M23 rebels have sown chaos in the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo for over a year, but what they hope to achieve remains unclear.
Since late 2021, the group has seized swathes of territory in North Kivu province and neared the regional hub of Goma, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
“We want a direct dialogue with the government to address the root causes of the conflict,” Lawrence Kanyuka, the M23’s political spokesman, told Africanewsguru tv while declining to name any specific demands.
“We can’t put the cart before the horse,” Kanyuka said.
The M23, a Tutsi-led group whose name stands for the “March 23 Movement,” re-emerged from dormancy in November 2021, accusing the DRC of ignoring a promise to integrate its fighters into the army.
It subsequently won a string of victories over state forces.
The DRC accuses its smaller neighbour Rwanda of backing the group, a charge supported by independent UN experts as well as the United States and other western countries. Rwanda denies the accusation.
General Sylvain Ekenge, spokesman for the Congolese military, called the M23 a “Rwandan pawn”.
He accused the government of Rwanda, a tiny landlocked state, of seeking access to eastern Congo’s rich mineral resources such as gold, coltan and tin — “It’s a problem of economic survival” for Kigali, Ekenge said.
Despite international efforts to defuse the conflict, M23 forces have continued advancing, last month capturing the town of Kitshanga, northwest of Goma.
It now threatens to encircle Goma, a city of over a million people on the Rwandan border.
– Regional tensions –
Analysts point to heightened tensions between regional powers as an underlying cause of the flare-up.
Uganda and the DRC launched a joint military operation in the region in November 2021. Kampali had also agreed to upgrade road infrastructure in eastern Congo, potentially enouraging alternative supply routes that would bypass Rwandan border crossings.
According to Ekenge, the military spokesman, Rwandan President Paul Kagame saw the danger for his country’s economy, prompting his support of the M23 offensives.
“Kagame said, ‘These roads will not function’,” Ekenge said.
But Uganda later appeared to have turned a blind eye to the M23, according to a report in December by independent United Nations experts — notably when the rebels captured the town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border.
M23 fighters have also moved back and forth between the DRC and Uganda, the report said.
Jason Stearns, director of New York University’s Congo Research Group, said that geopolitical tensions likely motivated the initial M23 offensive, but suggested that Uganda and Rwanda had switched “from rivalry to complicity”.
– ‘Unnatural alliances’ –
The tenor of M23’s public statements also appears to have changed over time.
When the conflict first erupted, the group denied clashes with Congolese forces and said it was negotiating with Kinshasa. It later admitted to responding to alleged attacks by government troops.
By May 2022, however, the M23 was denouncing alleged “dreadful and unnatural alliances” between the Congolese military and armed groups including the FDLR — a descendant of the Rwandan Hutu extremist groups that carried out the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in October that Congolese army officers had provided support to various militias, including the FDLR, in its fight against M23.
Later M23 statements increasingly emphasised the FDLR, and the danger posed to Congolese Tutsis.
Ekenge rejected the accusations of army support for the FDLR as a “red herring,” saying Congolese forces had carried out operations against the group in the past.
Rwanda has also repeatedly denounced the DRC’s alleged cooperation with the FDLR.
– ‘Extremely convenient’ –
Stearns, of the Congo Research Group, suggested that some M23 members are sincere in their concerns over the FDLR and Congolese Tutsis, while others in the rebel group may be manipulating the fears with a political goal in mind.
Rwanda’s leadership — which stems from the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebellion that ended the 1994 genocide — also draws legitimacy from protecting the Tutsi community, according to Stearns.
He suggested that Rwanda’s stance on the FLDR was in part both sincere and “extremely convenient” — noting the country’s interests in eastern Congo.
For Onesphore Sematumba, a DRC analyst for the International Crisis Group, the M23 rebellion has its roots in Rwandan economic fears.
But he said the situation on the ground had changed, allowing the rebellion to take on a momentum of its own.
“It’s no longer a secret that Rwanda and Uganda are allies,” Sematumba said, and the M23 may now feel emboldened in its ambitions given the feeble response by the Congolese military so far.
“As they move forward and don’t find an effective opposition, they will push their own limits,” Sematumba said.