DRC: Could Tshisekedi and the M23 rebels finally talk?

By Romain Gras, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala

Posted on Monday, 14 November 2022 16:10
Congolese who fled the M23 advance settle along National Road 2 in Kanyaruchinya, the northern district of Goma, on 2 November 2022. ©ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP

The M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo are hoping to force the government to give them a seat at the table when talks resume on 16 November in Nairobi. But for now, Félix Tshisekedi has said “No”.

First, there was Bunagana. Now there is Kiwanja and Rutshuru… Only a few months after taking up arms again, as it launched a new offensive on 20 October, the M23 rebels have gained further ground.

The rebels now occupy positions only a few dozen kilometres from Goma, which they are threatening to seize as they did at the end of 2012.

A turbulent end to Tshisekedi’s mandate

In her statement to the UN Security Council last June, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the DRC, Bintou Keita, said the “robust and proactive” response of the peacekeepers had so far prevented the M23 from threatening the capital of North Kivu.

Was the ​​head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) overly optimistic? In any case, Félix Tshisekedi did not imagine that the end of his mandate would be so eventful.

In his speech to the nation on 3 November, the Congolese president acknowledged that the situation in the country’s east was catastrophic.

“As I make this address, our aggressors are occupying certain localities in the territory of Rutshuru, causing a humanitarian tragedy with more than 200,000 compatriots forced to flee from the combat zones.’

Again pointing an accusing finger at Rwanda, which Tshisekedi called the “sponsor of the M23”, the president accused Kigali of having “expansionist” aims and seeking to appropriate Congolese minerals “by destabilising the east of the country to create a lawless zone to satisfy its criminal appetites”.

Like those that preceded it, this speech was part of an offensive rhetoric, as Tshisekedi has been trying for months to obtain a condemnation of Rwanda on the international diplomatic scene.

Seeking a political solution

In parallel, however, the East African Community (EAC) is trying to bring all parties back to the negotiating table.

On 7 November, Burundi’s Évariste Ndayishimiye, who holds the EAC’s rotating presidency, brought together several leaders from the sub-region in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on the sidelines of COP27.

As I make this address, our aggressors are occupying certain localities in the territory of Rutshuru, causing a humanitarian tragedy with more than 200,000 compatriots forced to flee.”

Among them were Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Kenya’s William Ruto, Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan, as well as the Congolese prime minister and representative for Felix Tshisekedi, Sama Lukonde Kyenge.

At the end of the consultative meeting, they reaffirmed their commitment to a political solution as the “only sustainable way” to restore security in the East. They stressed the need to ensure all actors in the crisis could participate in the political process.

A few days earlier, on 4 November, Evariste Ndayishimiye and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is now acting as facilitator, announced the resumption of the Nairobi Dialogue, which since April has brought together representatives of the Congolese authorities and many armed groups roaming the east of the country.

At the present moment, only the M23 has been kept out of the process as Kinshasa considers it a terrorist movement.

However, since April, the rebels have scored points on the military terrain against the DRC’s armed forces (FARDC), which have withdrawn from the areas now controlled by the M23 in a “bid to protect the civilian population”.

Given the situation on the ground, “What would the dialogue be worth without the M23?” wonders a Congolese expert on military issues, who also questions the sincerity of the commitment of the armed groups represented in Nairobi.

The position of the M23 has, in any case, not changed. The rebels want to talk directly to the government. The movement insists that it has “never left the talks”. “It is the Congolese government that has closed the door,” says Bertrand Bisimwa, an M23 leader.

Unrealistic conditions?

Does this mean the ball is in the Congolese authorities’ court? “There is no pressure to readmit the M23 to the negotiating table, especially in the current context,” says a Tshisekedi aide.

“It would contradict the conclusions of the last conclave of EAC heads of state, which demanded a ceasefire without preconditions”.

It is the Congolese government that has closed the door.”

At a press conference, government spokesman Patrick Muyaya did not rule out negotiations with the M23, but only within the framework of the Nairobi Process, which is due to resume on 16 November, on the express condition that the rebels leave the positions they occupy.

The minister of communication himself admitted: “We are being forced to negotiate with terrorist groups”.

These demands are considered “unrealistic” by several experts. “In any case, it is the balance of power on the ground that will dictate the terms of the game and decide who will be present at the negotiating table,” a security source said.

Discussions with M23

According to our information, Tshisekedi recently considered getting together a team composed of officials from the security services and the political field to undertake discussions with the M23 – before changing his mind.

This piece of information was confirmed for us by a member of the government, who insisted on its sensitive nature. “Even if we have to talk to them, it should never be made public.”

“The authorities publicly label us ‘terrorists’, but behind the scenes, they send us emissaries,” says M23’s Bisimwa. “The problem is that Kinshasa has told the Congolese people that it would not negotiate with us. So it’s difficult to conduct open discussions.”

The DRC’s room to manoeuvre, therefore, appears tight. All the more so since, while the FARDC was bombing M23 positions, the National Assembly voted on 7 November for a resolution recommending that the government not allow elements from rebel groups to join the army, the police or the security services.

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