DRC-Rwanda: M23 rebels bow to pressure, agree to leave occupied territories

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Wednesday, 7 December 2022 18:00

Congolese army general and deputy chief of staff Chiko Tshitambwe (C) inspects volunteers who are joining the army to fight on the front against the M23 (March 23 Movement) rebellion, in Goma, (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

M23 rebels have announced that they are ready to disengage and withdraw territories they have occupied in eastern DRC after almost a year which has led to simmering tension between Rwanda president Paul Kagame and his DRC counterpart Félix Tshiskedi.

The resurgence of the rebel group defeated in 2013 after briefly capturing Goma, the main city in the east, has led to a regional scrambling in a bid to find a lasting solution. The group captured the Bunagana border town in May and has in recent months moved within two dozen kilometres from Goma.

Two regional mediations; one led by Angola and another by the East African Community (EAC) have resulted in tens of meetings in which heads of state urged M23 rebels to lay down arms and withdraw from occupied territories.

Time to move back

But the M23 rebels have never been engaged directly in those initiatives. Lawrence Kanyuka, the M23 political spokesperson, said in a statement on 6 December that their withdrawal is with respect to resolutions of the Luanda, Angola mini-summit held at the end of last month.

“The M23 is ready to start disengagement and withdraw even though it was not represented in the summit. The M23 lends its support to the regional efforts to bring lasting peace in the DRC,” Kanyuka said.

He added: “The M23 movement requests a meeting with the East Africa Regional Force and Ad-Hoc verification mechanism to discuss implementation mechanisms and renews its request for a meeting with the mediator and the facilitator in a way to discuss matters of its concerns.”

The withdrawal–if effected–will be a victory for Tshisekedi who has refused to dialogue with the group, despite pleas from regional leaders, demanded their withdrawal, and instead pointed fingers at Rwanda which he accuses of supporting the group.

Tshisekedi has won diplomatic support from several western governments and international organisations who have in the past months called out the Rwandan government for supporting the group.

The United Nations in a June report said the rebels were increasingly fighting as a conventional army rather than an armed group and possessed sophisticated weaponry.

Rwanda backing?

The UN has also concurred with DRC’s assertion that the group was receiving backing from Rwanda.

The latest call came on Monday from US secretary of state Antony Blinken who spoke to Kagame.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that Blinken made it clear that “any external support to non-state armed groups in the DRC must end, including Rwanda’s assistance to M23.”

Kigali continues to reject the accusations of backing rebels. In its latest statement, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister Vicent Biruta said “the wrong and misguided approach of the international community continues to exacerbate the problem”.

Will they withdraw?

Christoph Vogel, who researches conflicts in eastern DRC, tells The Africa Report that a number of factors may have informed M23 rebels’ strategy on announcing withdrawal from occupied territories.

One major element, he says, could be America’s increased pressure on “the group’s alleged Rwandan backers” and DRC peace talks with several rebel groups in Nairobi which has come with a roadmap on disarmament.

The latest round of talks in Nairobi chaired by former Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta ended on Monday. Further talks are scheduled for February 2023.

Vogel says the M23 decision “may be linked to the DRC’s willingness to negotiate” with the group which has so far been excluded.

He adds that “the disengagement statement may also be a means to gain time and observe broader evolution, or even to reorganise after a period of intense clashes”.

However, Kinshasa has not made a public commitment to dialogue with the rebels.

Looming elections

M23 political president Bertrand Bisimwa recently admitted that it would be hard for the Tshisekedi government to invite them officially for dialogue given the tense political situation ahead of the presidential elections next year.

All political groups have in the past months been competing to show disapproval of M23 through protests.

Vogel says M23’s announced withdrawal is yet to be confirmed on the ground.

“Whether it (statement) heralds an actual withdrawal or not remains to be seen.”

Another factor has been the deployment of the East Africa standby force.

Burundi, Kenya and most recently South Sudan have deployed soldiers in parts of DRC as part of the East African Community initiative to pacify the region.

Kenyan soldiers are deployed in Goma and they have vowed to protect it from the rebels.

Conflict resolution postponed?

The rebel group originates from the unresolved issues of the 2003 peace agreement which led to the end of the second Congo war and the formation of a coalition government.

Military officers such as Bosco Ntaganda, now indicted by the International Criminal Court and Laurent Nkunda never joined the coalition government.

Ntaganda formed the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in 2005 that fought until 2019 when it signed a peace agreement with Joseph Kabila’s government leading to a three-year lull in fighting.

Whether it (statement) heralds an actual withdrawal or not remains to be seen.

Key tenets of the agreement were amnesty and integration of the rebels into the DRC national army.

However, in 2012, the group felt Kinshasa had not met its obligation and broke off to form the M23 movement.

Upon defeat in 2013, another agreement was signed in Kampala by the rebels and Kinshasa, which saw the M23’s renunciation of rebellion and transformation into a political party while DRC’s government pledged to offer amnesty to combatants and release prisoners.

It’s the failure to implement these commitments by both sides that led to a resurgence of fighting.

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