In many places of worship, this Christmas period, there will be many prayers for peace in the world. As much anywhere else in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), will be in much need of them. The government continues to bang the drums of war, for all it is worth, the head of state, has called for the formation of what is in essence, vigilante groups, against the country’s minority group, whom politicians have dubbed “enemy infiltrators.” As the world offers little more than platitudes about peace, it is ironically, the rebel movement, at the centre of the brewing conflagration, that is calling for calm, and a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
It is over a month ago, since in a letter addressed to the United States of America, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, the M23 Movement Directorate, responded to one written by three US senators, in which they called for sanctions, against individuals, who are alleged to be giving support to the rebel group.
Although they do not explicitly mention Rwanda, in their letter, it is a safe assumption that the senators, stand alongside the DRC government, and recently, a leaked UN Group of Experts report, in accusing Rwanda, of supporting M23. The accusations against Rwanda, are nothing new, to anyone with even the most cursory grasp of events in the Great Lakes region over the last two decades.
For its part, Rwanda has always dismissed the accusations, insisting they are little more than a distraction from the real causes of the conflict in DRC.
The Rwandan government would not address the report directly, stating that they did not respond to leaks. They did however, issue a statement, reiterating that Rwanda does not have any forces in the DRC, insisting that repeated claims to the contrary, are an excuse behind which the political leadership of the DRC, hides, from the responsibility to address decades old, internal issues, which successive governments have continued to ignore.
The statement wondered, pointedly, why allegations that surfaced in August, were not mentioned, in the Group of Experts’ report, on the DRC, submitted to the UN Security Council, only a month earlier, in July.
Rwandan commentators, were forthright. They saw the report, as an obvious attempt by the UN, to placate a DRC government, that wanted Rwanda accused, regardless of any evidence. They point to events leading up to the leak of the report, beginning with a press conference by the UN Mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, during which responding to a question, a spokesperson stated that MONUSCO had seen no evidence of Rwanda troops in the DRC, contradicting claims made by many in the DRC government, including President Tshisekedi.
Less than a week after those remarks, UN centres came under attack, from organised mobs of youths, who burned and looted its property. They demanded the departure of MONUSCO.
In a matter of days, the assertion that there was, after all, evidence of Rwanda’s support to M23, was leaked, from the Group of Experts’ report. If as implied, the intention of the leak, was indeed, to mollify the DRC government, it worked like a charm, ending almost immediately, orchestrated demands that MONUSCO leave the country.
The DRC government was elated by the leak.
“The truth always triumphs in the end”, tweeted government spokesperson, Patrick Muyaya, triumphantly, “we hope that conclusions will be drawn quickly, to put an end to Rwanda’s interference, and bring back lasting peace.” Calm was restored, MONUSCO’s position in the DRC, once again secure.
In his whistle stop tour of three African countries, Secretary Blinken, setting aside the time honoured custom of governments never responding to leaks, repeated, virtually verbatim, the leaked report’s assertion of “solid evidence” of Rwanda’s support for the rebels.
The rebel group denies getting any help from Rwanda. Instead, in their letter, they outline the chronology of events, which they say, forced them to once again, take up arms against the state, but continued their call for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
Quoting the eighteenth century American theologian philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, M23 reminds its readers, that there are always two sides to every story. The side to which they wanted to draw Yellen and Blinken’s attention, began on 30th September 2020.
On that day, M23, sent a delegation, to the government of Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, in Kinshasa, to discuss the surrender of the movement’s military and political cadres.
The three-man delegation, included the movement’s spokesperson, Lawrence Kanyuka, and on the military side, one of their commanders, Castro Mbera. The surrender was to be unconditional.
According to the letter, the delegation, was well received by the government, and for fourteen months, the two sides held talks in Kinshasa, with the DRC government side, represented by a team of experts, handpicked by Tshisekedi himself.
The talks were concluded around the beginning of November 2021, and were by all accounts successful, or so the M23 delegation believed. Yet, according to the letter, a mere two weeks later, hostilities would resume.
The group goes on to say, that at the conclusion of the talks, government representatives asked the M23 negotiators, to return to their base, to prepare for the agreed surrender, at an arranged assembly point.
But that no sooner had they reached their base, than they came under attack, from government forces, in breach of the agreement reached, only a few days earlier.
“The movement had no choice than to defend itself, under the code of legitimate defence” says the letter, adding that “the DRC government, continues to refuse the M23 outstretched hand for direct dialogue, in order to peacefully resolve the current conflict in the Eastern part of the DRC, and to finally restore peace.”
The government does not dispute any part of what is outlined in the M23 letter, and indeed, the group is able to show a document signed by government representatives, detailing arrangements for the meeting, and asking for the somewhat large sum of a million dollars, to facilitate the meeting with the rebels’ negotiators.
It is indicative of the superficial, almost dismissive inattention, with which many in American political circles, seem to regard events in Africa, that the letter from the three senators, Richard J Durbin, Tim Kaine, and Chris Van Hollen, to which M23, was responding, at times cites the rebels’ own complaints, to condemn them.
This is particularly evident in the senators’ mention of abuses of human rights, giving as examples, the murder and cannibalisation of some victims.
The perpetrators of the murder, and cannibalisation of two victims, because they “looked Tutsi”, filmed themselves, apparently consuming their victims. The horror show is still circulating on the internet.
In turn the M23 letter, reiterates the same incidents, accusing their opponents, whom they describe as a coalition, between FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), and their affiliates, the national army, FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo), Mai Mai Nyatura, armed groups, and others.
“The M23 Movement, through its interdepartmental team of human rights, has been alerting the international and national communities, of horrendous crimes, committed by the government’s coalition forces.”
Inevitably, they single out the FDLR, for special mention, accusing them of crimes, ranging from murder and rape, to the smuggling of minerals. They go into horrific detail, about the specific murders, and cannibalisation of some of the victims, accusing the government of allying itself with the people responsible for the atrocities.
“The cannibal acts were perpetrated in Minembwe, Baraka, Uvira, by the government’s coalition forces. They burned alive Banyamulenge (Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese), and ate their flesh in public. These awful acts should be condemned by the international community…”
The letter refers to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, detailing the Kinshasa government’s collaboration with armed groups, including the FDLR, as added evidence, that the DRC government is in contravention of international law, in their cooperation with armed groups, to fight M23.
For decades, after the Holocaust against the Jews, the letter notes, the world has repeated the words, “Never Again”, but went on to tolerate genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and are now doing so again, in the DRC, by ignoring the FDLR’s genocidal campaign, against Congolese of Rwandan origin, on the basis of their ethnicity.
The M23 group, has itself been long accused, by human rights organisations, primarily Human Rights Watch (HRW), of serious human rights violations, against civilians, including rape, and summary executions. In the allegations of human rights abuses against them, M23 is often equated with the FDLR.
The rebel group has rarely responded in any way, to these accusations. In the letter, however, they strongly dispute their characterisation as abusers of human rights, and dismiss their recent designation, by the DRC government, as a terrorist organisation.
“So many things have been said about the M23 movement, that are wrong, and have been proven to be the DRC government’s propaganda, to demonise the M23 Movement…”
“The M23 Movement stands shoulder to shoulder with the world, in fighting against terrorism, which is why in the Kinshasa talks, it was agreed that we should establish special mixed M23, FARDC brigades, to track down ADF (Allied Democratic Forces), and other armed groups…but it was never implemented, because the government is in coalition with these groups…”
The letter asks for America’s support, in fighting the “evil” of genocide ideology, in the DRC. It charges that the senators’ letter of 20th October, “has encouraged the DRC government, to pursue its war option, instead of addressing the root causes of the conflict.”
“Since the correspondence was made public [20th October 2022], we are under heavy shelling, of the mentioned coalition, which puts us, once again in the code of legitimate defence.”
As well as the border town of Bunagana, captured in June of this year, M23 now holds large swathes of Eastern DRC, including, Rutshuru, Kiwanja and Rumangabo, the latter a military camp, a few kilometres from Goma, which also served as a base for the United Nations Mission in the DRC, MONUSCO. The UN announced what it termed a tactical withdrawal from Rumangabo, a month or so ago.
But even with these gains, and the city of Goma threatened, the rebels are still calling for negotiations with the government.
“We reiterate our undertaken commitment of a direct dialogue with the government” the letter continues, “in order to peacefully resolve this ongoing crisis, by addressing the root causes of the conflict, thus, to stop these repetitive cycles of war.”
If there is a pattern to their advance, it is that each time, they seem to respond to government offensives, launching their own as a reaction.
This indicates that speculation that they might march on Goma, is likely to remain just that, speculation.
A few weeks ago, M23 surprised everyone, by accepting the stipulations of the Luanda mini summit, stipulations that were so unrealistic, they seemed designed to provoke the rebels into rejecting them.
With the ball now firmly in the government’s and the regional mechanisms’ court, they seem unable to know how to play it. The government continues to mobilise raw recruits, apparently determined to have all-out war against the rebels, whom it continues to insist are not only Rwandan, but Rwandan military.
Last year, Uganda launched a military operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan armed group, which based itself in the DRC. Operation Suja, as it was called, was a joint offensive, between the armed forces of Uganda, and the DRC.
The government in Kinshasa seemed to have expected Uganda, to return the favour, and side with the DRC, against Rwanda. A Congolese delegation was sent to the Ugandan capital of Kampala, to press the DRC’s case.
Instead of another ally against Rwanda, as the DRC had hoped, President Museveni, addressed them publicly, in his garden, before television cameras, reiterating the importance of abiding by agreements negotiated, under the supervision of regional mechanisms, and reaching a negotiated settlement.
Not long after that, the DRC began to accuse Uganda of also supporting M23. The accusation which seems to have been made in a fit of pique, has been ignored by Uganda, and it has not been repeated.
Taken at face value, the M23 letter, suggests that a path to a peaceful resolution of the conflict exists, with the rebel group directly calling on the American Secretary of State, to use his influence, to press the DRC government to take it.
But the government in Kinshasa seems to be holding out the hope, that the East African force, led by the Kenyan contingent, now in the DRC, will move against M23.
That hope, as much as anything else, remains a bar to bringing the DRC, around the negotiating table with the rebel group.
Will the East African force, Uganda and Kenya especially, send its forces into war, when a path to a negotiated settlement is open? Only time will tell.
What is clear however, is that all the DRC government, and the world that claims to want peace need do, is accept the rebels’ olive branch, and if need be, call their bluff. For as things stand, no war was ever easy to prevent, or more eagerly sought, as this one.