The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has accused Rwanda of “no less than an invasion” as M23 rebels capture Bunagana, a key border town in the eastern region of the DRC. This step in M23’s new offensive has triggered a concerning escalation in the longstanding tension between the two Central African neighbours, as the DRC has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the M23 rebels. Despite these allegations and the findings of a United Nations report, Rwanda has repeatedly denied these accusations. In response to the violence, the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta has called for the immediate deployment of the East African Community’s regional military force as fears of war begin to spread throughout the region and relations between the two countries waver.
In a speech to his council of ministers, Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi said the nation “is facing an attack by Rwanda, under the cover of M23, an attack that violates all international treaties,” and adjured UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to leverage the financial influence of his recent immigration deal to end the attacks. According to Congolese Minister of Communication Patrick Muyaya Katembwe, the DRC’s Supreme Defense Council is calling on the government to suspend “all protocols of agreements, accords and conventions concluded with Rwanda.” Additionally, leaders across the continent and international community are calling for cessation and de-escalation. African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat urged the DRC and Rwanda to resolve the emerging hostilities, while the United Nations implored all parties to “immediately cease all forms of violence” in the border region in order to assuage the mounting crisis.
The escalating tensions between Rwanda and the DRC, the continent’s second largest country, are of great concern. If conflict erupts between these two significant actors, the whole region will suffer. Violence is detrimental not only in direct loss of human life, but through its influence and exacerbation of political, social, economic and humanitarian issues. The current eruption of violence in the Great Lakes region has already caused more than 30,000 Congolese asylum seekers to cross into neighbouring Uganda, according to Shaffiq Sekandi, Uganda’s Resident District Commissioner for the Kisoro area. “They are all over, the streets are full, others have gone to churches, they are under trees, everywhere. It’s a really desperate situation,” he described. This escalation of conflict may only worsen the humanitarian crisis in the region, which already hosts a large share of the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes’ (EHAGL) 12.37 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs), according to UNHCR.
One potential tactic that could be utilized is Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), a process that seeks and has disarmed hundreds of thousands throughout Africa since 1992. While issues still persist with the reintegration phase, studies have found DDR to be “vital to stabilizing a post-conflict situation” and “to reducing the likelihood of renewed violence,” according to the United Nations. Previous peace deals with M23 utilized DDR programs but terms were vague and lacked adequate emphasis on the systemic factors that allow for the initial emergence of armed groups. Negotiations must begin, led by local peace-builders and regional actors, to reach a deal that looks outside strictly military solutions and into the realms of economic growth, political stability and social cohesion in order to create lasting peace. While the international actors such as the EU, UN and US must be involved in de-escalation, the methods and decisions must ultimately be left with regional bodies such as the East African Community and local peace-building entities. Additionally, Rwanda’s role in supporting M23 must be further investigated, and the international community must come to terms with the reality of human rights under President Paul Kagame, referred to by one POLITICO author as “the Darling Tyrant”, instead of focusing merely on strategic benefits of a partnership with Rwanda.
The March 23 Movement (M23) was founded in 2012 and named after the March 23rd 2009 peace deals. The group cited poor conditions in the Congolese army and the government’s failure to provide adequate pay as reasons for their emergence. A majority Tutsi group, M23 claims to be working in defence of Rwandan language speakers and fighting Hutu rebel groups in the border region. After many years of inactivity, a revitalized M23 began attacking Congolese forces after briefly seizing Goma in 2012. In March 2022, the group attacked two Congolese army positions and began to advance to nearby towns. In the greater picture of this Great Lakes tension, the DRC sees M23 as yet another tool of Rwanda in their desire to capture parts of their east. The struggle dates back to 1994, when Rwanda claimed the Congo gave refuge to Hutus who perpetrated mass violence and murder, according to the Washington Post. Relations continued to deteriorate, with the Congo closing its border to Rwanda after a Congolese soldier was shot in June 2022.
Taking Bungana may be just the tip of the iceberg for the M23 rebels. A recent United Nations report citing six captured fighters suggests that the goal of M23’s leader, Sultani Makenga, was to attack and occupy Bunagana, Rutshuru and Rumangabo towns in order to “cut off” the strategic Goma-Rutshuru road and take Goma itself. This could result in a diplomatic crisis, widespread violence and horrific humanitarian consequences. A deal must be reached through dialogue and negotiation in order to develop a comprehensive, locally-driven solution that eases relations before tensions escalates to war.