While peace talks stretch on in Kampala, the M23 is teaching hundreds of new officials about Che Guevara, Gandhi and how to get ahead in regional governance.
Bunagana, Democratic Republic of Congo - Tuesday is market day in the town of Bunagana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Men carry chickens tied by their legs through the crowd, while women sit idly by ancient sewing machines ready to lend their services.
These are the few vendors who, despite the fighting in nearby Goma, have made the trek to sell their goods at higher than normal prices to the customers of the border town. The close presence of three cadres, or political officers, belonging to the militant group M23 is testament to Bunagana's status as the de facto rebel capital.
A vendor approaches the M23 officials, showing them his half empty box of mobile phone credit vouchers. He claims the other half was stolen by men still in the market. Leon, the most senior of the cadres, is the only one wearing a semblance of a uniform. His blue jeans, casual white and blue shirt, and thick gold chain are offset by a camouflaged jacket and cap. After listening to the accusations, he carefully instructs his comrades to circle the presumed location of the thief. Meanwhile, he and the accuser approach the stall directly.
The M23 is mostly made up of ex-members of the former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), and takes its name from the 23 March 2009 agreement reached between the CNDP and the Congolese government. The soldiers who formed the M23 and rebelled against Kinshasa in July 2012 cited poor conditions and the government's failure to properly implement the March 23 treaty.
The M23 initially recorded a number of battle victories and since summer 2012, the rebels have seized roughly 700 square km of eastern DRC, home to nearly half a million people. And with most local government administrators having fled, the M23 has relied on recruiting and training a class of its own cadres to administer the area under its control. Now, of the dozens of armed groups in the region - ranging from the Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels to various local Mai-Mai militias - M23 is perhaps the most organised.
Unlike some other forces in the region, M23 also has a relatively clear ideology - one which is broadly based on ideas of social justice with calls for improved administration in the eastern DRC, the removal of the anti-Rwandan FDLR rebels, and an end to discrimination against the Rwandaphone community.
"We have been historically discriminated against in politics and in business," says Rene Abandi, M23's head of foreign affairs. "Often the only option has been to join the military to build awareness of our issues."
All politics is local
M23's executive secretary, Benjamin Mbonimpa, perhaps represents the latitude given to M23 cadres more so than any other official. Serving as chief M23 administrator of the Rutshuru Territory in North Kivu, he quickly rose to prominence within rebel ranks by turning Rutshuru into a model town, one that M23 leadership has been eager to share with journalists. Mbonimpa installed numerous M23 cadres in his administration, but left many government appointees in place. As the number of M23 cadres grew in Rutshuru's administration office, many simply felt compelled to join the M23 anyway.
Under Mbonimpa's administration, public buildings have been thoroughly cleaned and anti-corruption posters are visible in many places. Mbonimpa also started a number of environmental policies, explaining, "During my administration a number of trees were planted and we halted independent charcoal production."
However, his efforts are not just aimed at convincing the local population of M23's benevolence. All M23 personnel under his command, including soldiers and police, are alslo ordered to spend at least one day a month in public works projects often joined by civilian volunteers. Tourists hoping to spot mountain gorillas at nearby Virunga National Park are welcomed, while the activities of NGOs and missionary groups have gone on largely unimpeded.
Noted for his successes, Mbonimpa was recently promoted to Executive Secretary of M23 and served the territories when Bertrand Bisimwa, the M23's political chief, was away for peace talks in Kampala, Uganda. From this new post, Mbonimpa has forced the creation of Salon or 'volunteer days' throughout M23 territory. He has also implemented a wider ban on independent charcoal production, though this has been less successful.
The M23 readily admits that not all of its decisions are popular, especially the ban on the importation of cheap bootleg alcohol often sold in small plastic packets. In early August, a Ugandan smuggler tried to bribe his way through M23 territory hoping to sell the alcohol elsewhere in the DRC. Perhaps fearful that the group would be blamed for allowing the potentially poisonous shipment into the country, M23 cadres decided to burn the cargo, which some estimated to have been worth as much as $40,000 dollars on the spot.
This bold move worried some observers. "They said they did it because the alcohol is bad and can make you crazy, but whose goods could they choose to burn next?" commented Pierre, a local trader.
Elsewhere, cadres assigned to one of M23's 17 departments are given tasks ranging from telling local villagers about the failings of Kinshasa governance to helping improve roads. However, some cadres also come up with more grandiose and ambitious schemes. One M23 cadre, for example, carefully explained to Think Africa Press his plan to reduce Tutsi-Hutu tensions throughout the region by promoting the use of biomass as a fuel source; stockmen, he explained, would be encouraged to corral their livestock rather than letting them spread out for the purpose of collecting and selling their waste as a fuel source, thus reducing land-based conflict.
Blunders of the world
So far, M23 claims to have trained 1,000 cadres, with training consisting of six days of ideological and leadership training. Each class of a few hundred is colourfully named, often after socialist revolutionaries. The first class to complete the training was named after Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's independence leader, and another Thomas Sankara, after the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso. Those who complete the training are given a personal weapon, usually a Kalashnikov upon request. "I'd like to have pistol as well, but it costs $200-300," Amani Kabasha, an M23 official, explains disappointedly. Unlike M23's frontline units, these political officials are permitted to talk to journalists freely.
During the leadership portion of the training, examples of an eclectic mix of revolutionary heroes are taught. This includes figures ranging from Nelson Mandela to Abraham Lincoln to Che Guevara. (Che Guevara once fought in South Kivu for Laurent Kabila, the late father of the DRC's current President Joseph Kabila, but this detail is apparently overlooked.)
Training also includes some religious elements, in particular an extensive course on 'Christian leadership'. "Though M23 is a secular group, we hold up the example of Jesus as a model of leadership and service to a revolutionary cause," explains one M23 cadre. The head of M23's armed wing, General Sultani Makenga, is an avowed Seventh Day Adventist and the group's former leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, styled himself as a bishop.
However, examples from other faith traditions are also drawn upon. Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Blunders of the World is taught to all cadres, and the example of Gandhi has clearly rubbed off on some M23 members. Political chief Bisimwa currently uses an image of Ghandi on his Twitter profile.
Chris Shambala, a member of M23's public works department, recalls his experience in the leadership courses. "My favourite figure they told us about in the trainings was Abraham Lincoln," he says. "That man was a prophet. His vision of America was fulfilled when Obama became president. Like Lincoln, we know that sometimes to fix wrongs in your country, you need a civil war.
"I wanted to become part of politics. After supporting the opposition in 2011, I was disenchanted with Kabila. The election was stolen," he laments.
Initially, only M23 cadres were given intensive indoctrination. But following an internal coup earlier this year - in which Makenga ousted Runiga and Ntaganda, who fled to Rwanda, with Ntaganda surrendering to the International Criminal Court where he faces charges - the M23 has put a greater emphasis on indoctrination. So as well as cadres, M23 guerrillas also now enjoy training classes.
However, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of M23's moral, religious and ideological lessons. The UN and NGOs have blasted the M23 for human rights violations and other crimes. This year a report from Human Rights Watch noted with alarm the prevalence of sexual violence within M23 territory, while The Enough Project alleged M23 involvement in illegal gold smuggling. Discipline also seems to remain a problem. In front of an M23 barracks in a small village just a few minutes' drive past the swept streets of Rutshuru, Think Africa Press witnessed a uniformed M23 soldier being beaten for dereliction of duty.
The Kampala conundrum
Beyond the frontline units and cadres, the M23 claims it has 13,000 members spread across the world with token membership in the US, Europe, and South Africa, the majority of whom have paid the ten dollars to become members.
"The members are organised this way: 15 members are a team, 5 teams are a cell, 5 cells is a sector and 5 sectors is a syndicate," explains Amani Kabaha. The rebels also claim to have organised clandestinely in Uganda and in Goma, the district capital of North Kivu briefly occupied by M23 last November.
As negotiations continue in Kampala between the rebels and the Congolese government, it is difficult to say if the group's cadres and relatively sophisticated structure will help or hinder the peace process. On the one hand, its infrastructure means the group could more easily develop into a legitimate political party, though given disillusion with the current electoral process in M23's ranks, this may prove challenging. On the other hand, M23 depth and organisation could mean that in the future, it could more quickly mobilise to launch another rebellion, repeating the past once more.
Back in Bunagana market, the M23 cadres quickly cornered the men who had allegedly stolen the top-up cards. However, the cadres learned the situation was different than it had first appeared. The vendor had been accosted by his fellow sellers for his refusal to pay for a permit to operate there. "He has to pay 1,000 Ugandan Schillings to Damien like everyone else! Even if he doesn't have a stall and just walks around," one man complained to Leon. As the bright yellow MTN SIM cards were returned to him, the man was chided by the M23 officials to buy a permit or work elsewhere. Perhaps in the back of cadres' minds as they said this was the thought that if negotiations in Kampala are successful, they may be the ones looking for work elsewhere too before long.
Joseph Hammond is a former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe and an energy market analyst. His career has ranged widely from boxing writerto the United Nations Refugee Works Association in Jordan. Joseph is also an alumnus of the Atlantic Council's Young Atlanticist program. In 2010, Hammond won the Cato Institute's Friedman Prize Essay contest.