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A year after its defeat, could the M23 make a comeback?

It’s been just over a year since the M23, at the time the most significant Congolese armed group, was defeated. It had been a symbolically momentous moment––it was a rare victory for the Congolese army, and the first time since 1998 that the Rwandan government did not have a significant military ally on Congolese soil.

The anniversary was marked by remonstrations on both side––the M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa accused Kinshasa of not upholding its side of the deal, while Kinshasa complained that the M23 had not participated in follow-up meetings in Kinshasa and Nairobi in recent weeks, and said « one has the impression that they aren’t ready » to come back.

M23 President Bertrand Bisimwa (left) and General Sultani Makenga in Bunagana (© Jason Stearns)

As a reminder, the M23 was scattered in three broad directions––in March 2013, infighting broke out within the group and a faction led by Bosco Ntaganda (who then handed himself over to the International Criminal Court) fled to Rwanda. 682 M23 members were interned in a military camp in Kibungo, in the east of the country. In November 2013, the M23 was defeated by the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers; most, including its commander Sultani Makenga and President Bertrand Bisimwa, fled to Uganda, while some rank-and-file surrendered in the Congo. The Ugandan authorities reported that they received 1,665 rebels on their territory––a figure that raised eyebrows, as the UN had only estimated the M23 at around 400 at that time, with a high-water mark of perhaps 1,200-1,500 M23 soldiers in March 2013.

Under pressure by the international community to conclude a peace deal to facilitate the return of those combatants, a compromise was reached on 12 December 2013 in Nairobi. Parallel declarations were signed by both parties, committing the M23 to a peaceful return, demobilization and conversion into a political party, while the government promised a conditional amnesty, demobilization program, and national reconciliation.

That was almost a year ago. Some modest progress has been made: the Congolese government promulgated a new amnesty law in February 2014 and has issued five successive lists of amnesties, totaling 288 M23 members (most of their names can be found here) out of a reported total of over 2,100 requests for amnesty. A new demobilization commission was created on paper in December 2013 (its structure and budget has since been changed), although funding ($84 million) is still pending and there have been reports of over a hundred dead in the newly established DDR camps.

But that progress is extremely limited: most of the M23 soldiers are still abroad, and the Congolese government will not amnesty the majority of M23 military commanders, whom it considers war criminals. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, for their part, are unlikely to arrest and extradite leaders of a group that they supported.

In the meantime, many of the M23 in the camps appear to have auto-demobilized, tiring of life in the camps and returning home to the Congo or Rwanda (many were recruited from Congolese refugee camps there, or were Rwandans). According to diplomats who visited the Ngoma camp in Rwanda,  around half of the soldiers may have left since last year; a similar trend has been observed in Uganda.

However, over the past three months, there have also been increasing reports that the M23 may be remobilizing in preparation of a new attack. Several attempts have been made to reconcile the Bosco and Makenga wings, Ugandan authorities have told the M23 housed in their camps that they want them gone by the end of the year, and numerous M23 members have told friends and family that an operation is being prepared. According to a soldier in the Bihanga military camp in Uganda, Makenga reportedly gave a speech to M23 soldiers there recently, saying that « soldiers should be ready for an operation. » A civilian leader of the M23 told me, « they will attack before the end of the month, that was the plan. » Even their civilian leader Bertrand Bisimwa says that if Kinshasa doesn’t live up to its side of the Nairobi Declaration, he cannot « give guarantees for what will happen tomorrow. »

Few details about the nature of these operations are clear. Several sources suggest that there could be a group that will go through South Sudan into Ituri––the M23 had tried mobilizing there in 2012 and failed, but some of the officers formerly based in Ituri are now in Rwanda and still have contacts there. Another M23 leader suggests that they will carry out operations in the Kasindi area of North Kivu––M23 commanders from the Nande community, such as Colonel Nyoro Kasereka, currently in Rwanda, are from that area. There have also been reports of M23 mobilization in Masisi territory in recent months, documented by human rights workers.

Given the weakness of the M23, it would be difficult to mount a large-scale attack without substantial backing from the Rwandan or Ugandan governments, which would risk triggering another wave of international opprobrium. It is more likely that they would try to destabilize the Congolese government and shame its army and the United Nations with small, sporadic attacks, possibly under the guise of other armed groups, compounding the already fragile security situation. « I think they are biding their time for a political crisis, possibly linked to the elections or a constitutional revision, » one M23 member said.

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