. Christoph Vogel is Research Director of the Insecure Livelihoods Series at Ghent University.