Entangled Allegiances: The Complex Conflict in Eastern Congo

M23 rebels pictured withdrawing from Kibumba, North Kivu province, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on Dec. 23, 2022, following a ceasefire agreement reached in Luanda, Angola the previous month.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains embroiled in a complex and ever-intensifying proxy conflict in its eastern region, a recent United Nations expert group report on the DRC reveals. This report sheds light on the intricate web of alliances and oppositions fueling the conflict, highlighting Rwanda’s alleged support for the M23 rebels and the Congolese government’s controversial tactic of arming local armed groups.

The UN Report: A Mirror of an Endless War

The latest findings from the UN expert group offer a grim reminder of the ongoing proxy war between Rwanda and the DRC, fought through armed groups. According to the report, the M23 rebel group, after a period of relative calm, has not only maintained its strategic positions in North Kivu but has also recaptured and gained new territories since the resurgence of combat in October 2023. The report particularly notes the rebel group’s enhanced military capabilities, including recruitment and advanced military training, as observed in Tshanzu in May 2023.

Rwanda’s Involvement: A Persistent Accusation

A critical focus of the UN report is the continuous support of the Rwandan army to the M23 rebels. Despite consistent denials by Kigali of any involvement, the expert group has gathered new evidence, including aerial images and photographs, indicating direct interventions and troop reinforcements by Rwanda in the DRC, specifically in the M23-dominated territories of Masisi, Rutshuru, and Nyiragongo. The presence of Rwandan soldiers in the conflict zone has been corroborated by members of the East African Community’s Regional Force, of which Rwanda is a member. The report also mentions the use of high-tech weaponry by M23, such as laser-guided 120 mm mortars, previously unseen in the DRC or in the FARDC’s arsenal.

The DRC’s Strategy: Arming Local Groups

On the other side, the DRC government has been criticized for mobilizing and utilizing local armed groups as auxiliaries in the fight against M23 and the Rwandan presence. Previous reports had already noted the collaboration between the Congolese army and the FDLR, a militia opposed to Kigali. Currently, Kinshasa relies on a coalition of armed groups named “Wazalendo” (Patriots) in North and South Kivu. These groups have reportedly received support in terms of arms, logistics, and finances, despite an arms embargo.

The Wazalendo and FARDC Alliance

This partnership has led to the formation of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP), comprising 8,000 Wazalendo fighters under the command of leaders like Janvier Karairi Boingo of the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS), and Guidon Shimiray Mwisa. Ironically, these groups, now allied with Kinshasa, were previously combating the regular army in their territories.

Foreign Intervention: Burundian Troops and Private Military Firms

The Wazalendo groups aren’t the only external support for the Congolese army. The UN report mentions discreet assistance from the Burundi National Defense Forces (FNDB), accused by M23 of fighting alongside FARDC under the EAC Regional Force’s banner. Furthermore, the involvement of private military companies like Agemira RDC and Congo Protection has been documented, mainly offering logistical and military planning support.

Security Uncertainty and President Tshisekedi’s Challenges

This latest UN report underscores the complexity of the security situation in the DRC, with over 200 armed groups, foreign armies, UN peacekeepers, the Congolese army, refugees, and more. President Félix Tshisekedi, re-elected for a second term, has struggled to control the conflict. His efforts, including states of emergency, bilateral agreements, regional forces, and negotiations, have not yielded the desired stability. The situation has led to a doubling of armed groups in five years, with 7 million internal displacements—a record high in the Congo.

The Role of SADC and Future Prospects

Following the failure of the EAC Regional Force, President Tshisekedi is now counting on the new military mission of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to end the M23’s influence. However, the mandate and effectiveness of this force remain uncertain. If military efforts fail, Tshisekedi may have no choice but to negotiate with the M23, despite previously labeling them as terrorists. This is complicated by the recent formation of a politico-military platform by the former head of the Electoral Commission, Corneille Nangaa, and M23, aiming for political negotiations with Kinshasa. However, the Congolese authorities currently favor military options to eradicate the rebel group.