Clashes between the M23 armed rebel group and the Congolese government armed forces (FARDC) have continued since late December. The ceasefire agreed to by the belligerents in early March has failed again, intensifying the fighting in Northeast Kivu province. Despite the support and calls from the international community to end the fighting, the return to stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo seems illusory.
A look back at a security and humanitarian crisis that has shaken the Democratic Republic of Congo for over 30 years.
January 2019. The election of President Felix Tshisekedi marks a turning point for the DRC. Driven by a desire to establish “a great Congo with great ambition,” this new president wants to put his country on the path to democracy, modernity, economic development and especially stabilization. Tshisekedi promises to demilitarize and disband the various armed groups raging, particularly in the northeast.
This landlocked region of the DRC, bordering Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, has seen two “great wars” (1996-1997; 1998-2003), which have weakened the region, serving as fertile ground for criminalization and fracturing of the population. For nearly three decades, rival armed groups, with claims to identity, culture, geography and other factors, have been fighting over the various resources and wealth of the territory. These clashes have resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people, most often civilians. Faced with the absence of a strong, secure and fair state in the distribution of wealth, the various armed groups have settled into a bloody rebellion that is tearing the country apart and plunging the population into constant insecurity. The renewed violence in the region since 2019 marks the failure of President Tshisekedi to stabilize the region.
A fractured state, plagued by a multitude of armed groups
To date, there are more than 120 armed rebel groups in the northeastern region, which has caused the displacement of millions of refugees .
The best known groups are the M23, the AFD, the Zaire group and the CODECO. Most of these groups are based on identity-based fractures, geographic and economic claims, and inequality in the sharing of wealth.
The M23 was created following the war in Kivu . Composed of former rebel members of the Tutsi ethnic group CNDP and initially reintegrated into the Congolese army, they mutinied in 2012, accusing Kinshasa of not respecting the peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009, and adopted the name “M23” in reference to the date of the peace treaty. After four years of massacres, the M23 will be dissolved following a new peace agreement signed with the DRC on December 12. However, they took up arms again at the end of 2021, again accusing the Congolese government of not respecting their commitments on the demobilization of combatants..
Since then, they have continued to attack government positions in the eastern regions of the DRC. They are responsible for dozens of attacks and massacres perpetrated against civilians between 2021 and 2023, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
The resurgence of M23 attacks in this region has allowed other armed groups, such as the ADF, affiliated with the Islamic State, the Zaire group and Codeco to rage in the region. The hostilities generated by the March 23 Movement have necessitated an increased deployment of government armed troops in the affected areas. This has created a security vacuum in several regions that are equally prone to deadly conflict, allowing other armed rebel groups to (re)gain ground.
A population on the front line.
Of course, the main people affected are the civilian population. This climate of violence and conflict threatens the integrity and lives of the Congolese population. More than 485 civilians were killed between December 1 and mid-March of this year, particularly in Ituri, in a series of attacks by non-state armed groups, which also destroyed 2,000 homes and closed or demolished 80 schools.
In the various regions of North Kivu, attacks perpetrated mainly by the ADF, Mai-Mai groups and the M23 have left more than 200 people dead. In the Grand Nord of the province in particular, the ADF is accused of killing 187 civilians, including 69 women and 20 children, in attacks between December 1 and March 15. In the Petit Nord, fighting continued between the Congolese army and the M23, which “expanded its areas of control and occupation” and killed 43 civilians. In the past three months, 521,000 people have been forced to flee bombings, persecution, violence and forced recruitment by these armed groups, while an attack by the armed group CODECO in Ituri province reportedly killed 49 people. The DRC has the largest internally displaced population on the African continent with 5.6 million people internally displaced, including 2.1 million in North Kivu province alone.
As a reminder, the International Rescue Committee estimates the number of victims at 18 million, including 8.5 million dead in eastern Congo between 1996 and 2020.
The security situation in the DRC continues to deteriorate, both in North and South Kivu, but also in the province of Ituri in the northeast, and is again causing a major humanitarian crisis.
A catastrophic humanitarian situation.
The living conditions of displaced persons in the camps are catastrophic. The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimi Nderitu, expressed her concern about “the continued deterioration of the security and human rights situation, particularly in Ituri province. She reportedly received reports of attacks on civilians along ethnic lines, sexual violence, abductions, destruction of property and attacks on camps for displaced persons. It is necessary here to highlight the courage and urgency of the work of Dr. Mukwege, a recognized defender of women’s rights and winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Director of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in South Kivu, he has dedicated much of his life to operating on women and girls who are victims of sexual violence. The UN agency for gender equality and women’s empowerment estimates that more than one million women are raped in the country.
Civilians and women feel abandoned and forgotten by the international community, as one victim of abuse told the Assistant Secretary-General. Forced to flee their homes to save their lives, they find themselves in a state of vulnerability, in extreme lack of food and medical care.
Despite the fighting and the difficulty of accessing villages and camps for the displaced, humanitarian NGOs are delivering as much relief as possible. Operating in various areas, humanitarian organizations such as SOLIDARITES International, CARE and Médecins Sans Frontières are implementing effective response plans to meet the vital needs of the populations affected by this chaotic situation with multiple consequences.
With a mission opened in the DRC in 2000, SOLIDARITES International, thanks to a budget of 9.3 million euros, has developed various multisectoral emergency interventions, which are launched very quickly in order to respond to the immediate needs of the populations affected by the armed clashes. It is active in various areas: water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), food security and assistance to displaced populations who have been affected by the fighting.
However, the number of displaced and needy populations continues to grow. Humanitarian needs are higher than ever. According to the Humanitarian Response Plan 2023, published on February 22, 2023 by OCHA, the total amount to meet humanitarian needs in DRC is $2.3 billion for the current year. Funding to date is $229.4 million, or 10.2% of the required budget.
The urgency of international humanitarian aid.
The United Nations, particularly alarmed by the situation in the Northeast, has taken up the issue. An investigation conducted by a group of experts at the UN accuses the M23 of responsibility for the massacres. The published report states that 131 civilians were killed “during acts of reprisal against the civilian population perpetrated on November 29 and 30 in Kishishe and Bambo,” where “eight people were also wounded by bullets and 60 others abducted. The report details these charges, which are documented precisely as arbitrary executions by bullets and knives, as well as some 20 rapes of women and girls.
During his visit to the DRC in early March, Emmanuel Macron reiterated his support for the Congolese government in its efforts to stabilize the country. “I hope today that France will remain faithful to its role as an unfailing ally of the DRC in defending its integrity and sovereignty. The Democratic Republic of Congo must not be a spoils of war. The open-air looting of the Democratic Republic of Congo must stop. No looting, no balkanization, no war.
Already heavily affected by the violence of armed groups, the current military offensive of the M23, which is advancing on the ground, is causing massive new population displacements. M23 fighters, supported financially and militarily by Rwanda, are now threatening to block all access roads to Goma, which has a population of over one million. For the record, Goma is the capital of North Kivu province. It is located on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, next to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi.
A UN Security Council delegation visited the city on March 12, calling for negotiations to end the fighting. French Ambassador to the UN Nicolas Rivière urged the M23 to withdraw from the territories it occupies and confirmed the reality of Rwanda’s commitment to the M23. Antonio Guterres said he was very concerned about the rising tensions between Rwanda and the DRC, calling on the two neighbors to resolve their differences through dialogue.
The UN Security Council delegation insists that negotiations are the only way to resolve the conflict. In the region, diplomatic attempts to ease tensions between the belligerents are multiplying. Despite successive mediation efforts, notably by Kenya and Angola, and attempts to establish a cease-fire, none of them have been successful to date. The latest failure to reach a cease-fire, on March 7, reinforces the positions of each of the protagonists and suggests that a diplomatic solution has failed.
The involvement of third countries is intensifying on the ground. After 900 soldiers sent by Kenya and 600 Burundian soldiers, the Angolan parliament voted to send a contingent of 500 soldiers to stabilize the situation on the ground and regain control of the areas occupied by the M23. These deployments are part of the East African force, which was created at the 2022 summit of heads of state of the East African Community. Including the soldiers of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), the foreign troops in the DRC represent several tens of thousands of soldiers of various nationalities. Will they succeed in regaining military control of the situation?
A multitude of armed groups, a diversity of conflicts
To understand the challenges of the current situation in the DRC, it is important to understand the diversity of the areas affected by conflict. These regions do not respond to the same logic, to the same configurations, be they geographic, cultural, ethnic or economic. The province of South Kivu, close to Burundi, is experiencing conflicts that have a different logic from those in North Kivu.
The different conflicts in the DRC are not of the same nature, do not involve the same armed rebel forces, the same ethnic groups, the same areas of influence, and do not have the same stakes or foundations. Thus, the AFD is a movement affiliated with the Islamic State, while CODECO is in line with the community logic of the Lendu ethnic group living mainly in Ituri, in the northeast of the country.
However, it is impossible to explain all these armed conflicts by a single variable. The logic of each conflict can be explained by the interconnection of several factors: geographic, economic, political, social, identity-based, contextual. It obeys a logic distinct from other conflicts with very diverse stakes.
Consequently, there is no single answer to resolving the crisis in the eastern DRC, and this is the inextricable difficulty facing the Congolese authorities.
In the absence of a generic solution, we can consider a common origin to this kyri of conflicts. The second Congo war resulted in the death of more than 180,000 people and millions of displaced persons. The main weakness of successive governments after this deadly conflict was their failure to provide assistance to the displaced populations in good neighbourly relations with the host populations in the various provinces of the east of the country.
The absence of a strong, decentralized state, operating in the provinces, promoting dialogue between the different populations and sharing the wealth of the territories for a better distribution, particularly through local development of infrastructure, reconstruction of habitats and the well-being of the populations, is a serious failure that could have prevented the emergence or strengthening of armed groups and their control of the territories.
For example, the province of Ituri benefits from a large quantity of minerals, which has led to an upsurge in fighting in this region between the Congolese government and illegal armed groups for the exploitation of this wealth. Many of the minerals are exported to Rwanda and Uganda.
Military action without lasting results.
In 2019, the FARDC launched a major offensive in North Kivu and Ituri to disperse the armed rebel groups present, deploying operations on several fronts. Although some operations have had some success, these operations have not been sufficiently effective in curbing instability in the region in the medium or long term. This failure can be explained by several things. On the one hand, budgetary constraints. On the other hand, the regional geopolitical context.
The ability to conduct offensive military operations requires considerable operational, logistical and financial capacity. However, the DRC is facing budgetary restrictions, particularly related to the modernization of the country and the construction of infrastructure, which have a considerable impact on the budget allocated to the military. Not to mention the dangerous practice of the government to transfer almost all power to the military forces, which leads to an increase in violence, abuse and corruption.
In addition, it is necessary to emphasize the regional geopolitical context in which the DRC is situated. The permeability of the borders, the support of certain border countries to armed groups, such as Rwanda’s financial and military support to the M23, prevents the DRC authorities from regaining control of these territories.
What is the outcome, what is the outlook?
While the international community’s exhortations to silence the weapons and the involvement of third countries demonstrate a willingness to find a solution, these commitments have never been sufficient to bring peace to these three provinces in the east of the country. In the face of this impasse, is it not urgent to rethink the political, military, national and international strategy in order to bring peace and allow development in this country with a high population?
This upsurge in violence and massacres is taking place in a dangerous health context. Stéphane Judarric confirmed a cholera epidemic in North Kivu, reporting 1,800 suspected or confirmed cases between March 13 and 19, triple the number announced at the beginning of the year. Not to mention the inflation of food prices, the DRC seems to be heading towards an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed urgently in order to provide an adapted, rapid, solid and sustainable response.
 The United Nations has counted more than 5.2 million displaced people in the country, mainly in the eastern provinces and in Kasai.
 The Kivu War came just after the Second Congo War and refers to a succession of conflicts between the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), which became the M23 in 2012.
 The CNDP is the National Congress for the Defense of the People, which will take the name M23 in reference to March 23, 2009, the date of the initial peace treaty between the FARDC and the CNDP.
 The peace agreement signed by the two parties on March 23, 2009, provided for the release of prisoners, the transformation of the CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People) into a political party, the return of refugees from countries bordering the DRC, from which the vast majority of the rebels originated, the integration of civilian CNDP members into government institutions, and the integration of CNDP forces into the Congolese army. Suspected of abusing their military positions to control mineral trafficking, former CNDP military members were transferred to other regions by the government and subsequently maimed, judging that the government was violating the March 23, 2009, agreement, which gave rise to the name M23 in reference to the date the agreement was signed.
 Mayi-Mayi refers to armed groups active during the second Congo war (1998-2002) that formed, for the most part, to resist invasion by Rwandan armed forces and Congolese rebel groups close to Rwanda.
 Founded in 1995, the Allied Democratic Forces (AFD) is a group of opposition movements to President Yoweri Museveni. They have been affiliated with the Islamic State since 2017 and are composed of 300 to 600 fighters.
 Also known as the Front populaire d’auto-défense, the Zaire group is based in Nyaka and Mbidjo in western Djugu territory (Ituri). It is responsible for numerous large-scale attacks against CODECO factions around mining sites, but also against Iendu civilians, the PNC and the FARDC. Zaire has several supporters, including the G-5, which includes five communities: the Alur, the HEma, the Nyali, the Mambisa and the Ndo Okebo.
 Formed in the 1970s, Codeco (Cooperative for the Development of Congo) is an armed faction in the DRC. It is composed of 2,300 men and aims to defend the Lendu community. It is supported in particular by the Ituri Patriotic Resistance Force and the Nationalist and Integrationist Front. Since January 2023, Codeco has been stepping up attacks against the FARDC.
 Some interventions such as the “Ituri storm” or the securing of the national road that connects the DRC to Uganda launched in 2020, have resulted in the death of hundreds of rebels, including leaders)