Eastern DRC: The Chronology of War!

Who is the “Movement of March 23rd”, a.k.a M-23, and what are they fighting for? Blinded by genocide ideology against the Tutsi exported from Rwanda in the mid-nineties by those who had committed the genocide against the Tutsi, were defeated by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), fled and were given sanctuary by late Zairian president Mobutu, Congolese people are denying citizenship to their Tutsi countrymen.

Or put differently, Congolese refuse to conceive slender-looking, cattle-keeping, Kinyarwanda-speaking chaps laying claim on Congolese citizenship of origin.

In Kinshasa they knew late Bisengimana Rwema, Mobutu’s “Directeur de Cabinet” (Chief of Staff) through the 70s; the austere, hardworking “Rwandais” who drove Zairian big projects such as the “Inga” Mega-Dam to completion, insulating them from the prevailing corruption; or Miko Rwayitare – the tech before his time, who launched the first telecom company in Africa: “Telecel”, incidentally placing the first cellular phone call to Maréchal Mobutu Sese Seko who was travelling to Europe. That was in 1986.

To Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa, DRC capital), these few “Rwandais” were reliable consultants and refugees that Mobutu had been kind enough to naturalise. However they don’t seem to grasp that some 1,574 kilometers away at the border with Rwanda, “Rwandophones”: Congolese who speak Kinyarwanda are the most important demographic group in the two eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, indigenous to that region since five centuries, and representing five percent of the entire DRC population. Congolese Tutsi are a small part of the larger group of Rwandophones, constituting two percent of the total Congolese population.

While these communities were once part of the Rwandan kingdom, they suddenly found themselves on Congolese territory as a result of the arbitrary division of Africa at the Berlin conference of 1884-1885, and indeed the land on which they live and the active volcanoes that threaten their lives daily, bear Kinyarwanda names to date. Take “Cyanzu, Runyoni, Bunagana, Shengerero, Ruchuru, Ntamugenga, Rwankuba and Rumangabo”; all territories in North Kivu conquered by M23 thus far; Congolese can’t even pronounce them properly. They say Tamugenga, Rwanguba, Tchengelero, etc.” words that have no meaning in any Congolese language. Even the word “Kivu” is a Kinyarwanda adjective referring to “the lake” or “running water”. The Volcanoes “Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira” are also clearly Rwandan-named. So when it is reported that M23 seized Congolese territory, it is in fact their own, it is simply boys returning home…

Conflicts between the Rwandophones and other Kivu communities date back in 1963-1966 in what is remembered as the Kanyarwanda conflict, whence “Hunde” and “Nande” communities revolted against a Belgian policy that encouraged waves of Rwandan migration to serve as labor force into North-Kivu. Around 60.000 ethnic Rwandan had migrated between 1937-1945 in territories of Masisi and Nyamirima, upsetting the existing ethnic balance.

Ethnic tensions in Kivu would be later exacerbated by the advent, in 1994 of genocide perpetrators. After their defeat by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army, genocide perpetrators fled to then Zaïre, setting up bases in North Kivu to reorganize and attack Rwanda.

These bases were subsequently dismantled by the incursion of the Rwandan Army into DRC in the late nineties, after which they turned against Tutsi Congolese, whom in turn fled to Uganda and Rwanda, where they have been living in refugee camps for over three decades now.

It is those Congolese refugees of Kinyarwanda expression that M-23 is fighting for, demanding their return home into DRC. Initially, former president Joseph Kabila, then his successor Felix Tshisekedi had both agreed to repatriate them peacefully in what they called the Nairobi accords of march 23rd 2009, which were never implemented.

The status quo: “Une Guerre Juste” – Museveni.

After spending over a decade in the mountains of Cyanzu and Runyoni, waiting for the March 23rd peace accords to be implemented, M23 commander Sultani Makenga decided to “remind” Felix Tshisekedi’s government of their commitment to his community, by attacking and taking control of a small nearby military position. Instead of heeding the call, the DRC government reacted by labelling them terrorists coming from Rwanda, then organized a riposte of the Congolese army in collaboration with FDLR.

M23 defeated them, seizing the town of Bunagana, a trade center at the border with Uganda.  On the day that Bunagana fell, Congolese army FARDC and their allies the FDLR abducted two Rwandan soldiers patrolling the border, and shelled Rwandan territories of Rubavu and Kinigi. A UN-led joint Verification Mechanism went on the sites in Rwanda and confirmed the bombings.

At this point, Angolan president João Laurenço intervened, bringing the Rwandan, Ugandan and DRC presidents to the negotiating table. There, Tshisekedi reiterated his accusation against Rwanda. The latter denied them and in turn pointed out the renewed FARDC-FDLR collaboration and the shelling of Rwanda’s territory. Tshisekedi dismissed these accusations as “Inevitable consequences”:

  • “If Rwanda supports a terrorist group, our response will inevitably land on Rwandan soil”, he said. At this point Uganda’s president Museveni asked for a point of correction and confirmed that the M23 rebels were indeed coming from his country, not Rwanda. He indicated that he was happy to give them refuge, but that they were tired of waiting for the DRC to fulfill its Nairobi obligations.


  • Tshisekedi insisted that his intelligence had advised him otherwise. At this point president Kagame had had enough: “Mr. Tshisekedi, he said, your flawed intelligence notwithstanding, I cannot take any more shelling on my territory, nor do I want to hear anymore collaboration between your army and genocider perpetratorss. If you do either, you’ll regret it!” He then demanded for the unconditional release of the two abducted Rwandan soldiers.

The meeting ended with a timid call for appeasement, which any of the keen observers of the ins and outs of DRC government was in no illusion as to its chance of ever seeing the light of day, and sure enough “Fatshi-Beton” [(Iron Fatshi) – as Tshisekedi is referred to in Kinshasa)], went home to prepare an even bigger offensive, made of the “Division Speciale Presidenctielle” (DSP) – who deployed in pomp in Kinshasa. Once in the war theater in Ruchuru, thousands went in the Bunagana forests, a few came out, and M23 in pursuit, seized even more territories, ever drawing closer to the town of Ruchuru. Tshisekedi reacted by shutting down Rwandair flights to Kinshasha and cutting all commercial ties with Rwanda.

But all these geopolitical gymnastics had exhausted our Fatshi-beton. So with his wife and children they flew to Marbella, a wonderful seaside resort in Andalusia, south of Spain, for a week’s vacation. I have been there, can’t blame him..

After the R&R, he multiplied trips overseas trying to drum-up sanctions against Rwanda, including in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, last September. But in the meantime, the MONUSCO, a UN peacekeeping force based in Eastern DRC had confessed to have garnered no evidence of Rwanda’s support to M23. The MONUSCO spokesman who made those remarks was given 48 hours to leave the country.

A few days later, the speaker of DRC Senate, Hon. Bahati Lukwebo travelled to his native Kivu and held a rally to fustigate MONUSCO’s inaction, following which an angry mob raided MONUSCO’s headquarters in Goma and Butembo, burned and vandalized them, killing some peacekeepers and demanded MONUSCO’s immediate departure. A few days later out of self-preservation, MONUSCO finally admitted that Rwanda may be supporting M23 after all, but added that the Congolese army FARDC is also collaborating with Rwandan genocide fugitives FDLR. DRC’s spokesman, Patrick Muyaya celebrated the mixed UN declaration as a diplomatic victory…

The DRC later dispatched a delegation led by a Tutsi-Munyamulenge Minister in Tshisekedi government, Gisaro Muvunyi to Uganda, to see President Museveni and renew accusations against “M23 terrorists supported by Rwanda”. In Typical Museveni’s fashion, the Mzee called the entire Ugandan media and publicly lectured his guests on the fact that M23 was waging a “Just war” – “Une guerre Juste” – he translated himself, in case the Congolese hadn’t got it the first time in his Runyankole English. He then announced the imminent deployment of the Kenyan stabilizing force.

Felix Antoine Tshisekedi, keen on appeasing “the plebs” in Kinshasa, took this opportunity to declare on French channel France 24 that Kenyans were coming to fight M23.

So we were all bewildered when the Kenyan advance party, upon landing in Eastern DRC declared that it had no intention of engaging M23. “Our mission consists of creating a demilitarized buffer zone between FARDC and M23, to see to it that the Nairobi peace accords are finally implemented.” Indeed, why would Kenyans soldiers want to die in Ruchuru forests? How would that play out politically for fresh president William Ruto? In any event, what has M23 – a group fighting “une guerre juste” ever done to them?

Anticipating the upcoming “DMZ”, in fear – which is justified – that DMZs tend to freeze the status quo, Fatshi-Beton made his ultimate mistake: He opted to push M23 out of the strategic border post of Bunagana and back into their cold, secluded mountains of Cyanzu and Runyoni, so that the Kenyan DMZ could be established in Bunagana.

So he gathered his last line of defense, equipped them with heavy artillery and launched another heavy attack on Bunagana which lasted three to four days. At its conclusion, M23 now occupies the entire Ruchuru region, but also captured the strategic Rumangabo Military camp and the famous “Nationale 2” road on the axis  Kiwanja-Rutshuru-center, only 20 Kilometers from Kivu’s capital Goma. Tshisekedi this time reacted by expelling Rwandan Ambassador to DRC, Mr. Vincent Karega, who had to do like all Congolese nowadays: cross River Congo by boat to catch the Brazzaville – Kigali direct flight on Rwandair.

Way forward:

As a force that has no regime change ambitions, M23 doesn’t attack, they wait for FARDC to come with heavy artillery and bomb their positions all day. Now, for having been embedded with the Rwandan army, Soldiers explained to me that once you have dug a good trench, roofed it with huge chunks of trees, only found in that impossibly endowed country, then add sandbags on top, you can have a siesta as you listen to the musical shelling of enemy bombs. It is after the bombing has stopped that you come out, unharmed and get ready for a mano-a-mano; and that’s where FARDC or MONUSCO’s weaponry and numerical superiority is neutralized.

In conclusion, I do not believe M23 will seize the town of Goma just yet, because there is no political incentive to do so. I suspect that if they are attacked again, they’ll seize the city of Masisi thereby sandwiching Goma into a monogamous love affair with Rwanda.