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Why Rwanda supports M23 rebels in DR Congo's conflict

Martina Schwikowski
February 22, 2024

Fierce battles between Congolese troops and the M23 rebels in eastern DR Congo have intensified regional tensions. Experts say it points to worsening relations between Kigali and Kinshasa.

 A Congolese policeman faces Rwandan policemen stationed in Rubavu southeastern Rwanda on the border between the DRC and Rwanda.
Relations between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are at all time lowImage: Alain Wandimoyi/Afrikumages/IMAGO

Intense fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels is exacerbating the security crisis in eastern DR Congo. More than 100,000 civilians have been forced to flee in recent days as the M23 rebel fighters advance towards North Kivu's provincial capital, Goma, bordering Rwanda and Uganda.

The Congolese army and M23 have been fighting for control of Goma and the surrounding area for many years. In November 2012, M23 briefly seized Goma — a strategic city with approximately 1 million people — but the rebels later withdrew from Goma after an agreement with the government brokered by Uganda. The M23 (March 23 Movement) is among over 200 armed rebel groups in the mineral-rich eastern DRC. However, analysts say the M23 is the most significant threat to Congo's sovereignty due to its alleged ties with Rwanda.

A heavily armed M23 rebel leans on a vehicle in Kibumba in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group has set its sights on Goma, the provincial capital in North KivuImage: GLODY MURHABAZI/AFP via Getty Images

M23 serving Rwanda's interests 

Congo's multi-faceted conflict has spilled over into the wider Great Lakes region. Kinshasa has long accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels.   The United Nations also blames Kigali for funding, training, and equipping the M23 rebels.

Despite previous denials, Rwanda earlier this week rejected calls by the US for it to withdraw troops and missile systems, saying the military installments are in eastern DRC to defend Rwanda from the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), an armed rebel group whose members include alleged perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which nearly a million Tutsi were killed by Hutu militias. Many of them later fled to Congo to avoid facing justice in Rwanda.

"The M23 group has always served as a vehicle to protect Rwandan interests in eastern Congo," said Kristof Titeca, conflict researcher for Central and East Africa at the University of Antwerp. He told DW that Rwanda has political, security and economic interests in the DRC. "Rwanda sees the FDLR as a major threat to its security," Titeca said. "The Congolese army is collaborating with the FDLR, that angers Kigali." 

Displaced people are seen in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma, North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Renewed fighting between the Congolese soldiers and M23 rebels has forced thousands of people to flee Image: Zanem Nety Zaidi/Xinhua/IMAGO

Congo's gold as a source of revenue for Rwanda

Formal and informal trade between DR Congo and Rwanda is flourishing, especially in gold. "Gold is an important source of foreign currency for Kigali, and much of it comes from eastern Congo," Titeca said.

But it is not just its value that has placed gold at the heart of controversy. It occupies an important place in the geopolitical competition between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo, Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group, said in a report.

Before the M23 rebellion even began, Rwanda's largest export was Congolese gold, which rose from 1% in 2014 to 47% in 2020. "In Uganda, we can see a similar trend, culminating in 2021, when gold made up 56% of its exports", Stearns wrote.

According to analyst Titeca, Rwanda considers parts of eastern Congo as part of its sphere of influence. But in November 2021, the Ugandan army sent troops to the eastern DRC in a joint offensive with the Congolese army against the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) rebels.

Gold miners fill bags of soil containing gold at the Luhihi gold mine in the eastern province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Observers say a vast majority of gold from eastern DRC is illegally exported to neighboring countries, mainly Rwanda and UgandaImage: Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images

Uganda's role in DR Congo

The ADF, historically a Ugandan Muslim-majority rebel coalition, established itself in eastern DRC in 1995 and has operated for years along the border areas of both countries.

Uganda's intervention has further disrupted the fragile regional balance, Titeca says. "This is the main reason for the emergence of the M23 at the end of 2021."

This military rebel group, which consists mainly of ethnic Tutsis, broke away from the Congolese army just over ten years ago. In 2012, the rebels carried out a major offensive and captured Goma.

However, the M23 rebellion was crushed by the army in 2013, and the fighters and their leaders fled to Uganda and Rwanda, Titeca explained.

A negotiated peace agreement — seen as a crucial step towards ending the violence in eastern Congo, including the integration of the M23 into the Congolese army — has not been implemented.

The M23 group accuses the Congolese authorities of failing to combat the Rwandan Hutu rebels who settled in eastern Congo after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, as well as other armed groups that pose a threat to Congolese Tutsis.

"The resurgence of the M23 must be seen as a reflection of the deteriorating relations between Kinshasa and Kigali," Titeca added. 

A man rides on a motorbike carrying live goats and chicken.
Congolese inhabitants of Sake in North Kivu had to flee after it was attacked by M23 rebels advancing towards GomaImage: Benjamin Kasembe/DW

Efforts to find lasting peace

Angolan President Joao Lourenco hosted a mini-summit in Addis Ababa last week to revive peace efforts. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, and other heads of state participated.

For Johnson Butaragaza, former president of the North Kivu Youth Parliament, the positive aspect of this meeting was to prove Rwanda's direct involvement in the conflict. "Because if it were not Rwanda, the African Union would not be asking the DRC to engage in a dialogue with Rwanda, but rather with M23," Butaragaza told DW told DW.

The United Nations decided to end its 25-year peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) in eastern Congo by the end of 2024 at the request of President Felix Tshisekedi. A multinational force from South Africa's regional bloc (SADC) is stepping in, but observers say this could bring them into direct conflict with Rwanda.

Kristof Titeca says the key to resolving the crisis lies in Kigali. "The US has imposed some sanctions on individuals, but Rwanda remains a donor darling."

Rwanda remains a critical geopolitical player in the region. Many view it as an example of how donor aid should be implemented, with its efficient health sector cited as an example. Foreign states were very hesitant to sanction Rwanda, Titeca said.

However, Titeca does not believe a war between DRC and Rwanda is likely — the costs would be too high. "Furthermore, the Congolese army does not have the best reputation in terms of efficiency and functionality. The success of a Congolese operation would not be guaranteed."

Explainer: Insecurity in DR Congo

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu