In eastern DRC, the M23’s grip is tightening around Goma, raising fears of a “regional explosion”

Just three weeks after being sworn in for a second presidential term in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi was suddenly overtaken by one of his electoral promises: restoring peace in the east of the country

In eastern DRC, the M23’s grip is tightening around Goma, raising fears of a “regional explosion”

Just three weeks after being sworn in for a second presidential term in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi was suddenly overtaken by one of his electoral promises: restoring peace in the east of the country. He is still far from it. The rebels of the March 23 Movement – ​​more commonly known as M23 – have been on the attack again since February 7 in North Kivu. Every day they tighten their grip on Goma, the capital of this eastern province of the DRC, bordering Uganda and Rwanda. The rebels have just captured the small town of Shasha, located on the shores of Lake Kivu, south of Saké, a crossroads town considered a strategic lock.

Goma's supply routes are now cut or under threat of being cut off in three directions (south, west and north). “The only remaining possibilities for movement are the two border posts with Rwanda located in the city, or the boats sailing on the lake towards Bukavu,” confides a foreign resident from Goma. There is no shortage on the markets yet, but food prices are soaring. » According to him, “the M23 could probably suffocate the city in two ways: either by cutting the roads, or by launching offensives on several axes, which would overwhelm Goma with the influx of people from the surrounding area displaced by the fighting.”

Several thousand residents of Saké and the surrounding area have again flocked in recent days to the improvised camps on the outskirts of Goma, which are already overcrowded. In recent weeks, “the increase in civilian casualties and the use of heavy weapons in populated areas, including in camps for displaced people, are alarming,” the Forum of International NGOs in the DRC warned on February 8. “The conflict has triggered massive displacements in several localities, exacerbating the vulnerability of internally displaced people and host communities,” added the Forum in a press release which calls for “urgent action to protect civilians and guarantee humanitarian access ". According to the UN, more than a million people have had to leave their homes since fighting resumed in the fall of 2021.

Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil

A sign of the seriousness of the situation, the United Nations Security Council met urgently on Monday, February 12, behind closed doors. Its members unanimously “condemned the M23 offensive […] and repeated their condemnation of all armed groups operating in the country”, specified the ambassador of Guyana, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, who holds the rotating presidency advice. He also marked, once again, “his total support for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the DRC”.

Without further clarification, this remark clearly targets neighboring Rwanda, whose army – the Rwandan Defense Forces (FRD) – is accused of intervening directly on Congolese soil in support of the M23 since its resurgence in November 2021. In its last report sent on December 30 to the Security Council, the group of UN experts on the DRC claimed to have obtained evidence – including aerial images and photos – of direct interventions and reinforcements of FRD troops. These soldiers belonging to five different battalions are deployed in the territories of Masisi, Rutshuru and Nyiragongo, in North Kivu.

Since the launch of the latest rebel offensive, the UN says it has collected new elements implicating Kigali. One of its observation drones was thus targeted – without being hit – on February 7 by a “presumed FRD surface-to-air missile” fired from an area under M23 control, indicates an internal document consulted by AFP . “External intelligence from France confirms that the WZ551 type armored vehicle, equipped with a surface-to-air missile system, is Rwandan,” adds this UN document. The Rwandan authorities have not reacted to these accusations.

In line with the press release from its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vincent Biruta, in October 2023, Kigali has affirmed since the start of the crisis that “the M23 is a Congolese problem” and that “Rwanda does not support the M23 and has not no troops in the DRC.” On the other hand, the country warned that it “will respond significantly if its security is threatened.” This warning responds to the ranting from Kinshasa. Then a candidate for a second term in the presidential election of December 20, Félix Tshisekedi, re-elected at the end of the vote, had accused, during a meeting in Bukavu, his Rwandan counterpart of wanting to "behave like Adolf Hitler", promising him to “end up like Adolf Hitler.”

Foreign private security companies

During his last visit to the DRC, at the beginning of February, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the deputy secretary general of the United Nations in charge of peace operations, expressed concern about this verbal escalation between the two neighbors, citing a risk of "regional explosion" . Because Rwanda is not the only regional foreign power involved in the North Kivu conflict.

The UN group of experts describes in its report how the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) are “supported […] by the Burundi National Defense Force (FDNB)”, in addition to local armed groups. and foreign private security companies (Agemira, a company registered in Bulgaria and headed by Frenchman Olivier Bazin, and Congo Protection, made up of Romanians who cut their teeth in the French Foreign Legion). According to experts, “1,070 FDNB soldiers wearing FARDC uniforms have been secretly deployed since the beginning of October 2023 to secure the territory of Masisi […] outside the framework of the Regional Force of the African Community of the East (EAC)”. Kinshasa denounced the agreement concluded with the EAC, and the Kenyan contingent, in particular, withdrew. Burundi, for its part, maintained its troops at the request of the DRC.

In addition to the Burundians, "between 800 and 1,000 South African soldiers", according to the estimates of a local observer, have arrived in Goma since the end of December. They are just the precursors of a larger contingent, deployed in accordance with a May 2023 agreement with the Southern African Development Community (SADC). On Monday, the South African presidency announced that it will send a total of 2,900 troops as its contribution to this mission, the SAMIRDC. This, commanded by South African Major General Monwabisi Dyakopu, is planned for a period of one year, until December 15, 2024.

SAMIRDC deploys under the African Union’s (AU) “scenario six,” the most robust tier in the classification of its peacekeeping operations. This theoretically authorizes – like the United Nations operations deployed under “chapter seven” – SAMIRDC soldiers to use force against the M23 and, if necessary, the FRD. Nothing says, however, despite what Kinshasa maintains, that the South African soldiers, as well as those from Malawi and Tanzania expected soon, will adopt a resolutely offensive attitude. The same question arose with the contingents of the EAC, who were ultimately criticized for their passivity, to the point of demanding their withdrawal.

The Congolese, who are mainly affected by this crisis, are also participating in the militarization of the region. Three days after the lightning visit to Goma by the Congolese Minister of Defense, Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Christian Tshiwewe, the FARDC announced the sending of a significant reinforcement of men and materials.

Faced with the worrying rise in the militarization of the region, diplomatic initiatives, particularly American ones, appear very timid. The ceasefire won by Washington before the presidential election hardly held. The blockages persist. Félix Tshisekedi still demands the withdrawal of all Rwandan soldiers before sitting at the same table as Paul Kagame. Which continues to deny their presence on Congolese soil.