Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Multi-Layered Violence in the DRC: Is History Repeating Itself?

Multi-Layered Violence in the DRC: Is History Repeating Itself?
 Nina Wilén
Director of the Africa Program, Egmont Institute
 Erik Kennes
Senior Research Fellow, Africa Program, Egmont Institute

Located in the heart of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is riddled in the East by the presence of rebel groups on its territory, from within but also neighboring countries, leading to armed clashes, human rights violations and internal displacements. This has led the region down a never-ending spiral of instability and the conflict has been dubbed a "forever war". The past year has seen renewed violence by a number of national and regional armed (non) state actors, spurring increased regional turbulence. What are the key factors and who are the main actors behind this latest round of instability and violence? And is history really repeating itself? Erik Kennes and Nina Wilén from Egmont Institute's Africa Program tackle this topic for the final piece of our Unresolved Crises series. 

2022 has seen a resurgence of fighting in the East of the DRC, a region that has been plagued by violence from a large number of armed non-state groups for a variety of different reasons over the last three decades. Discontent with local governance fights over land and identity-based disputes are part of the reasons. Some of the rebel groups originate from neighboring states and use the Congolese territory as their refuge from which they plan attacks both in the region, and in their own states, such as initially the Ugandan rebel group ADF, the Burundian RED-Tabara, or FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda - an armed rebel group) which originally was composed of Rwandan genocidaires fleeing from Rwanda in 1994. Others are Congolese rebels who receive foreign support from Rwanda, such as M23. Almost all profit from the illegal extraction of natural resources in the region that hosts large gold, cassiterite, coltan, wolfram reserves and approximately 8% of the world’s tantalum reserves. 

This situation is the result of a complex interplay of causes going from the local up to the international level. Most of all, it is linked to DRC's weak governance, the decisive role played by Uganda and Rwanda to topple the regime of Mobutu in 1997, and regional geopolitics whereby the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents positioned themselves as regional strongmen protecting strategic and economic interests in neighboring East-Congo. In the past, several regional initiatives were taken by SADC, the AU, and the UN to conclude an agreement between the main players to stabilize the Great Lakes Region. The ICGLR and the Addis Ababa Framework Agreement follow-up mechanism were specifically created for that aim. The newest effort went through the Eastern African Community (EAC) but could not yet resolve the current ongoing crisis.

In order to promote more regional collaboration, and stabilize this security environment DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, thus has tightened collaboration with some regional players. His rapprochement with Uganda during the past two years is nevertheless signaled as the ignition for the renewed regional crisis. First, a deal was struck between DRC state mining company Sakima and Dott services, a company reputedly close to the Ugandan presidential family, for the exploitation of mineral resource deposits in East Congo in November 2020. Second, an invitation for Uganda to fight the ADF rebels on Congolese territory a year later has contributed to shifting volatile power balances in the region. The invitation was followed by tacit Congolese approval of Burundian troops to do the same for RED-Tabara only a month later. At the same time, no offer was extended to Rwanda, thereby upsetting a fragile regional power balance and implicitly undermining Rwanda's opportunity to extract resources from the region. The M23’s resurgence in November 2021, after almost a decade of its dismantling following a joint military action between the UN's robust Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), and the Congolese army, FARDC, is yet another key element in the recent crisis. These developments have further increased the number of armed actors in the region which has resulted in more human rights violations against civilians, further displacement and civilian victims.

The more the merrier: enter the EACRF 

In an attempt to draw on deeper regional support to handle the current crisis and in preparation for presidential elections in 2023, the DRC joined the East African Community (EAC - a regional intergovernmental organization of 6 Partner States) in the spring of 2022, supported by the former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, a strong backer of Tshisekedi in past elections. The new membership, the ongoing crisis and the increased opposition to the UN's longstanding stabilization mission in the DRC led to calls for a regional EAC force to intervene and stem the situation by fighting M23 and all other armed groups inside the DRC. Largely driven by Kenyan leadership, the EAC's Regional Force (EACRF), saw the inclusion of Burundian and Ugandan troops already present on the Congolese territory over the summer of 2022, while Kenyan troops joined later in the fall and South Sudanese troops are supposed to join the force. 

The EACRF benefits from formal Congolese support, with a few initial tactical successes against M23, yet is likely to suffer from the diverging national interests of its member states. 

The Force is mandated for a renewable 6-month period with the eradication of all armed groups in the DRC to restore stability. Its concept of operations (CONOPS) is thus strikingly similar to MONUSCO's Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a force deliberately created before October 2013 to take action against M23. Noteworthy is that the CONOPS also designates M23 under the "terrorist group" label, together with ADF and LRA, thus reflecting the label used since the beginning of the crisis by the DRC government and complicating possible future negotiations. 

The EACRF benefits from formal Congolese support, with a few initial tactical successes against M23, yet is likely to suffer from the diverging national interests of its member states. While officially pursuing rebel groups, Ugandan troops are also likely to protect Uganda's oil deposits and infrastructure around Lake Albert and to implement the ambitious road construction project between Kampala and Kinshasa which will expand the market for Ugandan goods. Meanwhile the Burundian troops - also already present, - may be more motivated to fight RED-Tabara rebels rather than the M23. This leaves the fight against M23 to the Kenyan troops, who, while arguably being the most impartial member of the force, have already declared that they would prefer to avoid fighting if possible, making it unclear if the EACRF will be able to make a difference on the ground. 

Forum-shopping gives way to numerous mediation initiatives 

States which take up membership in multiple, overlapping regional organizations to negotiate their regional and national identities and pursue different policy goals are sometimes described by scholars as "forum-shopping". The DRC's central position in Africa has made it a champion of forum-shopping with memberships in seven regional organizations in addition to the continental membership in the AU, with the inclusion in EAC in 2022 as the latest example. Two intersecting regional mediation efforts have been driven by the ICGLR, with Angolan President João Lourenço both being the chairman of the ICGLR and the AU mediator, and EAC, driven by Kenya’s retired president Kenyatta as the facilitator to solve the current regional crisis in the DRC. While the "Nairobi process", propelled by EAC, has focused primarily on inter-Congolese dialogue, the "Luanda Roadmap" developed by President Lourenço in the framework of ICGLR has emphasized DRC’s territorial integrity and urged for a stop of (foreign) support to rebels. 

A "Mini-Summit" was held on 23 November 2022, between the AU and EAC Mediators as well as Presidents from Burundi, the DRC and Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The final communiqué declared a cease-fire, forcing the M23 to withdraw to their previously occupied positions under threat of military force by the EACRF. The movement organized withdrawal from Kibumba and Rumangabo, yet according to the DRC, was only partial, while military confrontation continued in other areas. On 12 January 2023, the M23 political leadership declared to EAC facilitator Kenyatta that they would withdraw to the pre-April 2022 positions, respect a ceasefire and accept the deployment of the EACRF in the areas they previously occupied. Less than a week later, however, the DRC government issued a press release accusing the M23 of not respecting the cease-fire and withdrawal agreement, while scolding Rwanda for its continued support of M23. 

The Rwandan government countered on 19 January, accusing the DRC of leaving the Luanda and Nairobi processes and preparing for war. The official positions of both main actors, clearly, do not yet point towards a negotiated solution: the DRC seems to rely on the local mobilization of youth and prepares for armed confrontation (possibly even reaching out to mercenary forces) while President Kagame in a recent speech still refused to reckon the obvious military support for the M23 and put the entire blame for the current situation on the DRC.

The official positions of both main actors, clearly, do not yet point towards a negotiated solution.

One of the stumbling blocks for a negotiated solution is the lack of clarity about the real strategic objective of Rwanda's support for M23. As the official reasons for their involvement remain disputable (i.e. threat by the FDLR and the protection of Tutsi in DRC) most observers suspect that it may be a mixture of economic motives, such as the fear of being sidelined by the mining concession exploitation agreement between the DRC and Uganda and the determination to keep controlling East Congo, be it for reasons internal or external to Rwanda. Indeed, while many analysts - especially from the DRC - are convinced that Rwanda's motivation is mainly to get access to the country's vast mineral resources, others believe that its involvement in the DRC is necessary to maintain elite cohesion within the Rwandan military establishment. 

Regional rapprochement, distancing and suffering 

President Tshisekedi, who was catapulted into the DRC presidential seat in 2019 following a deal with President Kabila in the first half of 2018, counted on his proactive international diplomacy to strengthen the position of the DRC in the region. Former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, helped Tshisekedi as early as 2018 by creating the CACH coalition officially presented in Nairobi, as the vehicle for the latter’s presidential ticket, while the recent inclusion of the DRC in EAC took place with Kenyan support. Initial close cooperation with President Kagame did not, however, modify the latter's strategic vision of the role Rwanda should play in the Great Lakes region. 

Instead, what started off as a promising avenue for peace - or at least regional stability - now ended up in renewed support for the M23, and an uncompromising and unprecedented stand from the DRC government against Rwanda.

What started off as a promising avenue for peace - or at least regional stability - now ended up in renewed support for the M23.

President Kagame's repositioning and reputation seem nevertheless to have taken a blow due to his aggressive regional policy in this crisis. Already at odds with Tanzania and Burundi, and intermittently with Uganda, Kagame recently came under pressure from his traditional Western backers to halt support for the M23, including from his most recent supporter, French President Emmanuel Macron. 

Since the beginning of the renewed M23 violence in November 2021, an estimated 510 000 people have been displaced in Masisi, Rutshuru and Nyiragongo territories. When the conflict resumed on October 20th, 2022, an estimated 186 000 persons were displaced in Rutshuru alone. Displacement has also led to an increased politicization of refugees in the region with President Kagame announcing that he intends to return the reported 72 000 refugees from the DRC who fled across the border in November. In addition to displacement, the most recent report from the UN Group of Experts details serious human rights violations by the M23, including frequent looting, theft, abductions, extortions, rape, sexual violence and killings. According to MONUSCO, at least 131 civilians were killed by M23 during actions of repression in the Kishishe and Bambo villages in Rutshuru territory. A worrying increase in hate and xenophobic speech towards the Tutsi/Rwandophone population of North and South Kivu has also been noted, especially online on social media platforms. Yet, so far, this has not been followed up with violence, and the DRC authorities have repeatedly appealed for restraint, thus attempting to calm the ethnicization of the crisis. 

What's next? 

As of January 2023, official positions taken by the DRC and the Rwandan presidencies seem to make any negotiated solution a remote possibility. It is impossible for the DRC to accept solutions implemented during the previous M23 crisis, such as the integration of part of the M23 leadership into the FARDC. It could possibly apply measures approved in 2013 but never implemented, as the reconciliation and confidence-building measures included in the 2013 agreement, measures against the FDLR and eventually implement the roadmap concluded with M23 in Kigali in October 2019 on the return of M23 combatants (which was later blocked in Kinshasa). This should include a realistic solution for the thousands of Congolese ethnic Kinyarwanda speakers who have been refugees in Kigali for more than 25 years, a contentious issue between the M23 and the DRC government, and the broader Tutsi community and the DRC. However, it is more likely that Kinshasa uses the mobilization threat of the outraged youth movement in the Kivu provinces to put pressure on Kigali and secretly negotiate a solution with Kigali. While the problem in Kinshasa is the lack of a coordinated strategy, the problem in Kigali is the total lack of clarity on Rwanda’s real objectives: does Kagame want to show who the boss is in military terms? Does Rwanda want its share of cooperation agreements in the DRC mining sector? Do they - again - want to have a foothold in the DRC army through M23 officers? 

The current situation may benefit President Tshisekedi in two ways. First, his uncompromising stance towards Rwanda has earned him new popularity in the East, and second, he may use the current situation as an argument to postpone the elections (which is likely anyhow for technical reasons). Either way, the stakes are high: he will need to demonstrate nothing less than his ability to reverse what is perceived to be domination by Rwanda in East Congo.

There is a strong risk for increased violence: elections may trigger renewed local conflict.

Yet, for many parties in the region - including Congolese actors - a continuation of the conflict in eastern Congo is a lucrative business, with a "military bourgeoisie" able to reap financial profit from military operations, undermining peace efforts. 

There is a strong risk for increased violence: elections may trigger renewed local conflict, fueled by ambitious local leaders mobilizing armed groups to demonstrate their power, while the void left in Kivus and Ituri following the concentration of FARDC troops in Rutshuru and Nyiragongo territories has already lead to renewed violence by armed groups. Finally, an important stumbling block for the "Nairobi process" is the DDRC/S program in the DRC which did not take off yet and whose leadership by a former M23 associate is contested. The active involvement of the EAC also modifies the regional outlook. It is likely to result in a more important economic role for Kenya, provided minimum stability in the DRC, and a reduced influence for the ICGLR, given Tshisekidi’s preference for the former. However, beyond the structural difficulty for the DRC to manage its multiple memberships in regional organizations, it will not be an easy task to maintain internal EAC cohesion during and after the current crisis. Different strategic options from the relevant EAC member states and the structural weakness of the DRC state structures prevents the country from setting the agenda itself. 

In addition, durable peace fundamentally requires justice. Many perpetrators of the most horrendous crimes were never punished and occupy high-level positions in the military and political establishments of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. The UN mapping report, documenting serious human rights violations during the 1993-2003 period, was never followed by a national or international tribunal to address the issue. Violence and serious crimes have continued since, at an increasing pace, and have affected the fundamentals of societal cohesion in the East, destroying norms and values. To address this issue, a long-term program for healing East Congo is necessary, with national and international justice as its first step. 

The continued violence in the East-Congo has been dubbed a "forever war"... Maybe Rwanda wants history to repeat itself, but the DRC wants to write a new page. The problem is: what are they able and willing to write?


Copyright image: Guerchom Ndebo / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English