How M23 rebels lost ground to DRC army

Government soldiers load a missile launcher outside the border town of Bunagana recently. The troops have captured the last stronghold of M23 rebels in the troubled east of the country ending the war. AFP Photo.

What you need to know:

The Kabila government has announced that it has achieved victory over the rebels.

On December 18, last year, the M23 military leader, Brig Gen Sultan Emanuel Makenga, vowed to fight the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) soldiers dispatched in war torn eastern DR Congo as ‘Intervention Brigade’ working under the umbrella of UN peacekeepers known as Monusco.

Asked by our reporters in his military base located about 40km outside the town of Goma on what would be his plan should the Uganda peace talks collapse, Mr Makenga responded, “if the Kampala peace talks fail, the only option we have is to fight till the last man.”

As M23 rebels lose their military capacity to fight DR Congo’s national army (FARDC), backed by United Nations Intervention Brigade soldiers, the big question is what next for DR Congo and the decimated rebels.

Nearly a year after Mr Makenga’s vows, things are falling apart for his group as the joint forces destroy the rebel’s last stronghold near the Congo-Uganda border.

The Kinsasha government announced yesterday that it had achieved “total victory” over the M23 rebels.

“The last elements of the M23 have abandoned their positions in Runyonyi and Chanzu under pressure from FARDC (government forces) who have just entered there,” said the government spokesperson in a text message received by news agency AFP.

He was referring to two hilltop positions about 80km north of regional capital Goma where dozens of holdout rebels had dug in.

Though the North Kivu province army commander, Gen Lucien Bahuma, was more cautious saying he “cannot confirm that for the moment,” the future remains bleak for the M23 rebels.

The M23 had on Sunday called a ceasefire to pave way for the Kampala peace talks to resume, but until yesterday, there was no sign of a ceasefire that happened, casting doubt on what would be the future of Congo.

According to security experts, the imminent defeat of DR Congo’s M23 rebels is the result of shifting military and political dynamics that present the most concrete prospects of peace in the DR Congo.

Its defeat would send an intimidating message to at least 10 other rebel groups operating in the area, raising hopes that a lasting peace for the mineral-rich nation may finally be in sight.

The M23 rebels were first rooted out of its main bases by DR Congo’s army, a force generally known for its indiscipline, inefficiency and corruption early last year.

But when the M23 took control of Goma in November 2012, it embarrassed the government and put pressure on the international community after human rights violations emerged.

African leaders from the 15-country Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and some of Congo’s neighbours agreed to take the mantle.

And in a Monday meeting held in Pretoria, they discussed the next steps for a major peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo.

According to the Executive Director of the Pretoria-based African Public Policy and Research Institute, Mr Martin Rupiya, the meeting looks like a final coordinating meeting between SADC and Great Lakes countries.

“They think M23 is on the rocks,” says Rupiya, “the main agenda is to finish off, as it were, backers of the M23,” Mr Rupia told AFP.

Financial sources blocked
President Joseph Kabila made changes to the military hierarchy and troops fighting in the east recently. The new army leadership was then backed by a UN intervention brigade, including South Africa and Tanzania soldiers.

By losing its territories in the east, it means the M23 leader can’t access his financial sources that previously earned him millions of dollars, which he then used to pay soldiers and buy weapons.

When asked last year by our reporters about how much money he had during the mutiny, Mr Makenga confidently responded: “We had enough dollars to pay salaries … this money came from our supporters inside and outside the Congo … but we had business plans to raise more money to finance our operations.”

And, the business plan was to introduce taxes to all trucks that entered their territory as well as to all businesspeople who trade there - a move which by October 2012, was earning Mr Makenga and his troops an estimated $10,000 (Shs25million) a day - enough to create havoc to the Kinshasha regime.

But that wasn’t it: Mr Makenga and his team had a network of mineral dealers using Kampala and Kigali cities to transact their businesses during and post integration; he didn’t disclose how much this network contributed to their organisation.

With illegal minerals and charcoal trade estimated at $57 million (Shs143billion) changing hands yearly between Makenga, Ntanganda and dozens of top army officers, financing the rebellion was simplified.

Fifteen months before the M23 rebellion, Mr Makenga was the commander of FARDC in eastern DRC, following the Nairobi Peace accord of March 23, meaning he had access to illicit millions of dollars that he used to recruit soldiers and buy weapons.

It’s this money that he used to bankroll his rebellion between 2012 and 2013.

But, by being defeated, Mr Makenga has nowhere to call a territory meaning he can’t tax traders as well as conduct illegal minerals, charcoal and timber business valued at $57 million in 2011.

Internal divisions
At the beginning of his rebellion early 2012, Mr Makenga had well-equipped fighters estimated to be 850, but the number grew to about 2500 soldiers by the end of 2012 following the dramatic capture of Goma City.

Last week, the UN said that M23 has been decimated heavily and, left with only 200 die-hard soldiers tasked to protect Makenga and some elites within the organisation.

The Daily Monitor has reliably established that one of the reasons the rebels suffered the defeat was its inability to fight convention war, which has been staged by UN intervention Brigade and FARDC.

“I think their (M23) plan is to embark on guerilla tactics because so far they have proved to be incapable of fighting the Congolese army,” a senior military officer from Rwanda who declined to be named said.

He added: “This may be a total defeat to M23 or just a strategy to buy time while planning a guerilla war, which is something they are capable of fighting.”

But, the internal divisions and wrangles within the M23 between Makenga and his former boss, Gen Jean Bosco Ntaganda, that led the latter to surrender to The Hague based court, ICC, also weakened the organisation heavily.

According to details gathered by the Daily Monitor, the fight between the two rivals within M23 caused the defection of over 300 soldiers loyal to Ntaganda who fled to Rwanda.

What next for Congo?
With about a dozen rebel factions operating in eastern Congo, will this be the beginning of lasting peace for the country that has lost about 5million souls during the past decade or just a temporary pause?

There is still Forces for Democratic Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which rose from the ashes of the 1994 Genocide perpetrators which remains active in the region.

The 2010 UN report says that armed groups, in particular the FDLR, earn close to $50 million of revenues annually from the trade which therefore represents one of the most significant avenues of their direct financing.

The question is whether the attention by Congo army backed with UN forces would shift their attention to remaining rebel factions which have rocked the area for years.