Stepping out of his modest SUV in the middle of the night, Bertrand Bisimwa, president of the Congolese M23 militia, wore a large cowboy hat the kind best associated with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, or somebody from West Texas. Complete with matching coat his outfit clashed garishly with the camouflage uniforms of his guerrilla bodyguards. Bisimwa was being driven through the night to Kampala where he would engage in fruitless negotiations with the Congolese government and had agreed to briefly meet me in the Ugandan town of Kisoro.
Yet, despite the swagger such attire might suggest, Bisimwa was largely pessimistic about negotiations and proved to be an inept negotiator despite his alleged training as a lawyer. Bisimwa was as aware of his own short- comings as anyone else and during the height of the M23 rebellion he had used back channels to inquire about negotiations training from the UN. Throughout September he continually expanded his team in Kampala. Many members of M23 clearly wanted to transition into a political movement and lay down their arms but the real power lay with field commanders and their mostly Tutsi foot soldiers. This made it increasingly difficult for Bisimwa to reach a satisfactory negotiated conclusion.
The recent ceasefire for negotiations allowed the UN’s MONUSCO forces and the Congolese government to prepare an offensive in late October. Pouncing on M23 with the aid of helicopters, Congolese government forces moved quickly and captured the Congolese border town of Bunagana. Just days later, M23 chairman Bertrand Bisimwa signed an order effectively ending hostilities. In July 2012, M23 rebels captured the town when some 600 Congolese soldiers fled across the border into Uganda. In a few months the rebel militia, with just a few hundred soldiers, had seized an area larger than Bahrain.
Yet it was not until November last year when M23 captured the regionally important Congolese city of Goma that the rebel army shot to the world headlines. With unrest in other parts of the Congo rising and a disorganized MONUSCO force, the government of Joseph Kabila worried M23 might march on the capital. A move that would have reignited the Congolese Civil War which took place on an on-and-off basis between 1996 and the Democratic Republic’s elections in 2006. A series of tiny wars within small wars that took more lives than most large wars. Some 5.4 million people lost their lives during the period.
Yet, instead of marching on, Kinshasa focused on North Kivu where it believed it could appeal to the Rwandaphone community and use its control of the borders to dominate smuggling efforts. Goma was abandoned after two weeks to start negotiations. To fortify their control, M23 armed hundreds of cadres with 6 days of political training and a Kalashnikov.
During my own visit to Bunagana just weeks before the fall of the rebel “capital”, many of these cadres vowed to fight on despite the odds. Even though there were clear fuel shortages, a lack of fortified positions and no weapons heavier than rocket-propelled grenades. Thus, the determined Congolese Army dislodged them with ease. M23 also failed to turn the people against the Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Rwanda and Uganda, acting under international pressure, lost interest in supporting the group as well which was another key to the groups eventual failure.
Opportunities and Responsibilities
In the worst-case scenario, the M23 cadres might simply drift back to their villages and wait for a chance to launch a new rebellion. It has happened before. M23 grew out of a previous rebellion – the CNDP. After disarming in 2009, it went underground sowing the seeds of the M23 rebellion in 2012. M23 also claims to have developed cells in neighboring countries and within the Congolese Diaspora abroad.
The best way to avoid a new rebellion in the future would be to reach a settlement which includes the opportunity for certain M23 members to form a legitimate political party to address the needs of the Rwandaphone community in the Eastern Congo. At the same time, the international community must hold M23 figures involved in human rights abuses and smuggling operation in the Eastern Congo accountable.