The strength of Congo’s rebel groups

As M23 revels leave Goma, there is a general feeling they could return back quite soon.

As our team drives out of our Goma hotel, we are told to wait at the barrier. The police commissioner of Goma has just returned to this city. Twelve bodyguards with ray ban sunglasses, clutching semi-automatic rifles and even RPGs surround his car. As we observe the spectacle, someone says under his breath “where were these officers, 2 weeks ago?” I couldn’t help pondering that question, how could a well-armed UN backed national army and police force prefer to desert a major City than stand and fight around a thousands rebels?

Jason Stearns from the Rift Valley Institute knows more than most about why rebel groups are able to succeed in this part of the world. He says the key with M23, is “the fact that there are local elites here in Goma, and across the border in Rwanda that feel that their interests are not guaranteed by this corrupt Congolese state, without having an armed force to protect them. And that does make North Kivu, and Goma much more violent than other places in the country.”

Poverty and Corruption

There is no doubt some of the strength of rebel groups like M23 lies in the weakness of the Congolese Army and State. Here are some examples, in September, local radio and newspapers reported that around $15 million dollars which was supposed to go towards the army’s costs, went missing.  

On Monday, the IMF stopped a planned $240 million loans to the DR Congo for failing to publish mining contracts as requested.

It is astounding how a country rich in gold, and diamonds, can be among the world’s poorest. Last year, the United Nations Development Program ranked Congo the least-developed country in the world, and DR Congo remains near the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Outside assistance?

However, there may be other explanations for the strength of a rebel group like M23, as there is growing evidence of outside interference and support. When M23 was leaving, a number of Government cars were reportedly stolen by members of the rebel group. When we asked eyewitnesses where the cars had been taken, almost all of them laughed at the question, and replied  “Rwanda, of course.”

Recently, a group of experts tasked by the UN Security Council presented new evidence alleging M23 received “direct support” from the Rwandan Defence Force to capture Goma. The allegations, which were in a letter to the Security Council, said that “a mixture of M23 and RDF troops clandestinely entered into Goma from the Rwandan town of Gisenyi through small streets situated between the town’s two official border crossings”. This is likely to incense the Rwandans, who vehemently deny any such assistance.  

A disciplined Rebel Force?

There are however, other reasons why M23 has succeeded while other groups have failed. Having watched and observed the group close up since they first started out in April. I can tell you their discipline and organisation are the key reasons why it was able to control a City of a few million with just a few hundred fighters. Although there are reports that in the last few days before their departure there were incidents of looting, and intimidation of local people.

Even in the remotest outposts of the group in Masisi, none of the soldiers would talk to us unless they had direct command from their leader General Sultani Makenga. Moreover, if we offered their soldiers anything, from a bottle of water, to a cigarette, they would not accept unless they received the nod from their commanding officer.

When the rebels started withdrawing from the hills surrounding Sake on foot, they walked determinedly, in a single file, without complaint, and without stopping unless they were ordered to do so.

As I watched the last of their fighters leave Goma, I wondered if M23 was closer or further to achieving its aims, and whether it would be back.

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