M23 Triumphs: Protest or Revolution?

2 Dec

2012-11-21T200916Z_3_CBRE8AK0O7A00_RTROPTP_2_CONGO-DEMOCRATIC

M23 Soldiers Enter Goma: Photograph by James Akena , Reuters

In the middle of the night last April around two hundred Congolese soldiers silently withdrew from their barracks located in Northern Kivu District and headed into the surrounding countryside. All had served in the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), a Tutsi militia during the Second War in the Congo that ended in 2009. These men were experienced warriors who had not left their posts out of fear but from a need to publically expose the intolerable conditions under which they currently served in the Congolese Army. They blamed Joseph Kabila, President of the DR Congo for refusing to grant them the military ranks they had previously held in the CNDP after having been inducted into the Congolese Army at the very end of the war. They had been awarded these ranks as part of the conditions stipulated in the formal peace accord that had ended the Second War in the Congo in 2009. They objected to the way they were being openly discriminated against by the Army’s commanding officers just because they were Tutsi. They also wanted to publicize the way in which civilian members of the Tutsi tribe in north-eastern DRCongo were being openly harassed even murdered by angry mobs of individuals from other tribes. They had selected the name M23 based on the specific date of March 23rd, the day the peace accord had been formally accepted.  For whatever reason, they left the same night troops loyal to the warlord Bosco Ntaganda also deserted to join him in the forest but the M23 rebels have been quite emphatic in their claim that they do not serve Ntaganda and are in no way connected to the former CNDP military commander even though he  is a member of the Tutsi tribe and originally from Rwanda.

Reporters across Africa, including those from the mighty BBC wrote them off as a “fly-by night” group of deserters predicting that this “rag-taggle” group would be quickly subdued in a short amount of time by the more powerful and better equipped Congolese Army. And it certainly did seem that way at first but then M23 began winning small skirmishes fought against the Congolese Army. Soon the rebels were winning full scale battles and started taking over entire towns. To the utter amazement of everyone but the countries of Rwanda and Uganda, new recruits continued to join their group, their military tactics vastly improved, and miraculously they never ran of weapons or ammunition. By August they were a noteworthy item again and reporters from Al Jazeera sought them out to give them an opportunity to air their grievances by mobile phone and they did. This week they stated that their final goal had expanded from that of improving their tours of duty in the Congolese Army and publicizing the racial prejudice that currently divided Kivu District to “liberating” the entire country. Prior to taking the city of Goma on the third Tuesday in November, the rebels had sought to draw Kabila into negotiations but this goal had radically changed by August and now they are focused on revolution. They no longer seem interested in retribution in their press releases but have called for the establishment of an entirely new government- one in which Joseph Kabila is not president. Somewhere before the taking of Goma M23 renamed its army and now refers to its forces as “The Congolese Revolutionary Army” – or ARC for short, based on its French acronym. Local informants have claimed that hundreds of former  Congolese Army soldiers ( FARDC) and municipal police officers have willingly joined their ranks which they claim have increased from a couple hundred to more than 4,000 men.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is 1/4 of the size of the total area that makes up the United States of America. As large as it is, it is one of the poorest countries in the world -listed at the very bottom of the U.N.’s Human Development Index. The entire country has yet to be connected by roads, let alone highways. It is an extremely difficult  place in which to travel and no one just hops in his car and drives across the country to Kinshasa. Most villagers are transported by private buses that travel within a set route among a limited range of villages located in the same districts or catch rides from the heavy trucks coming or leaving the country for the Kenyan seaport of Mombasa. Four wheel vehicles are expensive and usually only rich people like NGO’s, and the military have enough wealth and resources to own them. Even then, these SUV’s must carry everything they will need to ensure a safe trip including a “safe hole” in the vehicle within which to store money and passports, at least five bottles of whiskey used as bribes with marauding gangs, Congolese soldiers, and tribal leaders along the way, and an assortment of rifles and ammunition with which to repel attempts at robbery or attacks by wild animals. The absolute necessities include 4 extra tires, replacable car parts like water hoses and wires, and lots of gasoline packed in aluminum cans – enough to make the trip there and back. Professional drivers and safari guides  have learned the hard way- no one expects that they will encounter gas stations along the way and even if they do, because of the fighting in the east, these stations may not have any gasoline left in their pumps. Once a person moves beyond the city limits, gasoline is an expensive and scarce commodity. There is no national infrastructure and the farther one travels east the more primitive the dwellings and roads become until you find yourself driving by small mud huts on grass- covered foot trails. That is why anyone with resources like a government offcial or business executive travels by means of small “bush” airplanes when crossing this vast country.

For his part Kabila has consistently refused to enter into negotiations with M23 but did agreed to sit down with officials from Rwanda and Uganda- the same countries his father fought against in the second war in the Congo. There is no doubt in my mind that these are also the same countries that have been supplying M23’s army with men, military training, and weaponry since the fighting began in earnest last May.    But after the city of Goma’s fateful fall last Tuesday and with M23 moving towards  Bukava,  Kabila made a quick about- face and reversed his position. He now claims that he will investigate M23’s grievances. Goma is a pivotal city in controlling northern Kivu district because it’s one of the provincial capitals and home to at least a million people. It is also located near the border with Rwanda.

By Wednesday the fighting had stopped in the city and M23 had organized a peaceful victory rally at the largest soccer stadium in Goma. “The journey to liberate Congo has begun,” Vianney Kazarama, spokesman for M23, cried out to a crowd of over one thousand people. “We’re going to move on to Bukavu, and then we will go to Kinshasa.” Although many residents were scared and expected the soldiers to shoot them, then loot the city, this did not happen. Once the M23 rebels had secured the town the soldiers left the populace of Goma unharmed. There were no reports of rape, theft, or murder perpetrated by the victorious troops which usually occurred when there was a change of control in armies during the second war in the Congo. “The M23 rebels say they want to bring change,” a man who identified himself as Peter offered as soldiers walked past him in their new green fatigues and were greeted as heroes by small groups of supporters. “But we don’t want to hear them, we need to see what they will do for us.”

A separate force of rebels left Goma Wednesday morning  and reached the town of Sake, a 15 mile trek by the mid-afternoon where Congolese troops had regrouped only to move out of the town before fighting could commence. The M23 troops overtook the town with no opposition then moved on to assume control of the main road leading by Lake Kivu and into Bukavu.

So far M23 has conducted itself with honor and established administrative centers that provide healthcare, police training, and proper sanitation in the towns it governs. Contrary to the negative rumours spread by government officials in Kinshasa about how M23 had conscripted children, raped women, and looted buildings upon entering villages none of the people of northern Kivu District have supplied honest testimonies that attest to this type of behavior. No one has been able to substantiate that serious human rights abuses against the civilian population have been perpetrated by M23 troops. But these men will not win support easily. They are still Tutsi warriors and systemic prejudices against their tribe die hard. There are villagers from other tribes in the area who will not trust them just because they are Tutsi unless the members of M23 offer these people something that they have never known before: a peaceful, safe, and prosperous environment in which to live. If M23 can do this as they wage their revolution then they may just find that the villagers will eventually come to think differently of them and join their cause.

 “Before, we didn’t have medical services,” said Jean Sebagabo, a 37-year-old cattle farmer in Runyoni, which has been under rebel control for months. “Now the rebels are providing free treatment to my son.”

And M23’s honest solicitude may just be working. Kivu residents are thoroughly disgusted with Kabila, who has allowed the Hutu Interharambe (Hutu responsible for the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda) to reside in the mountainous forests in northern Kivu for years. They have even prospered by habitually raiding local villages to take by force what little food the residents have managed to harvest. Kabila has protected warlords like Ntaganda who lived like a king in Goma right under the noses of the United Nations Mission there even though he had been formally indicted by the International Criminal Court ( ICC). Kabila even failed to suppress the local Mai- Mai militias who were responsible for “repeated, serious violence” against members of the Tutsi ethnic group and any other tribes that stood in their way.

“Joseph Kabila has shown he can’t run the country,” Bishop Jean Marie Runiga, civilian president of M23 replied. “The population is living in appalling poverty, the army doesn’t work, and the police are corrupt, so why should we support the president?” M23 has even created its own website on which it clearly states its position and its goals in order to garner support from a world audience..”We gave the army a new name to show people that we’re not a rebellion but a revolution, and we intend to bring change,” he said. “M23 is … a movement for everyone.”

http://www.m23mars.org/ 

And what’s up with the UN peacekeepers? As the M23 rebels entered Goma just after the Congolese soldiers fled the city United Nations soldiers at the regional headquarters there (MONUSCO), had their helicopters fire rockets at the rebels but then simply stood by and watched as the city fell and the M23 troops moved into the city.”Since the occupation of Goma by M23, there have been violent protests and demonstrations aimed at the U.N. staff and facilities,” Roger Meese said. “The risk of seeing this spread to other cities in the Congo is not to be excluded.” The residents of the city were frustrated at the refusal of the UN troops to help save their city from the rebels.

The question of the hour- Is M23 a protest composed of a small group of  Tutsi soldiers serving in the Congolese Army, or is it a cleverly orchestrated invasion masterminded by the country of Rwanda that has vowed to eliminate the rest of the Hutu Interharambe from the DR Congo and  also help itself to this region’s vast mineral wealth. In miles, Rwanda is actually much closer to the Kivu Districts than the capital of Kinshasa where President Kabila resides. Both Rwanda and Uganda deny these charges but Kabila went straight to the Presidents of Rwanda and Uganda in order to interceed on his behalf with the M23 rebals and in no time at all the rebels agreed to leave Goma.   To most people living around Kivu District, Kinshasa is as vague an idea as living on the moon. Human Rights groups in the area have continuously reported that both Uganda and Rwanda have conducted illegal mining operations in north Kivu district for years. If fact, they suggest that neither country stopped mining after the Second War in the Congo ended, they just laid low for a short period of time then resumed their operations as usual. But the area these mines can potentially cover is so vast that no one quite knows for sure. There is also a distinct possibility that both northern and southern Kivu districts may secede from the DRCongo and either become their own country or annex themslves to Rwanda and Uganda. I think that there is a very good chance that things may play out this way and that MONUSCO is very aware of the upcoming changes to their mission. The people of the northeast districts have suffered through two wars and two decades of continuous fighting that have left millions dead and  has allowed murderous warlords and hostile militias to  benefit from its estimated 42 billion US dollars in mineral wealth with no real help from their President. Kabila’s own Congolese troops have been filmed  by several Human Rights groups operating their own mines for profit and enslaving local villagers to work in these mines. The residents of the city of Goma have much closer connections to the border towns of Rwanda than the ever-distant capital of Kinshasa; they share a common culture and tribal heritage with the larger Rwandan cities.  Tens of  thousands of Congolese citizens have currently crossed the borders into Rwanda and Uganda seeking asylum in the refugee camps that have been established as a result of the conflict between M23 and FARDC.   

What role will Rwanda and Uganda actually play in determining whether President Joseph Kabila’s survives this insurgency, especially as theM23 troops begin to move across miles of  deep jungle in order to remove him from power. The three leaders met to discuss this in mid-November in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. Right now, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda seem to be backing Kabila urging M23 to halt the fighting and pull out of Goma “immediately” but what is their ultimate goal?

Was this meeting just for show?  Recent United Nation reports have accused Rwanda and Uganda of financially backing the M23 rebels, a charge that both countries deny and one United Nations report has gone as far as to specifically accuse Rwanda’s Minister of Defense, General James Kabarebe of leading and orchestrating the M23 revolt. Regardless of the outcome, this conflict is and always was a matter of Tutsis intervening  to defend their fellow Tutsis from harm.

National Liberation Day is observed on May 17th each year in the DR Congo. This May 17th, 2013, who will be sitting in the president’s office and in control the government? Will Joseph Kabila have survived the M23 revolt or will another man have taken his place in Kinshasa, or will North/South Kivu Districts have seceded from DRCongo and created their own country; one aligned to Rwanda and Uganda? If the last scenario occurs Rwanda will immediately enter Kivu District and finally eradicate the remainder of the Hutu extremists located there. This has been a priority for Paul Kangame throughout his entire presidency. Ironically it was Laurent Kabila who came from the same Northeastern Kivu district decades earlier to wrestle the presidency of the country from the dictator Seko Mobuto and his son, Joseph Kabila knows this well. He understands how easily a revolution could topple his rule and dismantle his government. Two things we do know about M23 at this point in time: 1.) the M23 rebels have no intention of ending the fighting and 2.) this movement has escalated from a local protest into a full- blown revolution.

Kat Nickerson    Kingston, RI     USA

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