Who are the rebels in Goma and what do they want?

M23 rebels have taken over a key city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Melanie Gouby/AP
People walk past as M23 rebel soldiers take positions near the Heal Africa hospital in the center of Goma, Congo. Rebels calling themselves the March 23 Movement have taken over the city of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Map of Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring African countries.

Rebels calling themselves the March 23 Movement have taken over the city of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The country has seen a number of armed factions fighting in the east over the years. Here's what you need to know about this latest conflict.

Who is fighting whom, and why?

The rebel force made up of deserters from the Congolese Army formed in the jungle hinterland of eastern Congo earlier this year, calling itself the March 23 Movement, after the date of a failed peace deal signed in 2009. It is now also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army. It is made up almost entirely of soldiers from the Tutsi tribe, who were folded into Congo’s national Army following an earlier rebellion in 2008, which led to the 2009 agreement. But Tutsi commanders claimed the Congolese government was failing to promote their troops, or to honor peace deal promises of better pay, and they mutinied in April, with between 1,500 and 2,500 troops. Since then, they have been at war with the Army. 

What are the rebels’ goals? 

On the face of it, they have been fighting to win control of territory that they can later agree to give up in return for guarantees that the conditions of the March 2009 peace treaty are honored. Now that they control Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo and a base for many international aid agencies and the United Nations, they have a very strong hand in future negotiations. Beyond this strategy, however, the area the rebels are fighting over has vast troves of valuable mineral resources, and controlling the mines is extremely lucrative. 

What is Rwanda’s involvement in this? 

In 2008, the precursor to the M23 was the CNDP, led by a Tutsi general called Laurent Nkunda, who was said to be close to Rwanda’s government and its president, Paul Kagame. Mr. Nkunda was arrested and is under house arrest in Rwanda. But many of the CNDP’s commanders and troops now man the M23. This new group initially appeared to be less connected to Rwanda, which has a long history of military and political interference in its giant neighbor. However, a report to the UN Security Council in October claimed that Rwanda and Uganda were arming and financing the rebels, and in Rwanda’s case, supplying troops. Rwanda has strongly denied this. 

Why would Rwanda want to get involved? 

Ostensibly, to protect its border, and because it claims that Congo has failed to crush an armed group in its east made up of Hutu people who allegedly led Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. It was for this reason that Rwanda invaded Congo in 1996, installing a pro-Rwandan president, Laurent Kabila, as president in Kinshasa. Kabila and Rwanda later fell out, and central Africa fell into five years of war. Rwanda’s involvement may not, however, be limited to politics – eastern Congo is awash with minerals, and Rwanda reportedly supports rebel groups so that it can maintain access to mines producing gold, tin, and coltan, used in almost all consumer electronics, including mobile phones. 

Goma has fallen to the M23. What now? 

In the short term, the main concern is twofold. First, that the M23 rebels will go on a rampage of looting, rape, and violence. However, it appears that troops are well-disciplined, and in the past civilians have had more to fear from the temperamental Congolese armed forces, FARDC. The other concern is that the FARDC will be ordered back to Goma to fight to regain control, which would lead to high numbers of civilian casualties. Alongside these pressing worries, there are already more than 350,000 people camped in and around Goma who fled further fighting. If Goma remains unstable, aid workers cannot feed, shelter, and medically help those internally displaced people. Longer term, assuming M23 remains well-behaved, aid staff will continue their work until expected peace negotiations between the rebels and Kinshasa conclude. 

What can the international community do to help? 

The United Nations mission in Congo, called Monusco, is huge – 19,000 uniformed and 4,000 civilian staff. Its mandate is to protect civilians, which is why it had no legal requirement to halt the rebels’ advance on Goma if civilians were not caught in the crossfire in large numbers, which so far they have not been. It remains to be seen how Monusco will react to operating under M23 rule. Globally, Britain, the EU, and the US appear to have decided that blanket condemnations of the violence suffices. Perhaps the greatest lever the West has is to threaten further disruption of aid to Rwanda unless it uses its influence on the M23 – which Kigali denies it has – to force them to a quick settlement.

It appears that this is a never-ending cycle of violence. How can it end? 

With great difficulty. Lasting peace requires that Rwanda halt its interference, with the Hutu rebels it seeks to be sent back to Rwanda to face justice. Equitable sharing of resources from the mines to benefit local people is necessary, as is greater trust from people living in Congo’s east that Kinshasa listens to its concerns. The Congolese Army requires a complete disciplinary, and some would say cultural, overhaul. At least a half dozen previous attempts to tick all of these boxes have failed. 

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