Q&A: Who are DR Congo’s M23 rebels?

Rebels fighting in country’s east have been accused by rights groups of widespread atrocities, including rape.

MONUSCO prepares for M23 advance
MONUSCO, the UN mission in DR Congo, now has the mandate to fight rebels when they threaten civilians [AFP]

Rebel fighters known as M23 have agreed to disarm after suffering a number of defeats against government troops of the Democratic Republic of Congo and UN-backed forces. 

Who are the M23 rebels?

The rebels are named after a peace agreement they signed with the Congolese government on March 23, 2009 when they were fighting as part of a group calling itself the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Many CNDP fighters were integrated into the Congolese army, officially known by its French initials FARDC.

The rebels belong to the minority Tutsi ethnic group and have close ties to the Tutsi in neighbouring Rwanda. Their rebellion began in April 2012 when they mutinied. At that time, the CNDP was led by Bosco Ntaganda who is now at The Hague in the Netherlands where he is awaiting trial by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the north east of the country from 2002 to 2003.

The group’s senior leaders include Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero who serves as its president. General Sultani Makenga heads the movement’s military wing.

International human rights groups say M23 fighters have been responsible for widespread war crimes, including summary executions, rapes, and the forced recruitment of children. In March 2013, following infighting between two M23 factions, Ntaganda turned himself in to the United States embassy in Rwanda and was extradited to The Hague.

Why the rebellion?

The rebels say they started their rebellion because they were not happy with the pay and conditions in the Congolese army. But Congolese government officials and analysts say the mutiny began when the government came under pressure to arrest Ntaganda and hand him over to the ICC.

Given the fact that M23 is a ragtag army, and the vast 1136km distance between Goma and Kinshasa, it is highly unlikely that the rebels can topple the government. But they have continued to fight, sometimes emerging victorious after battles with poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers. Many say the rebellion is fuelled by the presence of vast mineral resources in eastern DR Congo, claiming the rebels want to win control of them.

What is the role of neighbouring countries? 

A ceasefire that was signed earlier this year was brokered by neighbouring countries, including Uganda, which borders DR Congo to the west. Rwanda, accused by DR Congo of backing M23, was also involved. Kigali denies the accusations of backing the rebels but both Kinshasa and UN investigators insist the M23 has received support from the Rwandan military.

Many also wonder how Ntaganda managed to cross into Rwanda and get to the US embassy in Kigali if he did not have any help from the Rwandan government.

What is the UN peacekeeping mission doing?

The United Nation has had peacekeepers in eastern DR Congo for more than a decade, but they have done little to pacify the region. However, in March the Security Council approved the creation of its first-ever “offensive” combat force to “neutralize and disarm” M23 and other Congolese rebels and foreign-armed groups in DR Congo. In August, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission ordered peacekeepers to take the “necessary action” to protect civilians and prevent armed groups from advancing in the North Kivu province in response to the renewed fighting.

Source: Al Jazeera