Almost one year after capturing a key town in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the rebel group known as M23, facing a military defeat, has agreed to lay down their arms. The question is now what’s next for the country as other groups continue to threaten civilians.
Since it first appeared on the scene last year, M23 terrorized the eastern province of North Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. Last December, the group sacked the town of Goma, before later withdrawing and issuing a slew of political demands to the capital in Kinshasaa, all the while keeping up their attacks against civilians. The best efforts of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and the United Nations mission deployed to the Congo, known as MONUSCO, seemed unable to do much to stop the group.
Since then, a series of events — including a restructuring of the FARDC in the east and a boost in firepower from the U.N. — has led to a rout of the M23. M23 political leader Bertrand Bisimwa reportedly fled into neighboring Uganda as the fighting intensified, calling for a renewed peace process, leaving Kinshasaa to declare military victory. In keeping with the times, the group issued a press release on their website on Tuesday saying they are ending the fight.
Most observers of the conflict have responded to the recent successes with cautious optimism. A rare joint statement from the Special Envoys from the United Nations, United States, European Union, and African Union on Monday urged both the rebels and Congolese government to press forward with the disarmament and demobilization of the M23 as part of a broader political solution.
“All ongoing political negotiations with M23 must be part of a broader strategic approach to address the threats posed by other armed groups if lasting peace is to be achieved,” Tariq Riebl, Oxfam’s DRC Humanitarian Coordinator, agreed in a statement.
What happens now to the rank and file fighters who rebelled against the government is still up in the air, Sasha Lezhnev, Senior Policy Analyst at the Enough Project, told ThinkProgress. What has been decided is that the top leaders in the rebel movement will not be integrated into the FARDC’s command structure, unlike in many other peace agreements in the past. “This is a very broad recognition, for the first time ever really, that the same kind of backdoor deal that allowed impunity and the worst warlords to become generals for the sake of temporary peace is not viable,” Lezhnev said.
The M23 was not nearly the only armed group operating out of the Congo. Many that remain strike against not only Congolese civilians but also Rwandan and Ugandan citizens. The United Nations has made clear that their offensive brigade is not moving out anytime soon. “Armed groups should know that we’re not going to leave a void. We are going to respond with force against all threats to the civilian population,” Martin Kobler, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission deployed in the Congo, said on Wednesday.
At the likely top of the list of groups that Kobler and the Force Intervention Brigade will target next is the the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group led by Rwandan Hutus who alleged helped commit the 1994 genocide before fleeing into the Congo. “Militarily, it’s probably the most difficult armed group to deal with,” Lezhnev explained to ThinkProgress. “They know the terrain, the jungle, the forests, very well. They have alliances with armed groups … they’re spread out very well.” Despite that, FDLR is still the most likely target as they remain “politically, the most important group to go after,” he said, given the threat it poses to both the DRC and Rwanda alike.
There are signs, though, that the defeat against M23 may have the benefit of discouraging other armed groups from continuing their fighting. MONUSCO spokesperson Charles Bambara told the BBC on Wednesday that members of one of the blanket rebel groups known as the Mai Mai have surrendered to the U.N. following M23’s defeat.
The pursuit of the other rebel groups operating within the Congo will also have to share political space with ensuring “accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said in a statement. To achieve this, Power reiterated an American call for the establishment of “mixed chambers,” hybrid domestic-international court that would prosecute those who committed atrocities. Kobler on Wednesday agreed, telling reporters that “we have a very clear opinion that amnesty will not be granted to those who have committed serious abuses including war crimes and rape.”
Now that the M23 is defeated, the struggle also remains of preventing retaliatory attacks against those who supported the rebel groups during their time controlling large amounts of territory. “The challenge we are facing at the moment is to get people to understand that their neighbors who worked with the rebels may have been forced into doing so, or were trying to get jobs,” Michael Magenda, the newly reinstalled chief of North Kivu Province’s Kiwanja town, told IRIN. Human Rights Watch has also urged the Congolese authorities to “issue explicit orders to all members of the security forces not to carry out revenge attacks or other abuses against members of the Tutsi ethnic group or suspected M23 collaborators.”