The fight between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the M23 escalated last week after the Congolese troops deployed fighter jets against the rebels. Residents of Eastern DR Congo reported hearing heavy artillery fire around Rugari, located in the Rutshuru area, as the army targeted the Tutsi Congolese militia, the M23 Rebellion.
Hundreds of armed groups have tormented Eastern DRC for nearly three decades, many of which were also active during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Among this group, M23 was founded a decade ago and asserts that it stands up for the rights of ethnic Tutsis living in the DRC against Hutu militias. After being inactive for years, the rebels returned to violence again in 2021, alleging that the DRC had broken a promise to integrate them into the army. In recent weeks, the M23 has significantly expanded the area under its control in the North Kivu province by defeating the DRC army in a run of successes. Both groups have blamed one another for igniting the clashes in the lead of the current crisis.
The ongoing conflict in the DRC has left more than six million dead, and four million have fled their homes. According to BBC, more than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes since the conflict restarted last year. The country’s abundance of minerals has impacted the fight, with many armed groups exploiting the DRC’s natural resources to fund their activities. The conflict has also negatively affected the diplomatic relations between the DRC and Rwanda, following Congolian accusations of its neighbour supporting the M23, and even discharging the Rwandan ambassador. On the other side, Rwanda has disputed the allegations and accuses the DRC of backing armed groups on its soil. The president of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, argues that Rwanda is working to destabilize Eastern DRC to establish a lawless zone and appropriate its minerals. The accusations highlight the hostility and mistrust between the two nations.
Since 2000, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) has failed to provide security and stabilize the region. With a personnel of more than 18,000, it is considered the most extensive UN mission. MONUSCO was previously solely responsible for guarding civilians and backing operations of the DRC’s army. Nowadays, the mission is also permitted to carry out targeted offensive operations. However, MONUSCO mainly provides medical training, instructs journalists on dealing with misinformation, and assists the police with crowd control. Although helpful, these activities are undoubtedly insufficient to fight rebel groups. Hundreds of armed militias still operate in East DRC, despite the billions of dollars the UN has spent to combat them.
At the beginning of November, the UN mission lost a key military base. 150 troops were withdrawn from Rumangabo, threatened by the M23 group. This is a major setback for the DRC and further destabilizes the Eastern region of the country. The loss raises many questions on how the small group of rebels can defeat MONUSCO.
The Congolese community is very critical of the peacekeeping mission, claiming it has failed to protect them. Malcolm Webb, who is covering the fight on behalf of Al Jazeera, has indicated that the residents of Goma are protesting against both the UN and Rwanda, believing that the conflict has continued for far too long. The locals have lost confidence in the peacekeepers. They are no longer willing to tolerate MONUSCO as it does not provide help against organizations like the FDLR and ADF, which kill civilians and seize territory. The mission certainly has to be thoroughly reexamined. The UN has to change its approach in the DRC.
Just months after the DRC joined the regional alliance, East Africa Community (EAC) officials decided to dispatch a force to end the conflict in the Eastern part of the country. The precise number of soldiers who will be deployed is unknown. Currently, only Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Burundi are sending troops. Even though Rwanda is a member of the EAC, it has been decided that it should not participate in the regional force. The troops will be fighting against several armed groups.
On November 9, Kenya announced that 1,000 soldiers would be deployed to the DRC. Kenya has played a significant role in efforts to mediate a long-term peace agreement between the rebels and the DRC. Uhuru Kenyatta, the former president of Kenya, was chosen in July to oversee the execution of the peace agreement that the two parties had reached in Nairobi and to facilitate peace discussions. Kenyatta was instrumental in the DR Congo’s admission to the EAC in March. The move by the EAC is noteworthy. However, the number of troops is insignificant compared to the thousands of UN soldiers who still did not succeed in providing peace.
All member states of the EAC, including Rwanda, should cooperate to find a peaceful solution, as the threat cannot be defeated only by military means. Meanwhile, the DRC should be mindful of the recent troop deployment as the EAC countries may seek their own economic interests. The DRC’s neighbours have frequently threatened the region’s stability by supplying proxies to fight on their behalf and taking advantage of the mineral wealth. Countries like Burundi and Uganda may continue to advance their own objectives. There is also a possibility of increased violence due to the armed forces who will oppose the deployment of troops.
Furthermore, the fact that the EAC has never before sent out a peacekeeping operation raises serious concerns about potential human rights abuses by the troops. The DRC faces a dual danger from domestic and foreign armed organizations that murder citizens, engage in sexual assault, pillage natural resources, and wreak environmental havoc through extensive logging and poaching. Hence, this operation should be closely monitored, and assistance should be provided to the EAC.
To resolve this deadlock and prevent the breakout of conflict that may envelop the entire region, the international community ought to play a critical role. For the EAC and MONUSCO to be successful, close cooperation is required. Moreover, the UN and the European Union should treat this issue with the same significance as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The African Union can also become more involved by demanding a cease-fire from the opposing parties. Sanctions should be implemented against anyone engaged in violent acts or involved in breaching national sovereignty. It is imperative that the international community becomes involved, urging the DRC leader and M23 rebel group to engage in constructive dialogue while financing and facilitating negotiations between these two parties.
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