Will the end of M23 rebels bring peace to DR Congo?

With the DRC’s M23 rebel group announcing the end of its rebellion, questions loom about whether an agreement can be reached with the Congolese government, and what the terms and effects of such an agreement would be.


With the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebel group declaring an end to its 20-month rebellion on Tuesday, all eyes are on a potential political solution to end the crisis in the east of the African country.

The M23 declaration that the group would disarm and demobilise troops came hours after government forces drove the fighters out of their final two strongholds, Tshanzu and Runyoni, early Tuesday morning.

Though the announcement was hailed as “a significant positive step in the right direction” by the US special envoy to the Congo, Russell Feingold, questions remain about the terms and ramifications of a potential agreement between rebels and Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s government.

For further insight, FRANCE 24 spoke with Filip Reyntjens, a specialist in sub-Saharan African politics and law at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Here are some highlights.

F24: Is the declaration by the M23 rebels that their rebellion is over to be trusted, or is it just for show?

FR: My impression is that it’s for real. They have been beaten decisively on the ground, and things have changed over the last year, and especially the last several weeks. These rebels have admitted defeat. So I think it’s the end of M23, or at the very least in its military form.

F24: What will be the terms of the agreement between the M23 rebels and the Congolese government?

FR: Well, for the moment, there is no agreement. The M23 rebels and the Congolese authorities were negotiating in Kampala [the capital of Uganda] up until ten days ago. The meetings didn’t collapse, but they didn’t lead to an agreement, either. If the negotiations start again, the terms of the debate will become quite different. The Congolese government will now be negotiating from a much stronger position after the military defeat of the M23.

F24: What guarantee is there that the terms of any agreement would be respected, especially given that the Congolese government did not keep its word after the peace agreements of 2009 with prior rebel group CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People)?

FR: Firstly, we don’t know what these terms would be exactly. At the meetings in Pretoria yesterday and today [at the summit of the Southern African Development Community and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region], African leaders were meant to sit down around a table and flesh out an agreement, but we don’t know precisely what its content will be.

What could happen is that the rank and file of M23 will be integrated into the Congolese army or demobilised. About 100 of them will likely be prosecuted for war crimes by the Congolese criminal court; the Congolese government has already published a list of those people it considers guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Finally, perhaps some of them will be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague. That would be only the very top rebels -- maximum half a dozen -- like Bosco Ntaganda, the former head of the M23, who is currently in custody at The Hague.

F24: The chief of the rebels is asking the Congolese government to ensure the reinsertion of former rebels into Congolese society. How would that work in a country as big and decentralised as DRC?

FR: Reinsertion of rebels has been tried in the past, and it has failed. Former rebel groups have been integrated and it has only led to new rebellions. The CNDP was integrated, and that led to the M23, which was basically part of the CNDP under another name. They can try it again, but we all know what it means it will probably lead to new rebellions.

F24: So another rebel group will inevitably replace the M23?

FR: I’m not sure. If the DRC government can re-establish territorial control in the east, that would make a big difference. With the threat of the M23 now gone, Congolese authorities should maybe address other armed groups in the area, especially the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda], a Hutu movement operating on Congolese territory. That would be my first target if I were the Congolese army and the UN. [Editor’s note: Congolese authorities announced their intention to do so on Tuesday afternoon.]

F24: What about the rebels’ allies, Rwanda and Uganda? Where do they stand?

FR: We’re particularly talking about Rwanda here. Uganda has always been only a marginal supporter of the M23. But Rwanda has been a crucial support. Even though they denied it, everyone knew it to be true, especially the US and the UK, key allies. Now that [US Secretary of State] John Kerry and [British Foreign Minister] William Hague told Rwanda to stop supporting M23 “or else”, Rwanda has ceased its support.

It’s a problem for Rwanda, because it will now be seen by other potential rebel movements as a bad ally. Rwanda has supported several rebel movements in the DRC since 1993. If there is a new one coming up, the rebels will have second thoughts about how good an ally Rwanda will be. Moreover, Rwanda might be cut off from exploiting natural resources in the DRC as a result of ditching the rebels.

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