Rebel fighters in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, known as M23, have been fighting the Congolese government since April 2012, claiming that Congolese President Joseph Kabilia failed to live up to a 2009 peace deal. In this backgrounder, we analyze M23 and the history of the conflict.
M23, renamed “Congolese Revolutionary Army,” is a rebel movement comprised mainly of Congolese Tutsis, who formerly comprised the Congrès National pour la Défense du People (CNDP).
M23 formed from defectors from the Congolese army in late March/early April 2012 amid pressure on the government to arrest it’s alleged leader, General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Fighting with the Congolese army ensued with grave humanitarian consequences on civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The United Nations Security Council’s Group of Experts said in a confidential report that Rwanda and Uganda—despite their strong denials—continued to support M23 rebels. Support takes the form of arms, heavy artillery, military supplies and new recruits.
The March 23 Agreement
The name M23 refers to the March 23, 2009 peace agreement signed by President Joseph Kabila and the CNDP. The CNDP was established in December 2006, and its armed wing was officially integrated into the national army. Rebels claim to be fighting because the government has not lived up the terms of the agreement.
Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed the Terminator, was appointed as general. Throughout their military advances, M23 rebels have called for talks with President Kabila, stating that their aim is for the terms of the peace agreement to be respected. The Congolese government refuses to negotiate with rebels.
M23 Leadership and Capacity
According to M23’s official website, Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero is the president of the movement while General Sultani Makenga serves as its military leader. Despite denials from M23, analysts believe that former CNDP leadership Bosco Ntaganda and Laurent Nkunda remain influential. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, noted on June 19 that the M23 leadership figure among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations in DRC. M23 is now thought to comprise around 1,200 to 6,000 fighters.
The insecurity caused by fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 ongoing since April has prompted a humanitarian crisis. As of November 2012, there are 2.4 million internally displaced persons and 460,000 refugees in neighboring countries.
The United Nations has reported human rights violations committed by both sides of the conflict, including sexual violence and looting. M23 has also reportedly recruited children into armed conflict. Human Rights Watch has reported that M23 rebels have committed widespread war crimes, including summary execution of child soldiers attempting to escape.
Timeline of M23 Rebellion
April 1: Close to 300 soldiers from the former rebel group, CNDP, desert the Congolese army, spreading panic in the North Kivu eastern province of the DRC.
April 11: President Joseph Kabila reportedly calls for the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda. Clashes persist throughout the month between the M23 and the Congolese army, displacing thousands.
May 14: Security Council condemns in the strongest terms the attacks on United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) peacekeepers in Bunyakiri, South Kivu.
May 29: UNHCR reports over 40,000 people have been displaced and MONUSCO notes there were at least 98 killed in the fighting in the Kivu region.
June 4: Human Rights Watch reports that Rwandan officials are supplying Ntaganda with troops and weapons. The European Union releases a statement acknowledging external support is being given to M23.
June 15: UN Security Council condemns the M23 mutiny and the killing and abuse of civilians, mostly women and children, by armed groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The Council urges the full investigation of credible reports of outside support to the M23.
June 27: The Group of Experts on the DRC submits an addendum to the Interim Report accusing Rwandan officials of supplying direct military support including arms, munitions and military intelligence, to the M23, in violation of the standing arms embargo against the DRC.
June 30: The UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) extends its mandate for another year, reaffirming its commitment to civilian protection and making security sector reform a priority.
July 6: M23 captures the town of Bunagana near the border with Uganda. Some 600 DRC troops flee across the border and take refuge in Uganda. M23 issues a statement calling for peaces talks with the government.
July 8: Rebels capture Rutshuru, a town located just 70 kilometers north of North Kivu’s capital Goma.
July 11: M23 threatens to march on the capital city Goma if attacks against Rwandophone civilians do not cease.
July 15: Presidents of the DRC and Rwanda met at the AU Summit and agree to work with the AU to establish a neutral international force that will patrol the border and dismantle the FDLR and M23.
July 16: UN Security Council issues a press statement condemning all outside support for any armed groups in the DRC and demands that all forms of military support to cease.
July 20: M23 rebels and government forces trade heavy weapons fire around two eastern villages forcing some 260,000 people to flee their homes. UN peacekeepers clash with rebels in support of government troops and reinforced positions around Goma.
July 22: The United States cuts $200,000 in military aid to Kigali via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 marking a significant policy shift in a bid to pressure the Rwandan government to cease its backing of M23.
July 26: The Netherlands suspends economic support of $6.15 million to Rwanda due to its support of M23. The United Kingdom delays $25 million and the African Development Bank delays a disbursement of $38.9 million.
July 27: UNHCR estimates that more than 470,000 Congolese have been displaced in eastern DRC since April—some 220,000 in North Kivu, another 200,000 in South Kivu while more than 51,000 fled to neighboring Uganda (31,600) and Rwanda (19,400). UNHCR also reports widespread human rights violations and abuses. These include indiscriminate and summary killings of civilians, rape, and sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary arrests, assaults, looting, extortion of food and money, destruction of property, forced labor, forced military recruitment, including children, and ethnically motivated violence.
August 2: UN Security Council releases press statement condemning attacks by the M23 and calling for the cessation of all outside support for the armed group.
August 27: Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, briefs the Security Council on the humanitarian effects of the fighting in eastern DRC and emphasized the need to address the root causes of the current crisis.
August 29: UN Security Council holds an informal interactive dialogue with Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo and DRC representatives. Rwanda presents the Council with its own report, questioning the working methods of the Group of Experts and denying allegations of support for M23. Mushikiwabo argues that the coordinator of the Group, Steve Hege (from the U.S.), has expressed a bias against Rwanda in previous writings.
September 6: Britain unfreezes around half of its aid to Rwanda.
September 8: Regional Heads of State meet in Kampala to call on the cessation of hostilities, the creation of the Joint Verification Mechanism, and establish a neutral international force to patrol the DRC-Rwanda border. They suggest that the force should consist of 4,000 soldiers and be deployed under the mandate of the African Union and the United Nations. Member states and international donors are urged to contribute logistical, technical and financial support. Media reports suggest that Tanzania and countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are ready to deploy their troops as part of this initiative.
September 11: Human Rights Watch reports that M23 rebels are committing war crimes and calls on Rwandan officials to immediately halt all support or face sanctions.
September 27: UN chief Ban Ki-moon convenes a high-level meeting on eastern DRC on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Ban Ki-moon asked participants (23 countries including the DRC and Rwanda) to clarify the modalities and means of the International Neutral Force and its coordination with MONUSCO. Most Council members are skeptical about the feasibility of establishing an international neutral force in the near future and insist on a political solution.
October 8: Regional heads of state meet in Kampala and adopt a declaration that directs a military assessment team to develop and submit a concept of operations for the neutral force by October 25.
October 17: A copy of the UN Group of Experts (GoE) final report on DRC is leaked, accusing General James Kabarebe, the Rwandan defense minister, of effectively directing the M23. GoE also accuses Uganda of sending troops to help rebels in a deadly attack on UN peacekeepers. Rwanda and Uganda deny the charges.
October 18: Rwanda is elected to the UN Security Council.
October 19: UN Security Council adopts a statement demanding that all support for armed groups cease immediately and expresses deep concern at reports indicating that such support continues to be provided to the M23 by neighboring countries. It also expresses its intention to apply targeted sanctions against the leadership of M23 and those acting in violation of sanctions. The statement stresses the urgency of constructive engagement and dialogue between DRC and its neighbors, especially Rwanda. The presidential statement welcomes the work of the Group of Experts, though it does not address the Group’s latest annual report.
October 20: M23 announces that the rebels’ military branch has been renamed the Congolese Revolutionary Army and threatens to resume fighting if the government doesn’t negotiate.
October 29: Media reports suggest government troops and unidentified rebel forces clash at Sake in North Kivu, about 30 km west of the capital city Goma.
November 13: Uganda closes the Bunagana border crossing into DR Congo to economically weaken M23.
November 14: The United States government imposes sanctions (travel ban and asset freeze) against M23 leader Sultani Makenga a day after the United Nations added him to its sanctions list.
November 20: M23 fighters capture the strategic eastern city of Goma with little resistance from the army or UN peacekeepers. UN Security Council backs a resolution, adopted unanimously, calling for sanctions against M23 leadership and demanding an end to external support for the rebels. Congolese President Joseph Kabila holds emergency talks with his Rwandan and Ugandan counterparts in Kampala.
November 21: UN Group of Experts releases final version of the annual report.
November 26: Following the summit in Kampala, the Heads of State of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region members—which is currently chaired by Uganda and includes DRC and Rwanda—issues a declaration calling on M23 to withdraw at least 20 kilometers from Goma (but did not call on the M23 to disarm), and for MONUSCO to stand as a buffer between the M23 and the DRC army. The declaration also calls on the DRC government to negotiate with the M23 and “resolve the legitimate grievances of M23.”
November 28: UN Security Council extends arms embargo on DRC to February 2014 and condemns actions of the M23.
November 29: Congolese general pledges war to end the M23 rebellion; M23 is expected to withdraw from Goma by the end of the week.