By Jean D. Hakuzimana  

“We are suffering because of this recurrent war … the situation here is volatile … we are homebound and unable to get out to buy staple foods for the family because of this dirty Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23) war!” – resident of eastern Congo, where dozens of rebel groups are operating. Among these, M23 is currently in the spotlight.   

The largest force in UN history has been stationed in eastern Congo for many years

Violence in North and South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, shows no signs of abating. A recent example of what the region endures: On November 29, 300 residents of Gishihe village of eastern Congo were massacred. Who is to blame? President Felix Tshisekedi’s government blames M23 – but the rebel leaders have denied responsibility. And so it goes. Recurrent. Dirty. And deadly. Ongoing violence that has taken the lives of civilians in DR Congo over a period of decades.   

On December 4,  U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made a call to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, asking him to end “any external support to non-state armed groups in the DRC … including Rwanda’s assistance to M23, an armed group that has been designated by the United States and the United Nations.”   

“Our country unfortunately is the victim of an aggression that is hidden but is from Rwanda. This has been destabilizing a part of our country, the eastern part of the DRC, with all sorts of suffering for the populations who have been displaced by hundreds of thousands and they live in very precarious conditions. We count on the pressure of the United States to put an end to this.”  

— President Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo at the U.S./Africa Summit

State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued this statement: “Secretary Blinken … shared deep concern about the impact of the fighting on Congolese civilians who have been killed, injured and displaced from their homes.”  

Referring to the genocidal nature of some of the violence, Blinken “condemned the resurgence of hate speech and public incitement against Rwandaphone communities, recalling the real and horrible consequences of such rhetoric in the past.”  

Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta issued a statement labeling the Blinken-Kagame call “a good discussion.” He added that the international approach to the situation in eastern Congo is misguided, and will exacerbate the crisis. After the call, M23 rebels offered to pull out from regions they occupy in order to abide by the cease fire that was recommended during peace talks in Luanda, Angola, in late November. However, when Amjambo Africa contacted the M23 spokesperson on December 8, he replied that they don’t know where to go, or to whom to hand over the regions they occupy.    

What is Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23)?  

In 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Kagame, put an end to the Genocide against the Tutsi and took control of the government. Millions of Rwandans of Hutu ethnicity fled to eastern Congo, where many took up life in refugee camps. Some expressed their intention to regain power in Rwanda and formed the armed group Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), composed of defeated armed forces, civilians, and genocidaires. On multiple occasions, FDLR attacked people in Rwanda. This inflamed feelings against the Congolese, for harboring the FDLR.    

In 1996, groups opposed to Mobutu Sese Seko’s government unified and formed Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL), led by Laurent Kabila.   Rwanda and Uganda backed the AFDL, and the result was the “first Congo war” which eventually resulted in the ousting of the 30-year regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and the subsequent installation of Laurent Kabila as president. He was inaugurated on May 17, 1997, as the president of Zaire – a country name he immediately changed to Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).   

In 1998, some of the rebels who had installed Kabila as president broke with him, retreated back to the eastern region of Congo, and sparked the second Congo war – again with the backing of Uganda and Rwanda. The second Congo war is also named the African World War, because of the countries that were involved; no longer supported by the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, Kabila was forced to look for other allies, and found Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, Namibia, and Libya to back him. Then Kabila was killed by one of his bodyguards in 2001, and Joseph Kabila, the murdered president’s son, was immediately named his successor, a position he held until Tshisekedi was elected president in 2019. This most recent regime has not changed anything for the better in eastern Congo, where hundreds of armed groups live and have found a base from which to rebel against the government and stage attacks on the population..    

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the U.S.-Africa Summit: “We have a range of shared priorities, including free and fair elections next year … peace in eastern DRC, which we are determined to support and help pursue.”  

— Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the U.S.-Africa Summit

Areas under M23 control

In 2012, M23 was formed in eastern Congo as a result of internal wrangling and power grabs following the fragmentation of the rebel groups during the first and second Congo wars of 1996 and 1998. In 2012, M23 took on the government, and occupied Goma, the capital of eastern Congo. They were defeated in 2013 by the government’s Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo – Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), which were supported by the U.N. This defeat followed a December 18, 2012, call from then-U.S. President Barack Obama to Rwandan president Paul Kagame to “discuss the situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).” Obama underscored that “any support to the rebel group M23 is inconsistent with Rwanda’s desire for stability and peace.”   

Did Obama’s call for peace result in a change on the ground? Unfortunately, no. The situation has only worsened in the last decade. Dozens of armed rebel groups – including the aggressive M23, the FDLR, rebel groups fighting the Burundi government, rebel groups fighting the Ugandan government, among other rebel groups – are all still operating in eastern Congo. In the December 13-16, 2022, U.S.-Africa summit that took place in Washington, D.C., Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi asked U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to secure eastern Congo from Rwanda’s aggression. Kagame, who is also attending the conference said, “This problem was not created by Rwanda, and it is not Rwanda’s problem. It’s Congo’s problem. They are the ones that have to deal with it. It seems the entire responsibility has been put on the shoulders of Rwanda.”  

Interview with Major Willy Ngoma, M23 spokesperson 

Recorded by Jean D. Hakuzimana  – December 1, 2022 

Amjambo: Why are you fighting? 

M23: Thanks for the question, If we have guns, it’s not to please ourselves or to have fun. Our country has a lot of problems that push us to take up arms. You know, over the years we have signed a lot of agreements, including the last agreements with the Kabila government. We signed another agreement with president Tshisekedi in 2020. We want tribalism, regionalism, and xenophobia to stop in this country. We also want all refugees to return to their country of origin. We want all Congolese to live in harmony and no one to be left behind. Everyone is Congolese … that’s what we’re saying … and we want development, especially in the east. You see, the population is so poor. Politicians are manipulating the population. They are so rich, and getting richer, and building houses in Europe, and their children are studying in Europe. But the population is so poor, poor, poor, poor, poor. We divide them, we push them to extremism, to kill each other. Why all this? Because there is a poor governance system in this country. … 

Amjambo: You are accused of being supported by Rwanda, but Rwanda calls this accusation part of a strategy that will allow President Tshisekedi to cancel next year’s elections in DRC.  

M23: You need to look at this with an informed eye. Rwanda has never helped us – not even giving us a needle, not even a single needle … the Congolese need to know that we’re not being helped. … The government was looking for a scapegoat to please some Congolese. Tshisekedi thinks that scapegoating Rwanda will earn Congolese support … [then they will] not even have time for elections or will steal it. Tshisekedi knows the issue and wants to play on it for his benefit. Tshisekedi knows that we have soldiers; he knows their names, because our staff comes from the national defense force – FARDC.   

Amjambo: What do you need to stop fighting and end the war?       

M23: For us to lay down our arms, you know we are soldiers. Can we lay down weapons like that? We are requiring a dialogue with the government that will lead us to a modus vivendi. We are soldiers. They can’t ask us to lay down our arms like that. We want dialogue to sit down and talk to one another. Then we Congolese will be able to find an appropriate solution, as we build a modus operandi to settle the situation. Briefly, that is all. 

Nation of contrasts  

Over the last three decades, millions of people have died in conflicts in North and South Kivu. Millions more have fled the region and are living in refugee camps outside DR Congo. Some have been in these camps for more than 20 years. Of these refugees, very few ever get a chance to be resettled or receive asylum in a third country – such as the U.S. Most will live and die in the camps. A few have made it to safety in Maine, where they seek to build new lives for themselves and their families.  

“This problem was not created by Rwanda, and it is not Rwanda’s problem. It’s Congo’s problem. They are the ones that have to deal with it. It seems the entire responsibility has been put on the shoulders of Rwanda.” 

— President Paul Kagame of Rwanda at the U.S.-Africa Summit

Amidst all the turmoil, DR Congo is widely considered among the very richest countries on earth in terms of natural resources. But unfortunately, this narrative of wealth is overshadowed by destruction. And very little of the country’s riches actually benefits the population of over 92 million people.  

DR Congo holds vast wealth in the form of copper, zinc, coal, and gold. In addition, it is the largest producer of cobalt in the world – an essential component of electric vehicle batteries. And the country boasts the second-largest landmass on the African continent. However, according to the World Bank, it is also among the five poorest countries in the world. Most observers believe the conflicts in the region involve a fight to grab as much of its considerable untapped natural resources as possible.  

No timeline for stable east Congo  

November and early December were marked by failed attempts at peace talks and mediation. While lofty rhetoric flew from the mouths of both Congolese and Rwandese leaders, more innocent Congolese people were massacred. The East African Community effort at mediation was led by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi. But even a gathering led by such a notable leader registered no progress before closing.   

Jean D. Hakuzimana in east Congo in 2012 shortly before M23 moved in.

November and early December were marked by failed attempts at peace talks and mediation. While lofty rhetoric flew from the mouths of both Congolese and Rwandese leaders, more innocent Congolese people were massacred. The East African Community effort at mediation was led by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi. But even a gathering led by such a notable leader registered no progress before closing.   

Georges Budagu Makoko, publisher of Amjambo, was in attendance in Nairobi. He had been selected to participate by the U.S. chapter of the Mahoro Peace Association, which represents the Banyamulenge Diaspora. The Banyamulenge are a minority tribe that is heavily targeted in Kivu and faces genocide. According to Budagu, “We Banyamulenge had to suspend the talks after 10 of our village members were attacked and killed by an armed group” – literally while peace talks were taking place. “The government needs to take responsibility and protect the Banyamulenge – and the whole territory. That is top among our demands.”.   

Mardochee Mbongi, President of the Congolese Community of Maine, sees the problems in eastern Congo as an imported problem from neighboring countries. “When you have two countries coming to invade another country, they will leave their problems in that third country. Tribes like the Banyamulenge were peaceful until the invasion of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda,” he said. Mbongi accuses Rwanda and Uganda of using armed groups like M23  to own and control mineral-rich areas of DR Congo.  

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates DR Congo’s total mineral wealth in the tens of trillions of dollars. According to the Commerce Department’s website, “The DRC offers opportunities for American firms with a high tolerance for risk and a familiarity for  operating in complex and fragile environments.”