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DRC: Will the M23's Split Upend or Help Peace Talks?

Divisions within the M23 rebel group have deepened, with the factions clashing. What does this mean for the ongoing peace process in the eastern DRC?
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A camp for internally displaced people in the eastern DRC. Photograph Julien Harneis.

Kampala, Uganda:

In the latest turn of events in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the M23 rebels who swept through the region and seized several towns last year has split in two. While several African leaders were signing a DRC peace accord on 24 February, divisions within the rebel group were deepening. The disputes have even seen blood shed between the feuding factions, the most severe incident being a clash which reportedly left ten dead.

A fork in the road

At the heart of M23’s discord are two faction leaders: Sultani Makenga (head of M23’s military wing) and Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga (head of the political wing). The deadly clash followed an announcement by Makenga that the M23 High Command (its highest military decision-making body) had sacked Runiga, accusing him of stealing money.

Makenga also accused Runiga of promoting ethnic hatred and attempting to use stolen funds to facilitate the return of General Bosco Ntaganda. Also known as ‘the Terminator’, the former head of M23’s military wing is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.

But Bishop Runiga still leads a significant faction within M23. And crucially, a large portion of the negotiation team at the peace negotiations in Kampala belong to Runiga’s side. Those loyal to Runiga and Ntaganda insist that it was in fact Makenga who was sacked. “A military general cannot sack a president. It’s the president who sacked General Makenga,” François Rucogoza, former head of the M23 delegation, told Think Africa Press.

Each rival group claims to have a bigger force than the other. However, sources within M23 say that out of a total of nine battalions, Runiga controls seven and Makenga just two. This may be the reason Runiga’s forces were recently able to encircle Makenga’s in a bid to force reconciliation, though they were subsequently repulsed.

“We still have hopes that we might reconcile with Makenga. That’s why we withdrew after Makenga offered to talk,” Rucogoza said after the incident.

However, plots to assassinate top M23 commanders have also become common. The most recent assassination, on March 4, targeted Major Anicet Musana, a senior rebel fighter close to Ntaganda and Runiga. As yet, it is not clear who killed him, and Makenga has denied accusations that his forces were responsible.

Revisions of divisions

The divisions within M23 have a lengthy and complex history. The movement itself was born out of a mutiny of former members of the rebel group National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). These fighters had been integrated into the Congolese army (FARDC) as part of a peace deal with the government, but broke away in 2012 accusing the Congolese government of reneging on other parts of the March 23, 2009, agreement.

To an extent, the current fragmentation within M23 mirrors divisions within its CNDP precursor. The leader of CNDP had been General Laurent Nkunda. In 2009, Nkunda fell out with military chief Ntaganda when the latter agreed to join the Kinshasa government as part of the 2009 peace deal. After refusing to sign the agreement with Kinshasa, Nkunda was arrested by Rwandan forces. However, some reports suggest Rwanda had a secret agreement with Joseph Kabila’s government to arrest Nkunda in return for them being permitted to pursue a Rwandan rebel group (the FDLR) across the border into eastern DRC.

Arguably, the current rift between Runiga and Makenga stems from the rivalry between Ntaganda and Nkunda. Runiga and Ntaganda are allies, while Makenga is allied with the incarcerated Nkunda.

Who’s talking?

On March 6, the faction led by military chief Sultani Makenga announced Bertrand Bisimwa as their new president. Previously, Bisimwa had been the group’s spokesperson and part of the negotiating team in Kampala.

As a result of the rift between the M23 factions, there has been talk of Bisimwa and Makenga abandoning talks completely and striking a deal with the DRC government, which would see them reintegrated into the Congolese army. Despite his faction seemingly being on the back foot, Bisimwa insisted the sacking of Runiga was a good move, and would help ease the fighting. “He was a problem to [M23]. With his sacking, we shall soon reach an agreement with the Kinshasa government”, he told Think Africa Press. Indeed, news has emerged that the Congolese government plans to sign a peace deal with M23 on 15 March, although Bisimwa said more talks were needed before such an event.

Meanwhile, despite no longer heading the delegation in Kampala, Rucogoza also said he hoped the talks would continue. “We have problems, but I have been meeting with the mediator and he has assured me that the talks will continue”, he explained.

But with M23 divided between these splinter groups, it is not clear which faction will continue with the negotiations in Kampala. Consequently, arbitrators worry that the situation will frustrate attempts to end the long-standing conflict in the DRC that has already displaced thousands.

Crispus Kiyonga, Uganda’s Minister of Defence and Uganda’s chief mediator in the talks, said he would be consulting with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who is also chairman of International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), on a way forward.

Kabila: a corrupting element?

While the M23 seemed better organised that the Congolese army in managing to win battles and seize several towns, the rift could change that. And it is likely that the Congolese government is trying to take advantage of the split. In particular, President Kabila is said to be keen to regain control of rebel bases in Nyiragongo and Kibumba – currently occupied by the Runiga faction.

Kabila may also be trying to play the factions off against each other, although both groups’ truth of the government’s word will be low. The Runiga/Ntaganda faction has already raised concerns that signing a deal with Kabila may not yield results, fearing a similar failure to the one that followed the March 2009 agreement.

“It is very unfortunate that M23 was visited by splits orchestrated by its military leader”, Jean-Baptiste Rudaseswa, legal advisor to the Runiga faction, lamented of the current situation. “In DRC corruption has become part of the culture to the extent that it is used to create and halt rebellion.”

With such a stark division between the warring factions of M23, it may prove difficult to get an adequately representative member of the movement back to the negotiating table. And while M23 struggles to reconcile its internal differences, the delayed reconciliation of this brutal and protracted conflict as a whole means more misery for the Congolese people in the meantime.

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