DRC situation set to improve after M23 rebel surrender

DRC situation set to improve after M23 rebel surrender

The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo has improved as international and domestic efforts come close to reaching a peace deal that would include the full surrender of the M23 rebel group. While a promising development, the situation is still fragile.

As opposed to most news coming out of the huge, mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), negotiations with the M23 rebel group have brought about waves of optimism and international congratulations. Even though the DRC and rebels have yet to agree on a full peace deal, many feel this is a promising sign for stability in the future.

The M23 rebel group, which has been active since early 2012, has been one of the most disrupting forces in the conflict-prone central African state. Their rebellious uprising, including an occupation of the large city of Goma last November, is blamed for displacing up to 800,000 people. However, M23 leader Colonel Sultani Makenga has now surrendered and disarmed along with 1,700 of his troops after fleeing over the border to Uganda. M23 now plans to pursue their interests on a more acceptable political path, and a full peace deal is likely.

While there still remain many smaller rebel factions out there, this victory has demonstrated the positive benefits that revamping the DRC military can produce. Old, corrupted military leaders have been slowly replaced by more controllable ones, and international support from the US and others has helped to modernize their equipment. It is hopeful that the M23’s military cessation will also fragment other rebellious groups and make the army’s future operations easier.

But the Congolese military could not have produced these results on their own, and many of the key elements in the victory over M23 took place on the international stage. Several rebel groups in Eastern DRC including M23 are said to represent the interests of Tutsi minorities and the elite in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. As such, a recent UN panel has accused both countries of providing recruits and equipment to the rebel groups and called for sanctions against them. Though both Uganda and Rwanda have denied these allegations, some say the international pressure has effectively dissuaded the DRC’s neighbors from providing further support

Coupled with weakening cross-border support for M23, the UN also chose to ante-up its own contributions by introducing a 3,000-person ‘intervention brigade’ on August 28. The brigade, called FIB, brought on immediate success in pushing the rebels back from Goma, and Makenga’s surrender can largely be linked to their arrival. The FIB is better equipped – having tanks, APCs, and special forces at their disposal – than the rebels and the DRC’s army, and is crucially authorized to ‘shoot first’ unlike other UN troops.

The UN’s decision to turn towards ‘peace-enforcement’ instead of ‘peacekeeping’ seems to be paying off, and will act as a precedent for future operations in the area, even if the UN currently rejects this train of thought. If increasingly offensive UN troops manage to avoid disgraces such as rape and civilian casualties – and help to keep DRC soldiers in check as well – then we can expect to see similar, stronger efforts aimed at the remaining rebel groups in the conflict zone and elsewhere.

These encouraging developments come at a time when GDP growth in the DRC is expected to reach more than 9 percent next year, and will help ensure those expectations become reality. Also, during the few years of relatively little conflict before M23 emerged, the DRC enjoyed healthy trade with its regional neighbors, including Uganda and Rwanda. Now, with fewer tensions on the border, we can hope to see that kind of activity return and promote reinforcing economic links between states.

All in all, the disarmament of the M23 rebels is a welcome improvement to a horrible situation, but this does not mean all things will be rosy. The DRC military and international players must ensure that this victory is not overshadowed by failures at keeping other fighters such as FDLR from filling in the power gap left by M23. It is also important to prevent the DRC army itself from continuing its controversial history of human rights abuses and internal division. The behavior the military displayed in recent months when battling the M23 has often been remarked upon for its acceptable order, and efforts will have to be made to ensure it stays on the right track. It will also be critical that the rebels and DRC government sign a full peace deal soon to avoid a relapse in tensions.

Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see how well things can go when all the blocks fall into place, and there is a fairly good chance that the DRC’s situation will start to look better soon. The conflict in the eastern DRC is, at the moment, being met with the right kinds of policies, and successes such as toppling M23 are likely to help keep up pressure and improve living conditions, regional ties, and investment opportunities.

About Author

Karl Sorri

Karl has gained global experience working at the Transparency International Secretariat in Berlin, the Political/Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, and as a freelance journalist. Karl holds an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.