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Interview with Bertrand Bisimwa, M23 Spokesperson

Just before the M23 left Goma this morning, I spoke with Bertrand Bisimwa, their spokesperson. This is a transcription and a translation from French.

Can you explain the goals of your movement? You began in April demanding the implementation of the March 23, 2009 agreement, but since then you have put forward demands that go far beyond that.

The M23 is made up of armed groups that signed the March 23 agreement. We started by asking for the implementation of that deal. The government fought us, saying we didn’t have the right to demand that. Then we reflected on the situation in the country and saw that many other things had happened since the March 23 agreement, things linked to governance and the legitimacy of Joseph Kabila. We couldn’t not integrate these new facts into the demands of our movement. So today, in addition to the March 23 agreement we want good governance in the country and a legitimate government.

Precisely – when you talk about legitimacy and the rigged elections, didn’t ex-CNDP soldiers help rig those elections in Masisi?

You have to realize that not all ex-CNDP joined the M23. In fact, most didn’t. It was these others, those who didn’t join, who helped rig the elections in Kabila’s favor in Masisi. But also, cheating didn’t start with the elections, it started with the changing of the constitution by Kabila, which allowed him to be elected by a minority of Congolese. It all started there.

In his press conference at the Ihusi Hotel this week, M23 President Runiga put forward a list of demands that include many points that Kabila will be very reluctant to negotiate with you, like dissolving the electoral commission, arresting General John Numbi and the liberation of political prisoners. Did you set the bar too high?

Those were not demands by the M23, but confidence-building measures we wanted to see in order to create a good climate for negotiations. Those negotiations will then focus on the governance of the country, the problems of Congolese society.

Bertrand Bisimwa,

What exactly do you want in those negotiations?

We have a cahier des charges that lists our demands, but it isn’t public yet. We want, above all, a vision for the development of the country that includes infrastructures, employment. security in the east of the country, and the return of refugees––from Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. We also want to discuss the form of the state, we want a state that is more decentralized that the current constitution states. We will, of course, also need guarantees that Kabila will carry out these reforms.

But won’t the reintegration of your troops and cadres be one of the fundamental points of negotiation?

Integration is a measure that will follow once our demands have been answered. We are fighting for these grievances, as soon as we can find an agreement an on these points, we can proceed to figure out how to do reintegration.

You mention that you need guarantees from Kabila. You obviously have very little faith that Kabila will keep his word. What kind of guarantees can he provide?

We can agree on military reintegration and collaboration with the Congolese army without dissolving our troops. One example that I think about a lot is the Ivory Coast. There, the Forces Nouvelles were in a power-sharing government while their troops were still controlling the north of the country. Guillaume Soro was the prime minister while the country was still split. Kinshasa can maintain authority over the East without dissolving our troops.

What about political power-sharing, isn’t that one of your demands?

No, it’s not that important for us. If we can agree on our demands, as well as calendar for their implementation in time and space, that’s enough for us. Many of us don’t even want to have positions in government. But there needs to be follow-up, at the end of every month we need to sit together to evaluate the implementation of the deal.

You emphasize that you are a multi-ethnic group. That is true for your political wing, but not for the top military leadership, which is mostly from the Tutsi community. Is that a problem for you, given that many Congolese see you as a Tutsi movement supported by Rwanda?

The Tutsi are emblematic, they are easy to notice. If you, for example, sit down at a table with eight Africans, you will stick out because you are white. The same goes for Tutsi. In our army, Tutsi are in the minority if you look at the whole army. There are many Tutsi in the leadership, but you have to understand that Tutsi have been discriminated against more than other Congolese communities. This has made them react and mobilize more than others. When we constituted our army, we chose officers based on merit, and Tutsi officers were in a good position.

Now you are withdrawing from town in order to negotiate. But what will you do if Kabila does not negotiate?

We are also certain that he won’t negotiate. There is no credibility in his promises. Since the RCD, he has been tricking the Congolese people. We are almost sure he won’t negotiate – Lambert Mende said so, and he speaks for the government, and General Olenga said it, and he speaks for the army. In the end, the Congolese people will decide, we all share the same suffering. If the Congolese people decide to get rid of Kabila, we can do so. We won’t go on the offensive, we will only defend ourselves against the government.

But your military spokesperson Colonel Kazarama said you would go all the way to Bukavu, all the way to Kinshasa. That’s not a defensive position.

Kazarama was expressing the will of the Congolese people, not our policy. If Kabila attacks us, we can silence the weapons from where they are being shot, if necessary.

We have seen armed rebellions before in the eastern Congo that have had similar objectives as yours. The AFDL, RCD, CNDP all shares similar ideals – what makes you different from them and how can you avoid their mistakes?

The main difference is that our goal is not integration or power-sharing. We want to solve the problems of the Congolese, that’s our goal. The second difference is that we want to negotiate a vision for the country, the RCD didn’t have that approach.

I share some our your criticisms of the Congolese government, but disagree with your methods. Don’t you think an armed rebellion will just create more resentment within the Congolese population against you?

This is a serious problem for us––but Joseph Kabila doesn’t leave us a choice. You know, we had a political-military movement, the CNDP, that wanted to negotiate with Kabila. We were made up of civilians and politicians. But Kabila opposed us with weapons. What choice did he leave us?

Our military have the same problems as our civilians. Most of them have relatives in the refugee camps. So they decide to use the same means Kabila uses to defend themselves. But war is not good. That’s why we say that our objective is to finish the war as soon as possible and have negotiations. We have always said that we want negotiations, that’s it. We are even willing to make very big concessions––we are leaving Goma, a very big town, that is a big concession for us.

There have been many reports of Rwandan support to the M23. Many of your leaders live in Rwanda. What do you say to this?

You make me laugh a bit when you say many of our leaders live in Rwanda. If a Frenchman lives in Belgium and goes back to France to cause trouble, do you immediately say that Belgium is supporting him? As for Rwandan support, this is propaganda from the Congolese government. Rwanda is an easy target, a much easier one than we are, as they are part of the international community and sit in international institutions.

But I have spoken to many villagers, dozens of former M23 soldiers, all of whom testify to Rwandan involvement.

You know, when a Congolese villager sees a Tutsi, he will say that he saw a Rwandan. This is a perception that has made its way into the Congolese population. As for the deserters, they flee to MONUSCO and then they say they are Rwandan because they are trying to seek protection from the Congolese army. But they are actually Congolese, I know some of these guys. One of them is the brother of [name omitted]. If they were handed over to the Congolese government, they would be arrested, which is why they say they are Rwandan––if they go to Rwanda, nothing happens to them.

We have seen in the past couple of days what appear to be contradictions in your movement. General Makenga said you would withdraw from Goma, then your political leadership said the opposite. What happened?

This is about the content of the ICGLR agreement [to withdraw from Goma]. We thought that only the army was concerned by the retreat, there was no mention of the police or administration. But when we saw that Kinshasa wanted everyone to withdraw, we agreed, so that Kinshasa would not use this as a pretext to start fighting.

There was no contradiction––Makenga spoke for the army, Runiga for the political wing. Now we have agreed to leave. Everyone, the police and the administration.

What about the tensions within the military wing. Ever since Nkunda was arrested, there have been tensions between the pro-Bosco––even if you say he isn’t involved today––and the pro-Nkunda officers, the “kimbelembele” and the “kifuafua.” Isn’t that a problem, expressed for example in the tensions between Makenga, an Nkunda loyalist, and people like General Baudouin Ngaruye, a friend of Bosco?

Look, if our movement didn’t have cohesion, we wouldn’t be as efficient as we are today. These tensions did exist, but there are part of the past. We have been able to manage these tensions, even though our enemy knows they exist and has tried to manipulate them. We have a positive diversity, that is good for our movement. There are no internal contradictions.

Since you have been here in Goma, there have been many accusations of looting, the stealing of cars in particular. What do you say to this?

There has not been any looting. What happened is that the government in its flight left behind its vehicles, often hiding them in the compounds of private individuals. We needed to get these vehicles, but we set up an investigative commission to evaluate each case. The only thing we asked was to see the ownership documents. If they didn’t have these documents, we took the vehicles. There were many cases when people came to us, showed us the documents and we gave them their cars.

Where do you go now?

The politicians are going back to Bunagana. The military will go to Kilimanyoka [just north of Goma]. The military headquarters will be in Kibumba.

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