In recent months, we have seen renewed large-scale fighting and a new wave of displaced in the Kivu provinces of eastern DRC. The current upheaval started in April, when an important faction of the former CNDP rebel group, who had integrated into the Congolese military (FARDC) in 2009, deserted and launched a new rebellion in North Kivu. This group took the name of “M23” after the peace accord between the CNDP and the DR Government signed on March 23 2009. In various offensives over the last months, the M23 have occupied substantial parts of Rutshuru territory, revealing once more the operational weaknesses of the military from which they defected.
Who then are the M23? Where do they come from? And how can the present rebellion be understood? Surely, the M23 rebellion has several dimensions: it is deeply entangled both in regional power politics, as demonstrated by the documented Rwandan support to the group, as well as provincial-level conflicts over economic, political and military influence. More long-standing, local ethnic antagonisms and conflicts over access to land also feed into it. In this blog post, we intend to highlight one specific dimension of the underlying processes that contributed to the creation of the M23, namely the politics of military integration adopted by the DR Government, with strong encouragement of its international partners. Seen from this angle, the current rebellion did not come in any way as a surprise, but is an expected result of a failed military integration process and the politics of integration more widely.
The mixed results of initial military merging
In contrast to Liberia, which opted to start “from scratch” by creating a new army in the post-war era, the DRC chose military integration. The negotiated settlement that officially ended the Second War (1998-2002) stipulated the merging of the fighting forces of all belligerents into a new national army, the FARDC. These military forces were generally part of wider political-economic networks that had gained prominence during the war. Reluctant to give up control over the economic structures, fiefdoms and constituencies they had built up, several factions of the groups-to-be-integrated, especially in eastern DRC, tried to manipulate the integration process by refusing their integrated troops to be deployed far from their former zones of influence, or simply by refusing to integrate altogether.
A part of the armed wing of the biggest rebel faction, the RCD-G, whose leadership was dominated by Congolese Tutsis and Hutus, was among those powerful enough to resist integration. Their political-economic networks provided important autonomous sources of revenue, and were trans-boundary in nature, with strong connections to elements in Rwanda, making integration into the FARDC an unattractive alternative. Additionally, they feared for the security of the Tutsi community in North Kivu, a fear that they however inflated and instrumentalized in order to justify their refusal to send their troops into the FARDC. It was from the leadership of this dissident faction of the RCD-G that the CNDP issued in 2006.
However, it was not only a part of the RCD-G that refused to integrate: numerous smaller factions, like certain Mai Mai groups, also sabotaged or manipulated the process. As a consequence, the first wave of integration (2003-2008) left numerous un-integrated or only theoretically integrated forces on the ground, creating what was essentially a military mess in eastern DRC. The Government’s preferred solution to this, in part stemming from its weak military and organizational capacities, was a wait-and-see attitude, hoping that with sufficient negotiations and promises residual armed forces could still be enticed to join. This open door policy had profound implications for conflict dynamics in eastern DRC. The absence of solid military pressure on non-integrated forces, as well as the promises of high ranks and good positions for those (re)joining the military, turned military integration into a political resource, with groups threatening to refuse or withdraw in case their demands were not met.
An open door and carrots only policy: continued military integration
A failed attempt to integrate the dissidents of the CNDP in the course of 2007, during which they managed to gain strength due to the conditions of negotiation they had imposed, bore vivid testimony to this essentially opportunistic attitude towards integration into the FARDC. A massive peace conference organized in North Kivu’s capital Goma in 2008, which aimed to assemble all remaining armed groups in the Kivus, further skewed incentive structures towards violence: by doling out generous benefit packages and promises for military and administrative positions, military and political entrepreneurs were mobilized to either create new groups or revive dormant ones. Hence, the effects of the “peace” conference were strongly counterproductive. By rewarding armed groups, it sent once more a signal that violence pays. Not surprisingly, many of the groups who signed the cease-fire agreement at the Conference later withdrew from the “peace” process. This group included the militarily strong CNDP, paving the way for a new round of fighting.
The 2008 CNDP offensive ended in humiliation for the FARDC, which proved again too weak to face a much less numerous enemy. In order to resolve this latest episode of crisis, an overnight and little transparent deal was made, which involved the CNDP’s regional backer Rwanda. This translated into the March 23 agreement, which led to the integration of the CNDP and some smaller armed groups into the FARDC. As negotiations were carried out in a position of weakness from the Congolese side, the price to buy the CNDP’s “loyalty” was high. Therefore, in exchange for integration, the CNDP not only obtained an impressive amount of important command positions within the newly created operational structures in the Kivus, they were also granted privileged access to lucrative areas of deployment, extending their influence far beyond their traditional strongholds. This privileged treatment of the ex-CNDP created frustration among the other parts of the army, thus further weakening internal cohesion while triggering renewed desertions.
As the CNDP continued to exist as a parallel and influential structure within the FARDC, their integration became conditional upon their on-going access to pay-offs, mostly in the form of control over lucrative areas and economic networks. The subsequent situation qualifies for a catch-22, as reducing the CNDP’s influence within the FARDC would imply wresting control over their autonomous sources of revenue, while it was precisely this autonomous economic base that enabled them to withstand pressure from the DR Government. Hence, the latter was essentially held hostage.
Efforts to dilute the CNDP’s power and the rise of the M23
This uncomfortable position became painfully clear when the Presidential circle tried to dilute the CNDP’s power in the Kivus at the end of 2010. They did so by pushing for the redeployment of a part of the CNDP’s troops elsewhere, as well as by pronouncing a temporary ban on mining activities, which partly aimed to reduce military actors’ (including the ex-CNDP) grip over the sector. However, none of these measures were effective and the CNDP simply refused redeployment. After his contentious re-election end 2011, President Joseph Kabila renewed efforts to dismantle the CNDP’s power network in the Kivus, partly in a bid to boost his domestic and international popularity and restore a part of his dented legitimacy. Bolstered by support from Rwanda, to which the ex-CNDP network had remained closely linked, sections of the CNDP revolted against these renewed attempts to dilute their influence, deserted, and created the M23.
By referring to the DR Government’s non-respect for the March 23 agreements, and claiming that their main purpose is to make their voices heard, the M23 appears to be geared towards the creation of a stronger position for future negotiations. Hence, while the rise and dynamics of the M23 is surely more complex than this, it is clearly partly a product of the “violence pays” logic that the DR Government, with international encouragement, has promoted through its policy of military integration.
A farewell to a flawed policy?
As we have argued elsewhere, military integration has created a vicious cycle. Not only the M23 itself, but also the incapacity of the FARDC to tackle this rebellion are a direct outcome of this vicious cycle. The question is now how the DR Government and foreign donors will deal with this legacy? Mid-2011, when a military re-structuring process was launched in the Kivus, the Government officially declared an end to the policy of (re)integrating armed groups and army defectors. Up to now it has stuck to this position in its dealings with M23, at least in its public declarations. This is, we argue, a positive step that should be further encouraged.
We are not, in any way, suggesting that the M23 lack any legitimate claims or that the Government should not negotiate with them. However, we suggest that as the M23 is a direct outcome of a failed policy of military integration, tackling this rebellion by merely applying the same policy will not produce any lasting solutions. Integrating armed groups while leaving them close to their supporting political-economic networks and strongholds will strengthen, rather than weaken them. At the same time, it creates divisions within the military, and destroys meritocracy, as positions and ranks get to be distributed on the basis of political criteria only.
Any new peace-agreement with the M23 which would repeat this flawed policy will therefore not only have serious detrimental effects on military reform in the DRC but will also encourage a further militarization of the Kivus, by once again, sending the message that “violence pays”. Hopefully, the DR Government and relevant international players will ensure that a different message is broadcast this time.
Maria Eriksson Baaz is Associate Professor at the Nordic Africa Institute and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and the Faculty of Military Sciences at the Netherlands Defense Academy. Some of the arguments raised here also appeared in a shorter posting at Congo Siasa.