Gold mine in South Kivu, Congo - Sasha Lezhnev Enough Project Credit Sasha Lezhnev/

Why There’s a Resurgence of Armed Conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

In November 2021, a rebel group known as M23 carried out a series of surprising attacks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. By the spring and summer of 2022, M23 had captured even more territory in this region.

These attacks caught many by surprise because the M23 was believed to be largely defunct. But nearly 10 years later, the group is now engaged in battles with the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo for control of strategic locations in eastern DRC.

My guest today Kwezi Mngqibisa is a Research Associate at the Center for African Diplomacy and Leadership at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. We kick off discussing the background of the M23 rebel group, before having a broader discussion about its apparent re-formation and why a persistent failure to address the legitimate grievances of people in the eastern DRC are fueling conflict in the region.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is the M23 of the Democratic Republic of Congo and why are they against the central government? 

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:03:18] After many years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which led to the seminal 2002 South African government initiated and facilitated talks in Pretoria, the country in the Democratic Republic of Congo went through a transition that saw the government in Kinshasa, the capital, attempt to extend the sovereign footprint of the state to different parts of the country that had not enjoyed central governance. These efforts were not always met with success. They faced a lot of challenges. Among those challenges was the fact that there were regional grievances that were not met. In an effort to ensure that those with grievances at the regional level would lay down their weapons, integrate the militias into the national army, and come part of the regional makeup of the country led to the March 23rd, 2009, agreement that sought to address the grievances that they had and also disarm and demobilize and reintegrate into society and the military, hence the moniker, the M23 movement. It is the regional groupings and militias whose grievances they felt had not been implemented or executed in terms of the March 23 agreement of 2009. So that, in essence, is where the moniker and the causes of the existence of the group, which we discussed today, the M23.

What are the demographics of the M23 group in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:54] So M23 is a group that formed because they essentially rejected the March 23rd, 2009, peace agreement with the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Is there a particular ethnic makeup that’s relevant to the M23 group?

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:05:16] Well, many observers have actually taken the form of identifying them as a grouping made up of Congolese Tutsis, which is considered to be a group that is dominant by location in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But when we look and trace the makeup of this group and preceding groups that operate in the same geographic space which you find in the North and South Kivu, we basically are seeing a group that goes that extends beyond the concerns of these Congolese Tutsis, which in part is to say that they are being excluded from the governance of the country, that they’ve been excluded from the economic opportunities that come from the mineral rich part of the country that they come from, which is the eastern DRC. So, yes, there might be dominance of the minority Congolese Tutsi grouping, however, we have seen that it actually takes the form of all those that have been excluded or that have got meaningful grievances on the conduct of the national government in Kinshasa and of course, the continued state of unrest that we see in the eastern DRC.

What did the M23 do from 2011 to 2013?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:26] So this is a group that came on my radar as a journalist who covers the United Nations back in like 2012, 2013, when they mounted a very effective military campaign against Congolese forces. Can you just explain what was that campaign back in 2011 to 2013?

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:06:50] With all due respect, we are looking at a military enemy, or at least a militia that finds weaknesses in the FARDC, which is the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are under resourced, who have got meaningful constraints in terms of command and control, but perhaps more importantly, who somehow, because of their own conduct, lack the credibility and legitimacy to be seen as a credible provider of public safety and security of the people of the eastern DRC. The campaign you are referring to of the years 2011 to 2013 was when it was quite adamant and clear that the existence of the international community’s forces under the umbrella of the United Nations was no longer providing the guarantees of safety and security of the citizens of the eastern DRC. So, the plan back then was that with the United Nations having successfully accompanied the Democratic Republic of Congo into two successive Democratic transitions, the last one being in 2012, there was no effort to actually hand over some of the security and public safety responsibilities of that international body. Now, this meant that these undertrained, under-resourced, lacking in credibility and legitimacy units of the government of the DRC would actually be in a position to very much be a law unto themselves. Since the year 2002 and the first elections in 2005, there had never been an attempt by the administration in Kinshasa to actually ensure the extension of civil authority in the form of local government. So, the only institution that exercised power and that actually represented the authority of Kinshasa was the military. So in the absence of civil authority and an underprepared armed forces, it was considered as there was nothing else, that the various ethnic groups, the various militias, the various political entities with grievances against Kinshasa would do other than to seize the moment and try to fill the potential vacuum that would have been left by the United Nations, handing over the responsibilities for public safety and security in the eastern DRC to the underprepared armed forces of the DRC.

What is the Force Intervention Brigade in the UN Peacekeeping force and what role did they play in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:10] So that is the context in which the M23 was able to mount a military campaign that resulted for a time in the capture of the largest city in the region of Goma. And then at a point, the United Nations re intervened and strengthened its forces, including, which was unique from the United Nations perspective, adding what was known as a force intervention brigade to the U.N. peacekeeping force, allowing it to take offensive action, which is kind of rare for U.N. peacekeeping. And it’s my understanding that this force intervention brigade did a very good job in routing the M23.

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:09:51] It is one of the unique contributions, I believe, from the African continent to the United Nations, collective responsibility to ensure global peace and security. If you look into the composition of the International Force Brigade, it is made up almost exclusively of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, originally in southern Africa that is made up of South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania. The reason why the International Force Brigade had this particular composition, it is because this original body actually took a decision in its own summit to actually say that the insecurity that emanates from the eastern DRC has the potential of undermining regional peace and security in the southern African region emanating from Central Africa. So, because the Democratic Republic of Congo is also a member of the SADC, the Southern African Development Community, so they then requested the United Nations to endorse a plan whereby they actually articulated how to deal with the negative forces that were found in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. So, the M23 found itself under the microscope and the military response that would come now from these SADC countries with the support of the United Nations in terms of Chapter six and Chapter seven of the United Nations, the kind of military operation and response and posture of the International Force Brigade is not something that the United Nations would do. But for the very first time with success, we saw a regional body from this part of the continent actually partnering in defining the terms in which the best attributes of the United Nations will continue to provide support to the government of the DRC was the International Force Brigade under the cover of U.N. endorsement will be in a position to deal decisively with this negative group.

Why is the M23 active again in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:40] So it was a highly effective response for the reasons you articulated that it was an African led armed forces operating under the auspices of the United Nations and they routed the M23. And I have to admit, this is where I thought the story of the M23 had ended. Yet here we are almost ten years later talking again about the M23. How is it and why is it that we are seeing a resurgence of this group in recent months?

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:12:12] I don’t think it’s correct to say it’s a resurgence, because the assumption we would attach to that statement would say that whatever were the grievances and real reasons why we had an M23 a decade or so ago had been addressed. But that is where the problem is. The military response of the International Force Brigade did not translate to the same level of commitment on their investment by the international community and specifically including the United Nations, on ensuring that there is a proper governance framework and infrastructure that is inclusive and credible in the DRC. So, you could never address political challenges only with a military response. And in part that is what actually happened. The International Force Brigade almost nearly dismantled the military’s sharp end of the spear that is the M23. But the conditions that have necessitated the M23 to exist, and forget about the ethnic nature of the actors involved or the grievances that have been communicated, when the DRC government finally addresses the extension of its sovereignty to every part of the country where there are civic authorities, there are government infrastructures, there is cooperation between the local and the regional and the capital, we will then be in a position to find solutions, but to simply expect that a military response will do away with the problem is exactly how we started. It’s almost nine years now where the International Force Brigade has been active, but once more primarily because the military response, we are not going to be in a position to pacify. I mean, what has been happening in the last couple of days in a variety of African regional bodies, the East African community, the economic community of Central African States, the International Conference of the Great Lakes, all of them working together with the Rwandan authorities and the DRC authorities to say what other things you had committed to. The phrasing that is easy to consume and use in our conversations is to stay pacify. How do we pacify the DRC? What are the types of mechanisms and structures that had been put into place that worked well with the military response of the FBI, the International Force Brigade? We are talking here of joint intelligence committees; we are looking at joint peace and security and community that comes from these bodies. Now, these are the things that should have been done nine years ago consistently so in order to make sure that you do not only look outside in the community and only a military handover, but you are also looking at building up the governance capacity of the civic authorities of the DRC.

What attacks have the M23 committed recently?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:55] Yet these things didn’t happen and so now we’re in the state that we are in now. Can I have you just explain what’s happened since November of last year in terms of the M23 renewing attacks in the DRC and also potentially in response to Uganda, also moving troops into the region.

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:15:19] There are two schools of thought, but I think the dominant and most likely credible one, depending whether one is an optimist or not, is one: the international community, in the form of the United Nations has been engaged in discussions with the government of the DRC to say that after all the years that it has invested and deployed troops, the time had come for the international community, meaning the UN troops, the mission in the country to actually contract and then start discussing an exit plan. So, this was an indication for many people whose lives have been saved, whose lives have been normalized in the eastern DRC and other parts of the DRC, to say that, oh, goodness, we’re back again to 2012 whereby with the exit of the United Nations we shall be left and handed over to the FARDC. Why was this…

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:07] I should say the FARDC is the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:16:12] That’s correct and the reason why November was critical when the conversation of a UN exit was the fact that with the election of President Felix Tshisekedi, that we had started to see some semblance of normalization of political, diplomatic and security relationships between the DRC and its neighbors. So when the UN now indicated let us start the conversation, the president, in response to some random incidents or some incidents that had triggered this wave of so-called resurgence, he then declared the state of siege in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, whereby he actually literally gave the state of emergency powers to the military, where they would actually be receiving lots and lots of resources from the central administration in Kinshasa into the eastern DRC. So, this is now one of the things that actually made almost everybody jittery, whether they were a small militia with some districts under your control or people who have got historical unattended grievances against the national government to say that we are going back to 2012. So, we better prepare ourselves in order to be able to create some sort of semblance of our lives in the absence of the United Nations. That’s one way of looking into November how this party or this militia group now found a reason to actually reorganize itself in reason to go and try and acquire territory; a reason to intensify the ongoing illicit trade and trafficking and the rest of it.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:45] So that’s school of thought one. What’s the second school of thought that you believe might be contributing to this resurgence?

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:17:54] The second school of thought is the Uganda angle. With President Tshisekedi coming in and normalizing diplomatic security cooperation relationship with its neighbors, one of the countries that he actually engaged with meaningfully was Uganda, which of course is also a country on the eastern border with the DRC, which has got negative groups operating in the eastern DRC. So, the government of President Tshisekedi of DRC and the government of President Museveni of Uganda, they actually developed a bilateral cooperation arrangement that would actually ensure that there was better coordination of intelligence, some joint military operations in order to flush out, capture some of these rebel groups that come from Uganda. Now, with that happening, basically everybody then in the eastern DRC was actually making the right reading that this is becoming a very militarized environment where there is absence of a political or a government’s response, hence it was easier for the groupings such as the M23 to actually make the case, saying that if we cannot take care of ourselves, we will find ourselves in a situation whereby the FARDC and some competing domestic and foreign, if not regional negative groups are going to compete with us for indeed the opportunity, the communication of grievances and of course, the actions of greed.

Are Rwanda, Uganda, and other competing military forces involved in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo because of the possibility to mine minerals there?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:18] And at least to me, from what I’ve read from various analysis of the situation, it seems that if you’re following this latter strain that the M23 attacks were perhaps spurred on by the fact that Ugandan forces were coming to the region. And if you believe that the M23 are supported in some way by the Rwandan government, one might view this current conflict as a competition over resources in the eastern DRC, gold and coltan and other minerals that are in the ground in the DRC that various groups over a long period of time have wrestled over.

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:19:58] My diplomatic colleagues in their capitals in New York and elsewhere from Rwanda, from Uganda and many of the countries neighboring the DRC will basically deny that they actually have got troops or are in any way involved in the support or complicit in any of the activities that are taking place. And we could choose to believe them, or we could look more closely on what is happening on the ground. The reality of the matter is that successive interventions in the DRC have had to contend with grievances, meaningful ones, original system making where opportunity for great geostrategic considerations of countries that actually exploit the chaotic state that we find in that part of the DRC. It is going to take us a long time to find consensus on the exact nature or exact extent to which neighboring countries play a role. I always, having lived in that part of the world, I almost always air on the side that says if there are meaningful grievances, there will almost always be somebody who will sponsor your action. And I think that is what is continuously happening in the DRC. By the way, the M23 filled a vacuum of a grouping called the NDP. There was a gentleman Takada, I’ve just forgotten his name right now, and when he appeared to have lost his relevance, or at least some of his concerns somewhat addressed, I remember the special envoy of the UN and the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the African Union was former President Olusegun Obasanjo actually went to the eastern DRC to speak to Takada, scolding him for not executing what had been agreed upon from successive previous agreements. Now, the reality of the matter is that you might remove a group, but it will be replaced by the M23 and once more, if you do not address the governance issues, the grievances and the dual pipeline of greed and corruption and what have you, we will have a new entity coming to take over.

How can the UN, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and neighboring countries address the grievances of those living in eastern DRC?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:05] Well, I mean, what you’re describing sounds almost like a chicken and egg situation you have with legitimate grievances, which are exploited by armed groups, which are further exploited by greed. You have you know, it’s not proven, but perhaps there might be some links between the Rwandan government and M23. And perhaps M23 is smuggling lots of minerals out of eastern DRC into Rwanda where they’re exported and sold. And the situation seems to reinforce itself in a very problematic and vicious cycle.

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:22:39] This is correct. The United Nations, for all its limitations and fault, has actually learned a lot from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The scenario that you are painting right now of what could possibly be reinforcing some of the activities that we see involving some of the countries that you have mentioned, have drawn the attention of the United Nations in the form of various monitoring groups and efforts whereby they actually go and do fact finding. But the reality of the matter is that fact might point out to who is at fault. The reality of the matter is that that fault is only spurred on by the opportunity created by the grievances that are not attended to. So, I think that as we now almost look at nearly ten years of the most effective response to armed groupings in the eastern DRC in the form of the International Force Brigade, that’s the time for a global body such as the United Nations has come to actually say what it is that it can learn as we start to see another wave of military inspired responses by the East African community. President Lourenco of Angola is said to have last week concluded some sort of agreement for the pacification of the eastern DRC. This agreement is said to have been signed by both President Kagame of Rwanda and the President Tshisekedi. If you look into what is contained in that particular agreement, the protocol of cooperation, it’s literally almost all of the things that those of us who have been working in that part of the world in observing from the year 1999 up until 2022, these are just piecemeal actions and interventions that we’re never carried through. And I think that what we would need to be looking at is how we put it, such as the United Nations could be now a protector of the normative frameworks that these countries have signed to; how it could actually look into the process of partnership between the peace and security elements in the form of the Security Council, as well as the peace and security elements of the multiple parties that are involved. Because at the end of the day, it is not going to be by sheer luck that we’re going to find solutions to the eastern DRC. It is going to be consistent work that is full at times of contradictions. But perhaps more importantly, that requires a dedicated and unyielding intervention that is collaborative on the part of the international community.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:05] To that end, are there concrete steps or concrete things that either the government or the international community could do in the short term, perhaps to address some of these grievances that give rise to armed groups?

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:25:23] I spent some years studying the phenomenon that many of the United Nations family members as professionals always talk about. They talk about the importance of immediately disarming, demobilizing, and redecorating the armed groups. This is not necessarily what they need to do. The immediate things that the intelligence community in the United Nations needs to do is not to continue doing what they have been doing, but it is actually to apply the lessons that they’ve learned. It is about investing in communities and people rather than government institutions and authority. And I think that is very fundamental. We have seen this work well in some instances in some waves of intervention in the DRC. And I think that we look at the incarnation of the United Nations mission in the DRC and the current iteration of the United Nations has got those lessons, has those experiences. And I think that they are quite aware of what needs to be done. However, we are currently, the United Nations that is, is currently working on an exit strategy. Its focus is indeed on how and who to hand over some of the public safety and security goods that they’ve actually been rendering to the DRC. So, we are looking at right now the East African community. It is coming through with a military force of sorts to actually come in and once more confront the negative groups. The East African community wants to deal with them in a similar fashion, so to speak, as the International Force Brigade. I mean, all of these things are indicative that these international bodies have got the capacity to mend. But whether they can actually apply those lessons in order to do things differently still remains to be seen.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:13] Well, Kwesi, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful.

Kwesi Mngqibisa [00:27:16] Thanks, Mark, for the opportunity.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:21] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Kwesi Mngqibisa for speaking with me. And we caught up between power outages in Pretoria, so I was very glad and thankful that the forces of the universe conspired to allow us to have this conversation when we did. And just one disclaimer that the views and opinions expressed in this conversation belong solely to those of us who expressed those views and opinions. All right. I’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!