Laura Seay

GOMA, June 9: Goma has changed. What just a few years ago was a tense city under frequent rumors of impending invasion by armed groups is now generally at peace. Where eight feet of solid lava rock buried buildings along the city’s main street after a 2002 volcanic eruption, there is now a well-paved road, streetlights, and shiny new, three-story buildings housing banks, shops, and businesses of every kind. That is not to say that all is perfect; inflation runs rampant, most roads are still rocky messes, and petty crime is a major problem. But it seems that after more than a decade of suffering the effects of war, Goma is finally on an upward trajectory. 

Goma’s recent prosperity is due in large part to the 2009 rapprochement between Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame. The agreement led to Rwanda’s arrest of renegade Congolese general Laurent Nkunda (whom most observers believe was backed by Rwanda in his years as leader of the CNDP rebel movement), the integration of Nkunda’s CNDP forces into the Congolese national army (the FARDC), and to a large decline in violence in the regions in which the CNDP had been operative. The CNDP did “integrate” to a certain extent, with its political wing becoming a legitimate political party and soldiers assuming FARDC ranks. However, the former rebel group also maintained parallel chains of command. Bosco Ntaganda - formerly Nkunda’s second-in-command and wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the use of child soldiers - assumed the so-called ex-CNDP’s military leadership, accepted rank in the FARDC, and became a major warlord in control of a substantial portion of North Kivu’s trade by taxing traffic on the road to Goma’s main border crossing into Rwanda. 

While the situation after 2009 was far from ideal, the rapprochement mostly worked. To be sure, violence persisted in the Kivu provinces. The FDLR (a movement led by Rwandan Hutus who perpetrated the 1994 genocide) along with various local Mai Mai defense militias continued terrorizing civilians and fighting with the FARDC. But since signing the peace agreement, fighting between CNDP and FARDC forces ceased, calm was largely restored, and some displaced persons went home.

That all changed in April when a group of former CNDP troops in the FARDC mutinied. Shortly thereafter, Ntaganda fled Goma for his rural farm in the Masisi mountains northwest of Goma where full-scale fighting between the FARDC and the mutineers quickly broke out in the area. Residents of Masisi and neighboring Rutshuru territories fled. Within several weeks, the FARDC had pushed the mutineers to the mountains of Virunga National Park next to the Rwandan border. Despite three weeks of shelling by FARDC forces, the mutineers - who have since named themselves M23, after the March 23 signing of the 2009 CNDP integration agreement - are still holding out. 

Why did the mutiny happen, and why now? Few but the mutineers really know. Many observers credit the trouble to diplomatic pressure on Kabila to arrest Ntaganda and hand him over to the ICC. In return, Kabila - who claimed victory after disputed presidential elections last November - would receive tacit recognition from the international community of his continued right to rule. Few Congolese believe he actually won the election while evidence from the polls is inconclusive. Credible reports from election observers in North Kivu, however, noted that some ex-CNDP forces loyal to Ntaganda had forced voters to choose Kabila in CNDP strongholds, thus delivering votes for Kabila in the hotly contested election. Some contend that as soon as Kabila got what he needed from Ntaganda, the president became more disposed towards arresting the warlord, as international human rights and advocacy organizations have long urged.  

Fear that Kabila was about to act on Ntaganda’s arrest warrant may explain the timing of the mutiny, but it is erroneous to claim this as the only, or even the primary, reason the mutiny happened in the first place. Tensions had been building within the FARDC and CNDP ranks for months. Other FARDC soldiers who are not part of the integrated ex-CNDP forces soldiers felt that ex-CNDP soldiers were receiving better treatment and general resentment over Ntaganda’s leadership took hold. It is also not clear that everyone within the political wing of CNDP supported Ntaganda’s continued rule. Some troops within the CNDP remained loyal to Nkunda while others supported Ntaganda.

Whatever its cause, the mutiny has shaken Goma’s residents and caused massive human suffering, refugee and internal displacement, and political headaches for Kabila’s unpopular government. Human Rights Watch reports that M23 has recruited child soldiers and believes that the government of Rwanda is providing support to the mutineers. (Rwanda’s government furiously denied this claim.) Goma Tutsis fear for their safety, and many now sleep over the border in Gisenyi, returning only during daylight hours to maintain their businesses. 

They are right to be afraid. Most Congolese harbor deep prejudices against Tutsis as well as Hutus. Known as Rwandaphones (those who speak Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language), these groups are viewed by non-Rwandaphone Congolese as interloping outsiders who are not truly citizens of the DRC. Rwandaphone Congolese are regional scapegoats; they face discrimination in hiring, finding housing, and other areas. 

Distrust of Rwandaphones is understandable. The 1994 Rwandan genocide sent approximately one million mostly Hutu refugees into what was then Zaire, where they were put into border camps that were quickly became militarized by genocidaires  who had fled Rwanda with the refugees. The impact of the camps on the Kivu provinces cannot be overstated; the cramming of hundreds of thousands of people into tiny spaces led quickly to cholera outbreaks, environmental devastation, and general disorder. Rwanda’s post-genocide Tutsi-led government invaded in 1996 to demilitarize the camps. It invaded again in 1998, which resulted in the establishment of a proxy rebel government called the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma) that was run primarily by Congolese Tutsis and Hutus. 

Few non-Rwandaphone Congolese look back fondly on the RCD-Goma years, and they wasted no time in voting RCD politicians out of office when given the opportunity. Between Rwanda’s support for the RCD-Goma, its army’s presence in Congolese territory long after the 2002 peace agreement, its plundering of Congolese minerals, and its unacknowledged support for Nkunda’s CNDP forces, most Congolese have had enough. They view Rwandaphone Congolese as natural allies of Kigali, and many are convinced there is a sinister plan to take over the Kivus for Rwanda’s benefit.  

In that context, the M23 rebellion seems to many Congolese like another iteration of the same fight involving the same people with the same goals. In some ways, this is correct - the failure to adequately address anti-Rwandaphone prejudice and openly confirm the citizenship status of Rwandaphones are key barriers to permanent peace in the Kivus. But this view fails to acknowledge the reality that Tutsis - both in Congo and Rwanda - are far from united in their views of M23, the rebellion, and the direction that Rwandaphone interests should take in the years to come. Some Tutsis in Goma are very angry about the rebellion; they see it as having unnecessarily put them in danger at a time when things were getting better. Others are supportive and are doubtless channeling funds to the movement. Still others - in both the Tutsi and Hutu communities - are undecided as to what course of action they will take. The CNDP’s decision last week to withdraw from the Presidential Majority government coalition  is one sign that at least some Rwandaphone leaders in Congo are leaning toward support for M23. Their commitments, however, are far from clear as of yet. 

Paul Kagame and Joseph Kabila in 2009Neither is Kigali’s role. It is a mistake to assume that the Tutsi-dominated government - the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) - and Congolese Rwandaphone interests are directly aligned. In fact, tensions between many Congolese Tutsis and the leadership in Kigali have been high for the last few years over a number of issues, including the status of Laurent Nkunda (who remains technically under house arrest near Kigali, but who is believed by some to be directing M23 activities) and the attempted assassination of former RPF chief-of-staff Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in 2010.  Relationships among and between Congolese and Rwandan Tutsis also involve complex clan relationships, historical grievances, personal antagonisms that date back decades. The involvement of Rwandaphone Congolese Hutus further complicates the situation. 

Rwanda’s official policy on the matter is also vague; at the moment, it is almost impossible to tell whether the alleged support for M23 came from the top leadership or from elsewhere within the government or the military. Even within the M23, there is confusion about who is participating, with small groups of soldiers mutinying in some areas and rejoining the FARDC ranks in others. Observers do not know whether Ntaganda is in the mountains with M23, if he is in full control of the mutineers, or even whether he is still in the DRC. The public face of M23’s leadership is Colonel Makenga, not Ntaganda, though there are strong reasons to believe they are allied. 

We do not yet really know what the M23 rebellion is about or how it will (or will not) be resolved. However, we are currently witnessing a significant shift in the way the Kabila administration is handling the crisis. Normally when violence breaks out in the Kivu provinces, it is met with a tepid FARDC response in which troops run away as often as they stay to fight. This time, however, Kabila sent the country’s most elite forces to the front, and they have fought well. Some brigades and units of the FARDC have received training from AFRICOM and the European Union, and the competence with which these troops are fighting suggests that the training has paid off well.

Kabila is also responding politically. Last week, he dispatched Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo to Goma along with several other parliamentarians. The ministers visited the battle front, met with victims of violence, and remained in Goma for several days to negotiate a solution to the crisis. This level of ministerial-level involvement in crisis-response is virtually unprecedented in the DRC. Anti-conflict diplomacy, at most, typically involves a one-day visit to Goma by a single senior-level politician who gives a speech then jets back to Kinshasa. It seems that - in this episode, at least- the Congolese government is finally attempting to meaningfully reassert its authority in the country’s east. While this may or may not be viewed favorably by the Congolese, it suggests that Kinshasa politicians well understand that their future - and that of their country - depends on whether places like Goma continue to prosper.  

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.