It is hard to overstate how historic a development that is. For the first time since 1997, Rwanda has no military footprint in eastern Congo and the Congolese government has been able to defeat a serious armed rebellion.
The biggest reason for the sudden turn in events is that Rwanda pulled the plug. The Rwandan government has long deemed it necessary to have an armed ally across the border to protect its interests in the Congolese highlands. The Rwandan army backed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo from 1996 to 1998, the Congolese Rally for Democracy from 1998 to 2003, the National Congress for the Defense of the People from 2004 to 2009, and the M23 for the past 19 months.
But as the Rwandan government faced heightened criticism for helping the rebels, especially on the part of the U.S. government, it changed course. This shift in outsiders’ attitudes has been critical.
Foreign allies have always viewed Rwanda’s meddling in eastern Congo critically, but Kigali justified the intervention by pointing to the threat posed by the anti-Rwandan rebel group based there, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLDR), some members of which had participated in the genocide.
By October, that justification had begun to look flimsier than ever: those rebels have seen their numbers fall by over 60 percent over the past four years, reducing the threat to Rwanda. If anything, the M23 breathed new life into the FDLR, as Congolese government operations against them ceased and opportunities for new alliances arose. These changing circumstances prompted Washington to adopt a stern tone with Rwanda. Hours after the last round of fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 kicked off, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Rwandan President Paul Kagame, telling him to stay out of the conflict.
The M23 suffered a defeat not only because it lost the support of the Rwandan government but also because the UN peacekeeping mission provided key support for the recent offensive. Congolese soldiers benefited from UN military rations and water, UN troops protected the rear and flanks of the Congolese army so it could focus on hitting the M23, and UN officials ensured that the Congolese army had food, water, and sufficient logistical support for its operations.
Also playing a crucial role was the Force Intervention Brigade -- a UN unit, formed in March 2013, composed of Tanzanian, South African, and Malawian soldiers who were authorized to take more aggressive measures than most peacekeepers. The South Africans in the brigade deployed their deadly Rooivalk attack helicopters, which helped the Congolese government retake the steep hills that the M23 controlled.
The Congolese army’s victory over the rebels is only a first step in addressing the broader ills afflicting Congo. It will take decades to reform the weak and corrupt Congolese state, and there are still dozens of other armed groups operating in eastern Congo, many of which have deep ties to Congolese politicians, (including the current president, Joseph Kabila,) and military commanders.
Congo’s neighbors will continue to pose plenty of problems. Current President Joseph Kabila and three of his counterparts -- the presidents of Rwanda, Burundi, and the Republic of the Congo -- face constitutional term limits that should have them handing over power between 2015 and 2017. These deadlines could create turbulence as the incumbents try to change their constitutions or find other ways to prolong their tenures. Instability in one country could easily spill into another.
Defeating M23 might provide the Congolese government with a temporary reprieve from its most formidable opponent. But a viable solution won’t come from outside actors. It will have to come because incentives force elites in Kinshasa to build a more effective state that can defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The state in Congo is mostly absent. Since he has been in power, Joseph Kabila weakened, destroyed everything good about the Republic Democratic of Congo. Critics say that he is a part of the problem not the solution . That as long as he remains president of Republic Democratic of Congo, there would be no lasting peace at all.
But also, there will be no peace in Congo as long as ruthless interests can make immense profits from the extraction of minerals and other resources, with the connivance of regional governments. Corrupt Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, and officials have no interest in justice or army reform because they reap windfalls from mafia-like smuggling and land grabbing. It will take an effort to change market incentives similar to the one that ended the blood diamonds wars elsewhere in Africa.
Rwanda’s post-genocide economic miracle has benefited from huge exports of smuggled Congolese tin and tantalum with the blessing of the Congolese President, Joseph Kabila. Influential Ugandans enrich themselves through major illicit Congolese gold exports. This ensures that eastern Congo remains at the mercy of armed groups and their criminal business partners allied with Kinshasa, Kigali or Kampala. As with all mafias, sometimes these competing groups fight, sometimes they cooperate.
The best way to avoid a new rebellion in the future would be to establish a very nationalist government in Kinshasa with a nationalist and patriotic President. But also to reform the political system and reform the army, what Joseph Kabila failed to do for more than 15 years in power. At the same time, the international community must hold M23 figures involved in human rights abuses and smuggling operation in the Eastern Congo accountable.
Otherwise, the M23 cadres might simply drift back to their villages and wait for a chance to launch a new rebellion. It has happened before. M23 grew out of a previous rebellion – the CNDP. After disarming in 2009, it went underground sowing the seeds of the M23 rebellion in 2012. M23 also claims to have developed cells in neighboring countries and within the Congolese Diaspora abroad.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert