The sequence of events makes the immediate causes prompting the M23 rebellion quite clear. It all really started in February 2012 with the flawed attempt by some Western countries to have Bosco Ntaganda arrested as a condition for the recognition of Kabila as president after the messy and, deemed by many, fraudulent November 2011 elections.
With this political backing, instead of just moving Ntaganda out of the picture, the Congolese army, the FARDC, used that opportunity to mount an assault against most of ex-CNDP commanders in South Kivu in the last week of March 2012 - prompting the first defections that would lead to the creation of the M23 - before doing the same in North Kivu ten days later. Their objective: make the ex-CNDP commanders lose their influence in the Kivu region by deploying them outside the Kivu region, a move that would have left Rwandophone communities vulnerable to attacks notably from the genocidal Rwandan rebel forces the FDLR.
A group of non-state actors, institutions and advocacy specialists with deep seated hostility towards Rwanda, have been able to orient the conversation about the crisis by creating a narrative blaming Rwanda for the creation of the M23 and for ultimate responsibility in the conflict and successfully selling it to sympathetic journalists. The Congolese government, whose responsibility in the crisis was exonerated by the narrative, draped itself in this unexpectedly boosted legitimacy and refused to listen to its grumbling citizens evocating foreign interference leading to renewed military confrontation and more hardships for hundreds of thousands of people.
The damage caused by this narrative is by no means over yet. By ignoring the real causes of the conflict, the breakdown of the March 23, 2009 precarious, and yes, imperfect peace deal with far from perfect ex-CNDP partners and by advocating for militarized solutions, the international community is exposing eastern Congo and the wider region to even more violence and hardships with no sight of where this could end up.
Undermining the Kampala negotiations process between the M23 and the government, militaristic calls for the MONUSCO soldiers 'to do what they are supposed to' trying to supersede the more arbitral approach of the regional neutral force are just a new stage in the process, which in the first place, led up to the renewed violent stalemate in eastern Congo. Why then so many people believe in this M23/Rwanda narrative and what does it conceal?
Congo's Dangerous Tales
Surprisingly prescient, Severine Austesserre, a Columbia University Congo researcher explains in February 2012, before the outbreak of the crisis, the dire consequences of 'Dangerous Tales' in Congo and the luring power of these simplified narratives.
A narrative is a story that people create to make sense of their lives and environments. It helps shape the way we perceive the world and thus orients how we act upon our environment. Narratives have frames that shape what counts as a problem and what doesn't; they authorise specific practices and policies while precluding others.
Over time, the narrative and the practices they authorise come to be taken as natural, granted, and the only conceivable ones. Posing a well-meaning disposition from those promoting central narratives she identifies in Congo in spite of their detrimental, unintended, consequences, Austessere explains that simple narratives serve many in that country. Media outlets need to find a story that their audience can easily understand and remember and that fits in a few pages.
Desk officers and advisors at headquarters in foreign and defense ministries, face a similar challenge for internal bureaucratic reasons. Aid organisations and advocacy agencies use the simplified narrative to raise funds for their programmes or to mobilise followers. Fundraising and advocacy efforts succeed best when they put forward a simple narrative, and the story is most likely to resonate with its target audience if it includes well-defined 'good' and 'evil' individuals, or clear-cut perpetrators and victims. In the case of the oversized UN peace mission in the Congo, with 17,000 personnel and costing annually 1.4 billion, I would add that it also needs to justify its existence.
The Columbia University researcher asserts that the need to find a simple narrative is all the more important in the case of the Congo given that policy makers and the general public usually perceive the conflict there as extremely complex and intractable. Simple narratives help greatly: they identify salient issues, dictate urgent action, and help determine who is worth supporting and who should be challenged. Austessere's article didn't refer to the 'Rwanda-creator-of-the-M23' narrative but her argument is nonetheless very useful to understand its popularity. Transposing her conceptual framework to the M23 crisis, I would say that this framework helps explain why so many people and institutions are conveniently buying into this narrative. But where I would differ is when assuming the neutrality or goodwill of those at the fore of formulating this M23/Rwanda dangerous tale as if they choose almost randomly the 'good' and the 'villain'.
When Steve Hege, former coordinator of the UN Group of Experts, the chief accuser of Rwanda for the Congo's crisis, warmly writes in a 2009 personal article that "the FDL must be viewed in light of the regional history of armed rebellions formed by refugees and/or political exiles who have eventually taken power back from undemocratic regimes', it is rather difficult to believe in his neutrality. Justification of Hege's expression of empathy towards the FDLR in spite of the horrendous crimes they are continuing to commit against the Congolese population and the role of its core leadership in the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda is hard to grasp. In May 2008, a few months before Hege's article, Chris McGreal, journalist at the Guardian, reported from an FDLR camp that a 14-year old combatant telling him that he must kill "as many Tutsi as possible", merely repeating what he had been taught.
Because of this, usually empathy expressed towards FDLR has more to do with hostility towards Rwanda rather than endorsement of the group. Hege's anti-Rwanda bias can maybe also be explained by his closeness to some retrograde Christian NGOs which supported the former Rwandan regime and after the Genocide ended up on the wrong side of history.
Human Rights Watch is another prominent promoter of the M23/Rwanda narrative. Believing in Human Rights Watch's impartiality, wouldn't only be naïve but also almost out of place considering the long 'Human Rights Watch's show-no-mercy approach to Rwanda'. It thus recently came as no surprise to learn that the organisation paid for witnesses to accuse Rwanda of helping M23, euphemistically calling it 'travel costs'.
The smoke screen put up by these politicised non state actors on the crisis conveniently conceals what many Congolese call 'the absurdity of the situation in Congo' where the international community keeps spending billions and ends up sowing the seeds of confusion and of more violence by siding with a predatory regime. Here again, some more detached researchers, untied to Congo's 'Dangerous Tales' help by shedding some light in this murky situation.
A widely - and wrongly in the case of least developed countries - held assumption in the international community is that in post-conflict situations peace-building and democratisation are virtually synonymous; creating the conditions for the one does so for both, the two processes will be reciprocal and mutually supportive.
On that basis, international actors assumed that the landmark 2006 first democratic elections in Congo which ended ten years of conflict would produce a stakeholder in building a comprehensive peace throughout the country and particularly in the East. As a consequence, the role of the UN peace-keeping mission MONUC, the main vehicle for the international engagement in the Congo peace process, had to change. The urgency of a modified role for the UN mission became more salient when, by end of 2006, President Kabila started muttering that the MONUC should begin to redraw. The price for the continued presence of the huge UN mission was to change course and transform itself from a peacekeeping mission to a stabilisation one, entailing an unconditional support to President Kabila's government.
The concept of stabilisation relates to the pursuit by powerful international actors of a security imperative for peace-building purposes by supporting a particular political order militarily if deemed necessary. The concept emerged from post 9/11 Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq to address weak governance, endemic instability and violent conflict in these countries.
The problem is that since 2006 the Congo state never reformed its ways and remained largely predatory, behaving like the warring faction it used to be, especially in eastern Congo as demonstrated by the latest crisis.
"In the absence of meaningful reform, stabilisation has been implemented in a political environment in which governance is structured around similar power dynamics to those which existed at the peak of the Congolese conflict. These dynamics are defined by a lack of accountable leadership at both local and national level, and the extreme centralisation of formal power in Kinshasa. The problems of social and political exclusion are the core of the Congo's instability and continue to inflame tensions at the local level, particularly over land and ethnicity."
The international community stabilisation policy in Congo started in 2008 but became more prominent in 2010 when the UN mission "was relabelled MONUSCO [United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo], which, through its emphasis on stabilisation, aligned the UN even more closely and compromisingly with the Congolese state". The stabilisation policy operationalised through the International Security and Stabilisation Support Strategy (ISSSS) with five objectives: to improve security by, among others, strengthening the Congolese army, to support political process, strengthening state authority, facilitating return, and reintegration of refugees and displaced persons, economic recovery and lastly combat sexual violence. Overall, the stabilisation strategy was supposed to tackle the causes of the conflict through improved governance and its area of focus was the East of the country.
Only three years later, in 2011 the security in eastern Congo had worsened where the stabilisation activities were focused. Regarding the strengthening of the authority of the state, only one component - the building of strategic roads and infrastructure - was deemed making good progress but without leading to improved security or deployment of functional civil servants in newly opened up areas.
A former UN stabilisation officer questioned MONUSCO's mandate and expressed the very likelihood that, rather than contributing to reinforce the capacity of the state, the UN has acted as a substitute for the state. The return, reintegration and economic recovery component of the stabilisation strategy - central to the M23 demand for the return of the Tutsi Congolese refugees - has been a resounding failure.
Few of the country's 1.7 million internally displaced people and the hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania have returned. Where refugees have returned, it has been outside the formal process and has aggravated tensions between communities. Regarding economic recovery, DRC was ranked 187th, last in the world in the 2011 Human Development Index while in 2008 it was 10th from the bottom. "The persistence of weak and venal state institutions is most visible in the security sector, where the Congolese army (FARDC), is largely unpaid and poorly trained. (...) Keeping alive the spirit of Mobutu whereby soldiers were not paid and live off the population, the FARDC is often the single greatest threat to the Congolese and routinely terrorises, extorts protection money, loots villages, rapes and kills civilians."
Part of the failure of the stabilisation strategy in Congo is due the insecurity stemming from conflicts between communities revolving around land, citizenship and control of space and the externalisation of neighboring instability, in particular from the FDLR. But the continuing absence of a functioning state, largely caused by a lack of political will or capacity to reign in patrimonial and predatory practices by powerful elites, is the main hindrance to change in Congo.
International partners to Congo have all along uncritically associated themselves with the Congolese state regardless of the nature of its actions. The recurring leverage instrument used by President Kabila has been threatening to have the first UN mission, the MONUC and then MONUSCO withdrawn. But other developments have also contributed to the weakening of the international community sway. "[T]he West combined diplomatic leverage was further weakened by Kabila's deepening economic ties with China and other non-traditional donors willing to build much needed infrastructure in Congo in return for natural resources, without good governance conditions".
In the face of President Kabila's growing intransigence, many Western partners, avoiding the risk of being sidelined in the granting of lucrative mining contracts, have chosen to withdraw into technical assistance - including MONUSCO - while continuing conferring legitimacy to the state by association.
A number of Western countries have reoriented their efforts in the security sector reform as if in the Congolese context you could reform the army and the police while the state remained the same. Indeed, this investment in the FARDC motivated some Western countries to encourage the FARDC to attack their ex-CNDP colleagues in April 2012.
The messy and, deemed by many, fraudulent 2011 presidential elections have weakened President Kabila's bargaining position vis-à-vis some Western countries. In exchange for the recognition of his victory, one of the things they requested of him was to arrest Bosco Ntaganda. These countries should have known better. In the already tense situation between the FARDC and the ex-CNDP, this was license given to President Kabila to move against rivals in the Kivu region, thus reigniting the not so latent conflict between the Rwandophones and their competitors at local, regional and national levels. And, as usual, when the Congolese state is at war with a Rwandophone organisation, chances are that it would eventually seek the assistance of the FDLR, ipso facto raising the regional dimension of the conflict.
With negotiations between the Congolese government and the M23 having difficulty to hold ground in Kampala, aggressive noises made by the MONUSCO threatening to militarily engage the M23 does not help find a solution to the conflict; it once again plays into President Kabila's hands for more adventurous moves. The new dynamic brought about by the formation of the forthcoming regional neutral force should give the UN the opportunity to redress the fundamental mistake it made by unconditionally siding by the FARDC in this conflict when it is in reality a warring faction.
Rwandophone communities in the Congo have seldom been well served by their representatives, to put it mildly. But the recurrence of conflicts involving these communities since 1993, regardless of the identity or behavior of those claiming to be representing them, points out to the need of finding a lasting solution by unequivocally recognising their full citizen rights, a secure space where to live and prosper in North Kivu alongside their neighbours, while eradicating the constant threat of the FDLR. Up to now, the Congolese state has been unwilling and incapable of providing that.