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Nov 20, 2012 | 19:40 GMT

A Rwandan Proxy Group Takes Control of an Eastern Congo City

PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Members of the Rwanda-backed M23 militia entered Goma, a city on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, uncontested Nov. 20. The rebels now appear to be advancing toward Bukavu, another important city in the Kivu region. The moves are the result of an escalating conflict between the two countries that began even before Nov. 18, when the Democratic Republic of the Congo allegedly shelled Rwanda.

M23 has it own political and economic interests, but Kigali uses M23 as a proxy in eastern Congo to exploit Congolese mineral reserves, secure its western border and counter potential threats from rival ethnic groups. Indeed, the immediate threat to Rwanda from the Congolese states of North Kivu and South Kivu centers on the rivalry between Rwanda's ruling ethnic Tutsis and the ethnic Hutus. But on a more fundamental level, Rwanda is contending with an unfortunate location between Eastern Africa's Great Lake highlands and the edge of the jungle drainage basin of the Congo River. For Rwanda, border insecurity makes securing a buffer zone against the Congo a key strategic goal — one that Kigali wants to achieve through its relationship with M23.

M23 originated in the Congolese wars of the 1990s. Under a 2009 agreement, a largely Tutsi militia that operated out of Goma during the Second Congo War (1998-2003) was incorporated into the Congolese military as the National Congress for the Defense of the People. After a series of disputes, the group broke away from the Congolese military completely in May 2012, when hundreds of soldiers mutinied amid claims that the Congo was not honoring the terms of the 2009 agreement. The splinter group became M23.

The militia has grown more powerful since the split. An informal cease-fire in July gave M23 time to regroup and to recruit from other militant groups in eastern Congo, particularly in Ituri province, where neighboring Uganda is a key supporter of the group. M23 has established a political presence and has created websites, a radio station and training centers. Currently, the group claims to command 4,000 soldiers, and like many groups in eastern Congo, M23 benefits economically from the region's mineral resources. In short, the militia has grown significantly, and it will need this newfound capacity if it intends to hold Goma for an extended period of time.

Rwandan Influence in DRC map

Though there have been several clashes between M23 and the Congolese military since May, the violence of the past week and the entry into Goma represents a significant shift in hostilities. In anticipation of the M23 incursion, thousands of Goma's citizens fled the city. So far, the Congo's efforts to force M23 to back down have proved unsuccessful. The United Nations maintains roughly 1,400 peacekeepers near Goma, but these troops largely are confined to a base near the Goma airport and do not have the capacity to repel M23.

Creating a Buffer Zone

While M23 is technically an independent entity, as a proxy group it plays a key role for the Rwandan government. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the minority Tutsis came to power while ethnic Hutus fled to neighboring countries. The exiled Rwandan Hutu leadership organized under the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or the FDLR, which now represents a strategic threat to Tutsi leadership. To prevent the Congo from supporting the FDLR and to undermine the FDLR directly, Rwanda has used M23 to incite chaos along the eastern Congolese border. Given Kinshasa's inability to control its eastern territories, Rwanda maintains significant leverage over the region

For Kigali, the ideal outcome of these militia forays would be a buffer zone in eastern Congo with a friendly government in North Kivu and South Kivu states. This would mitigate the threat posed by the exiled Hutus. But Kigali would settle for any outcome that counters an FDLR threat. To that end, Rwanda benefits from its relationships with proxy groups such as M23.

It is unclear whether M23's entry into Goma brings Rwanda closer to its goal of creating a buffer state. The longer M23 holds Goma, the more vulnerable it is to counteroffensives. M23 is aware of that risk, so the Goma takeover could simply be a way for the group to get concessions from Kinshasa rather than a long-term strategic move carried out on behalf of the Rwandan government. Moreover, control of Goma is far from secure; the French ambassador to the United Nations has stated that Paris will submit a resolution to sanction M23, and Kigali has pulled its support from proxy groups in the region once they become too powerful.

Nevertheless, holding Goma is the key to greater control in the immediate region. For Rwanda, that control entails border security, which ultimately is determined by M23's ability to maintain control of Goma and assure Rwandan interests in eastern Congo.

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