It has been a good few weeks for Congolese President Joseph Kabila, the Congolese army, the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the recently deployed Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
A series of spectacular military victories against the M23, one of many armed groups that have been destabilising the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past decade, has led Martin Kobler, the head of MONUSCO, to declare the movement 'dead'. Images last week showed Kobler dancing triumphantly in the streets of Rutshuru, alongside the governor of North Kivu province, Julien Paluku. Rutshuru, an important trading town just north of the provincial capital, Goma, had been occupied by the M23 since it launched its mutiny in early 2012.
Reports from the ground indicate that the residents were as happy as Kobler to see them go. Within days, the civilian administration was reinstalled and, in a grand gesture, the provincial authorities announced that no taxes would be collected until next year. 'The M23 has harassed people so much and made them pay such exorbitant taxes,' Paluku said.
The military push started on October 25, several days after the peace talks in Kampala ended in a renewed impasse. The talks have been dragging on for ten months, and key international envoys involved in attempts to stabilise the region attended the most recent round in the hopes of pushing the parties to a final agreement. The talks have stalled essentially over two key issues: who gets amnesty, and who is integrated into the Congolese army. The Congolese government has agreed to allow M23 combatants to reintegrate into the army, and has also accepted that they be amnestied. However, it has ruled out integration and amnesty for the M23's senior leadership, and this has left the talks at an impasse. Regional envoys have reiterated that those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity should not be allowed to escape legal action.
Among those M23 leaders who face legal action is Sultani Makenga, the group's military leader since earlier this year. Makenga stands accused of serious crimes, including recruiting child soldiers and acts of sexual violence, and sanctions were imposed on him and the M23 movement by the UN Security Council and the US government in late-2012. Earlier this year, Bosco Ntaganda, who was then the leader of the M23, abandoned his hideout in the eastern DRC, snuck into Rwanda and surrendered to the US Embassy in Kigali. Ntaganda, who had led both the M23 and its predecessor, the National Council for the Defence of the People (CNDP), was wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes he allegedly committed when he was the military commander of yet another armed group active in the north-eastern DRC between 1999 and 2002. His surprising surrender followed weeks of violent infighting between one M23 faction loyal to him and the other loyal to Makenga. It is generally believed that Ntaganda surrendered because he realised that his Rwandan patrons were about to abandon him, or worse. Ntaganda certainly has a lot of information that would be very damaging to the Rwandan government were it to emerge in a trial at the ICC.
It is possible that Makenga and the senior M23 leadership also feared that they were about to be abandoned by Rwanda, and that the military defeats they suffered these last few days were indicative of the fact that Rwanda had already withdrawn its logistical and military support. But this is the first time that the Congolese army and MONUSCO have been able to inflict such heavy damage on the M23, which in recent weeks was reportedly reinforcing its positions, and this raises a number of questions about how this defeat came about, and whether it was a defeat or a strategic withdrawal.
It is certainly still too early to draw conclusions about the M23's long-term future as a military movement, but it is not immediately clear what advantage the M23 would gain from allowing itself to be militarily defeated and weakened in the public eye. The reaction of relief and joy among the majority of people living in the liberated areas also further damages the M23's desire to cast itself as a popular movement with wide appeal, and it will be difficult to ever recover from that.
If, then, the M23 were defeated, was this because Rwanda withdrew its support and refused to bail out its erstwhile proxy, or was it the overwhelming military power of the joint Congolese army-MONUSCO operation? If it is the latter, this is testimony to the strength of the FIB, which has recently reached its full complement with the arrival of the Malawian contingent. This is certainly the version of events that MONUSCO is putting forward, although it has also been careful to emphasise the role played by the Congolese army. If it is true that the FIB's military strength was the game-changer, this will be a very welcome new development in the situation in the east. It could also be a first step towards long-term stabilisation.
First of all, there are extremely high expectations among the population that the brigade will make a big difference, and the victories of the past weeks will have enhanced confidence in its abilities. This is vital in an area where the population has been subjected to an endless cycle of violence and reprisals from all armed groups, and where MONUSCO's failure to halt the M23's progress on several key occasions has undermined the credibility of the UN and the international community.
Second, the military victories over the M23 will send a very strong message to the many other armed groups operating in the east whose elimination is also part of the FIB's mandate. It may prompt them to consider the advantages of a negotiated solution over a drawn-out military campaign. If it really wants peace, Kinshasa will then have to react quickly to capitalise on this and to engage in robust negotiations that can bring a real end to the violence.
Third, it will also send an important message to the DRC's neighbours - who have long taken advantage of the weakness of the Congolese army to interfere at will - that the FIB is a significant military presence that takes seriously its role of going after the armed groups. It will be more difficult for Rwanda, under such circumstances, to continue to clandestinely support the M23 or other groups. Combined with growing criticism of Rwanda's role in the DRC, this could lead Rwanda to conclude that it is time to end its interference in that area. The imminent deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles that will monitor the border areas will also make it more difficult for Rwandan involvement to remain under the radar.
The events of the last two weeks have certainly raised hopes. But the M23 is only one of many armed groups operating in the eastern DRC. There are many others that have long rendered the lives of the population in these parts a living nightmare and that still need to be tackled politically and militarily. Equally, the role of Rwanda in recent developments is unclear - until we know for sure that it has ended its support to the M23, it is too early to celebrate.
Stephanie Wolters is Programme Manager in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the ISS.