DR Congo: M23 rebels lay down guns, army targets FDLR

M23 rebels on patrol.
M23 rebels on patrol.

The M23 rebel group that has led a twenty-month insurgency in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo waved the white flag today. An announcement Tuesday morning that the rebels gave up came in the wake of a Congolese army campaign that beat back the group over the weekend.

“The chief of staff and the commanders of all major units are requested to prepare troops for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration on terms to be agreed with the government of Congo.”

Rebels will put down arms in order to accomplish, “purely political means,” solutions to the root problems that gave rise to the rebellion said M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa in a statement. The Tutsi group opposes the existence of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia made up of ethnic Hutus, that group that carried out the Rwandan genocide, in eastern Congo.

The Congolese army already says it move to deal with the FDLR. The M23 was at the top of the list for the army’s concerns and it is now moving on to the next group, said government spokesman Lambert Mende. He said an attack is “imminent” against the FDLR.

“There is no more place in our country for any irregular group,” he said referring to the FDLR. “We are going to get on with disarming them.”

Only a year earlier the M23 rebels marched, without resistance, into the main eastern city of Goma before agreeing to retreat. The destabilizing group garnered greater international attention when a United Nations report said that the Rwandan military was providing support to the rebels.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame denied the allegations. However the US and other major donors withheld aid to Rwanda in response. Preliminary agreements between countries in the region held the hope to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but the supposed surrender of M23 forces may be the beginning of the end of the conflict in the eastern DR Congo.

A two week offensive by the UN-backed Congolese army was aided by sidelining Rwanda. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, both called Kagame on the phone to urge him to refrain from meddling. Now that it appears over, questions remain as to whether Rwanda and Uganda, another neighbor, will bring the likely fleeing rebels to justice.

Monday’s regional summit helped pave the way for the surrender, by outlining that the Congolese government would sign a peace deal five days after the rebellion was officially renounced.  A deal is expected to be signed by as late as next week.

Several of the cell phones belonging to M23’s top commanders are shut off, says researcher Christoph Vogel. Though not certain, that may mean they have already fled the country or are on the run. Congo expert Jason Stearns posed some concerns in a blog post last week. Issues like revenge attacks and political impacts linger over today’s news.

If the M23 is defeated, the Rwandan, and possibly the Ugandan governments will have to decide whether they will arrest the fleeing leaders or give them amnesty. The Congolese army will be under scrutiny to see how they manage their victory––any revenge attacks or targeting of suspected M23 collaborators could spoil the mood, and many will wait to see if they proceed to target the FDLR as promised.

Finally, the impact of a victory on the larger peace process in the region would be powerful. President Kabila, who signed the Framework Agreement last February largely due to pressure from the M23, could shake off some of the pressure on him to carry out national reforms and would be buoyed by the popularity such a victory would certainly bring.

Other rebel groups remain in the eastern DR Congo, but the connections between the groups that are traced to M23 might signal an end for conflict in the region, says Vogel. However, he stresses that the underlying problems that gave rise to the rebellion and allowed it to last for nearly two years have yet to be addressed. The government, led by Joseph Kabila, has shown little ability nor will to reform the nation’s fragile security situation.

There is early optimism about today’s development. Former Senator Russ Feingold, the US special representative for the Great Lakes region, expressed calculated hope.

“In a region that has suffered so much, this is obviously a significant positive step in the right direction,” he said.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.