Defeat for the M23 Rebels
A year ago the M23 rebel movement – formed by mutineers from the national army who accused the government of reneging on a 2009 peace deal – seemed almost unstoppable. They seized the strategic town of Goma on the shores of Lake Kivu routing the government’s army, FARDC (the French acronym) which was at the time, a poorly disciplined force, infamous for its human rights violations.
Now the movement has been comprehensively defeated, its troops have surrendered, scattered or fled, its military leader Sultani Makenga is under military protection in Uganda where he fled with over a thousand of his troops and the Kinshasa government is calling the tune. So what changed?
The factors seen by analysts as decisive in the seismic shift include the withdrawal of Rwandan support for the M23 as well as decisive and coodinated military action by FARDC and the new UN intervention brigade.
Changes to the Army
Analysts say better preparation by the FARDC and the backing of the new UN brigade with an unprecedented offensive mandate helped changed the game in the Kivu provinces.
After their humiliation in Goma in November 2012, when they were forced to negotiate with the rebels to get them to withdraw from the city, the government has purged the FARDC military command. It then installed loyal, better-trained officers.
Colonel Mamadou Ndala, who leads the 42nd commando battalion, epitomises that new guard. To locals, he is “Mamadou”, a hero whose name is chanted as he walks into liberated villages. “This is a new Congo, you will see,” the Independent quotes him as saying. “We won’t bow down to the enemy as [we did] in the past.”
UN Special Force
The UN special force in the region, which backed FARDC with aerial reconnaissance, intelligence and planning, joined direct combat late on November 4th and played a vital role. As the last of the M23 became cornered on the Ugandan border, the special force – known as the Foreign Intervention Brigade (FIB) – pounded the rebels’ last bastion, creating a breach for the army to storm in, sending the rebels fleeing across the border.
In November 2012, as Goma fell, members of the UN peacekeeping force known as MONUSCO, stood by, watching as the rebels marched in, because they were not allowed to intervene. The failure shocked not just the international community but also DR Congo’s neighbours into action. The FIB special unit was created in March 2013 and it was given a mandate to proactively engage armed groups. The heavily-armed 3,000-strong FIB joined 17,000 MONUSCO peacekeepers already deployed.
Compared to last year’s toothless presence, this was a force with a new look. And along with pointing out the exceptionality of having a UN peacekeeping mission that engages in hostilities, those at the UN have also stressed that the FIB is not setting any new precedents for missions elsewhere. Both Martin Kobler, the head of MONUSCO, and Mary Robinson, the UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, emphasise that the mandate for MONUSCO hasn’t changed but that it has simply acquired new tools to protect civilians as ThinkAfricaPress explained.
The FIB is made up of 3,069 South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops. It is headed by Tanzanian General James Aloisi Mwakibolwa.
After Rwanda’s role in arming and supporting the M23 was revealed, intense pressure was applied both by the UN Security Council and the US in particular on Rwanda, ensuring that Kigali could no longer afford – financially or politically – to bail out the rebels.
Richard Dowden, writing for African Arguments in an article entitled “Is this the end of the world’s worst war?’ also looked at Rwanda’s involvement. He pointed out that “Eastern Congo is potentially one of the wealthiest places on earth. The rich soil and warm wet climate enable crops to grow all year round, the forests are full of valuable timber and below ground the rocks are veined with gold and coltan, the latter a key component of mobile phones.” The M23 was the most recent local proxy allowing Rwanda to continue its resource grab. However, as this came to light in a UN report, the US and others put pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting the M23.
Chatham House think tank questioned the change in Rwanda’s stance pointing out that many commentators had “pointed to Western diplomacy as the answer, notably the direct personal engagement of senior figures – US Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Foreign Minister William Hague among them – in dissuading the Rwandan leadership from any further cross-border adventures. Combined with suspensions or cuts to military and development assistance, as well as the erosion of Rwanda’s hard-won international reputation, this is postulated to have been decisive in changing the parameters of the strategic equation being balanced in Kigali.”
Tanzanian and South African Firepower
Chatham House also pointed up an important shift in regional politics and its impact on Rwanda. It was a Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Tanzania in December 2012 that transformed the idea of an intervention force “into a political reality, committing a standby force – including Tanzanian and South African battalions under a Tanzanian commander. Though the resulting FIB was eventually deployed under the overall command of the UN, it retains Tanzanian leadership and South African muscle, including state-of-the-art attack helicopters.
“The Kivus, long caught in a murderous push-pull between central and east Africa, may just have been firmly claimed for the South,” Chatham House said.
South African newspaper Beeld website attributed the victory against the M23 to South Africa’s Rooivalk attack helicopters and mortar fire.