Eastern Congo and North Kivu in particular, are currently going through an intense and decisive period. In less than a week, the Congolese army (FARDC) has re-conquered the towns until recently controlled by M23.
The fighting around Goma broke out on Friday October 25th a few days after the newest round of negotiations between M23 and the Congolese government had broken down hours before it seemed both parties were close to signing an agreement.
The talks finally collapsed after the government refused to grant amnesty to the M23 leadership.
New clashes broke out and the FARDC successively took Kibumba, Kiwanja, Rutshuru, and the military camps of Rumangabo and Bunagana, bordering Uganda and Rwanda.
This victory, which appeared unlikely only weeks ago, was achieved by the Congolese army, backed up by the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). On African Defense Review, Darren Olivier provides an interesting analysis of the military and logistical aspects of the attack.
Whilst I write this piece, government forces are attacking the last areas held by the M23 rebel group in the forested hills in the east. The political structure of M23 declared the movement wants to lay down its arms, but that does not yet seem the case for the military wing.
Will this put an end to what appears to be an endless cycle of conflict in eastern Congo? Most probably not. But it might remove M23 - the youngest rebel movement led by Congolese Tutsi, designed, supported and used by Rwanda - from the map.
And that would mean, as Jason Stearns points out on Congo Siasa, that for the first time since 1996 "an armed group allied to Rwanda is not present in the eastern Congo."
The end of a misadventure
This is not the place, nor the time, to tell the entire story of M23's rise and fall, but a quick summary is useful.
The genesis of the movement goes back to January 2012, when Bosco Ntaganda understood that the Congolese government was about to drop him.
There had been an International Criminal Court warrant on Bosco for many years and after the 2011 elections there was a lot of pressure on Kabila to deliver him as a sign of good will.
Kinshasa wanted to capitalize on this arrest to replace Bosco with a more loyal commander, thus dismantling (at least partially) the 'army within an army' that the CNDP had remained since it was integrated in to the FARDC in 2009.
Bosco returned to the maquis and was followed by a group of officers, mostly people with a CNPD background, and since 2009, FARDC commanders.
But contrary to earlier rebel movements of this kind, M23's capacity to mobilize and recruit people remained low. M23 was the product of discontent in the ranks of the Tutsi elite in North Kivu but never managed to extend beyond that. The Banyamulenge (Tutsi from South Kivu) kept their distance from M23 and managed to remain outside the conflict.
The same is true for the large Hutu community of North Kivu. Due to their limited support base within Kivu's Kinyarwanda-speaking community, M23 lacked the clout to start a proper war, despite the support Rwanda provided (documented by the UN Group of Experts). It looked like M23's main reason for existing was to obtain, through negotiations, better positions within the army and the government.
For months their capacity to inflict harm was limited to a small area in Rutshuru, but in November, quite unexpectedly, they took Goma.
They kept it for nearly 2 weeks, and after they moving out, two parallel processes started. The first one, commonly known as the Kampala negotiations, led to absolutely nothing. The second was when international reaction crystalized into the Framework Agreement of Addis Abeba in February 2013.
The most immediate consequence of the agreement was that it announced the deployment of a UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), composed of Malawian, South African and Tanzanian soldiers.
This brigade would "neutralize and disarm [M23], as well as other Congolese rebels and foreign armed groups in strife-riven eastern Democratic Republic of Congo." And most of all, it would fundamentally change the military power balance in the field.
Even after M23 had left Goma, it remained the most coherent, most organized and best performing military actor in the Kivus. This was less a result of its own strength, and more a consequence of the FARDC's weakness. The announcement of the brigade's arrival created a lot of animosity in the field.
But by the time the brigade arrived, M23 had weakened itself, for two reasons. First, the internal tensions within M23, more precisely between Sultani Makenga, the commander in chief of the rebellion (close to Nkunda), and Bosco, burst out into open confrontations.
On top of the traditional cleavages between the two camps (based on clans within the Tutsi community and regional dissension between Masisi and Rutshuru) was the strategic question of how to position the movement against the background of the Framework Agreement and other negotiations.
In March 2013, it was clear that Makenga was much more eager than Bosco to finalise the negotiations with the government and come to some sort of integration.
Makenga won, Bosco fled to The Hague. 200 soldiers were killed in the fighting; many more were wounded or surrendered. The M23 officers reunited around Makenga, but the movement was much weaker than before.
The second and most important reason for M23's decline was the fact that Rwanda faced a more critical attitude from its most loyal international partners.
The reaction of countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Sweden and Holland went much further than had before, and certainly much further than Rwanda had anticipated.
Measures were not only announced but also taken, and Rwanda had to be much more discrete and careful in its support. M23 immediately felt the difference.
The result is that M23 is today verging on military disappearance. It tried several times in recent weeks, by grenades and mortar fire on both Goma and Gisenyi, to create a context where Rwanda would cross the border and intervene directly in support.
Today, the Rwandan army is at its highest state of alert on the border. But, although the possibility of Rwandan assistance still exists, it isn't very likely.
Are we really approaching the end of the M23 misadventure? It looks like it. Over the past 18 months nobody has won. Not Congo, which was once more near to imploding, during and after Goma's fall.
Rwanda neither, which lost a lot of its traditional support in Europe and the USA (and amongst the population of eastern Congo).
The people welcome what they consider to be a military victory, but they are, at the same time, afraid that this might only be a short breather in an endless cycle of violence.
But let us try to identify the new elements in recent developments - indications that this is not just another chapter in the same old story.
Not the same old story 1: The Congolese army, rising from the ashes?
The Congolese army has gone through a metamorphosis in recent months. For many years, the FARDC was considered to be a heterogeneous, undisciplined, badly trained amalgam of different militias.
Whenever there was a problem of armed bandits on the loose, efforts were made to resolve it by "integrating" them into the "regular" army, and giving the command to the one who has done most to violate human rights.
There were many reasons why the unification of the army did not succeed.
Firstly, logistics: Regrouping the militias, registering each soldier individually, training them, re-shuffling them and deploying them into new units, all require the use of barracks. But there are none, or at least very few.
There is also the matter of natural resources.
A large number of armed groups (whether or not they have been integrated into the national army) only survive economically because they have taken possession of a mine, or some commercial concern, etc. and they are reluctant to abandon their possession.
Then there was the question of transparency and good management, or rather the absence thereof. In fact the less clear the army's organisational structure, the greater opportunities there are for those at the head of it to embezzle large sums of money.
The many international efforts to assist the Congolese authorities in setting up a defense apparatus capable of guaranteeing the security of the Congolese people had a disappointing impact. This was acknowledged in a very critical report from the European Court of Auditors in September 2013.
The result was a phantom army which was more a part of the problem than its solution. It was systematically listed among the most serious violators of human rights. In short, it was an army that was dangerous for everybody except the enemy.
This has, however, changed recently, becoming visible from July onwards. It goes back to the replacement of General Gabriel Amisi aka 'Tango Four' by General François Olengha as Chief of staff of the army's land forces in November 2012.
In February 2013, 115 commanding officers from Ituri, South and North Kivu were called back to Kinshasa on the pretext of a military seminar and kept there. All of them were considered to be much more involved in business activities around the army than in military operations.
They were also suspected of lacking loyalty to the national cause. Their involvement in different local commercial, ethnic and other networks made it impossible to provide effective leadership.
The replacement of General Mayala by General Bahuma as Commander of the military region that covers North Kivu was also very important.
Their disappearance from the field improved a lot of practical issues: the logistics became better organized, uniforms, arms and ammunition were available where and when they were needed and salaries were paid.
The first successes gave a boost to the army and created a wave of solidarity towards the army among the population, something which was previously unheard of.
Contrary to Amisi's period of command, the battalions formed by the Belgians and the South Africans were deployed on the front line and made a significant difference - providing evidence that the international efforts to reinforce the army were not all that bad.
A Congolese army that can carry out successful operations is an important development, but a successful reform of the security sector is something else. The challenge will be to consolidate it in North Kivu and to extend it to the rest of the country. The performance of the FARDC might not be enough to give the country a disciplined and effective army, but it is a good start.
Not the same old story 2: Monusco
A similar metamorphosis was witnessed within Monusco. Since its deployment, the UN peacekeeping mission never gave the impression that it could fulfill its mission and protect the Congolese people.
The Blue Helmets were considered as non-proactive, with a rather vague role, often absent at the time and place of the action, with too little coordination between civil and military structures, too distant from the Congolese people and heartily loathed by them.
This also changed as part of the Framework Agreement. The arrival of the FIB and the replacement of Roger Meece by the German diplomat Martin Kobler made a big difference.
Kobler has made a big effort to be close to the field and accessible to the Congolese population. He is also a much better communicator than his recent predecessors.
Of course these changes wouldn't have been possible without the Security Council's decision on March 28th 2013 to renew and extend Monusco's mandate to make the Framework Agreement operational.
Not the same old story 3: Rwanda closely monitored by its allies
It is clear that M23's military force was diminished by the prompt action of the international community, which reacted faster and sharper than usual. Rwanda was heavily criticized by some of its most loyal partners.
In Washington, London, The Hague, Berlin and Stockholm, immediate measures were taken to cut or suspend parts of their bilateral support.
Rwanda overplayed its hand in its M23 gamble. Even after most of its partners lifted or alleviated the measures, it was absolutely clear that its future moves and actions would be looked upon with great suspicion. The traditional partners of Rwanda went way beyond its worst fears.
Not the same old story 4: Africans claim ownership of the conflict
Another development worth mentioning is that African countries and multilateral institutions have been quite eager to play a role in the process of solving this conflict.
Or at least preventing it from developing into an open regional war. Not only did they confront the traditional protagonists, they also confronted each other.
The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (Kenya, the DRC and its nine immediate neighbours) worked intensively to keep the conflict within its existing limits, the SADC countries tried to get actively involved (Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania have sent troops for the FIB), the African Union also sought its own visibility and leadership.
It is an interesting development and it is not impossible that the result will be the power balance between and within African regions might be reformulated.
The first signs of redrawing the map of African multilateral institutions are already visible: Tanzania's role in the FIB led to tensions with Rwanda which put a lot of pressure on the East African Community.
A window of opportunity?
You can't summarise an event whilst still in the middle of it.
Fighting has remained intense during the last few days, but at the very moment I am finalising this text it seems that M23's last bastions have been taken and the rebels have given up their insurgency - declaring that they now want to achieve their goals through purely political means. It is not yet clear what this means for the last round of negotiations in Kampala.
But if the violence around M23 comes to an end, progress will have to be made in other areas - for example on other armed groups.
The FIB did not come for M23 alone; their Terms of Reference stipulate they are there to disarm all armed groups. Who will be next? It has been suggested that one of the reasons Rwanda kept quiet in the last weeks is due to guarantees it has had that the FDLR is next on the list.
Congo will have to do the rest of the homework it committed itself to in Addis Ababa: reforming the security sector and government institutions, consolidate the state authority in the east and prevent armed groups from destabilizing neighbouring countries, strengthening the agenda of reconciliation, tolerance and democratization, to make progress in the decentralization process. Such a shopping list does not appear to be very concrete.
If the violence in the east stops or even decreases, the focus of attention will be brought back on to the political scene - afterall, the M23 misadventure started after controversial elections.
There is a pervasive climate of distrust, not only between majority and opposition, but also internally within the majority and the opposition. Kabila made an interesting strategic move going forward: he appointed Augustin Matata Ponyo as Prime Minister.
Matata Ponyo had worked in the international financial world and as Congo's Minister of Finance; he had been responsible for the macroeconomic successes in the previous legislature.
His profile is more technocratic than political. Matata started to reform the administration, injecting bits of good governance and installing mechanisms of control which go against the interests of those who controlled the ship of the state before him.
Just after M23 left Goma, Kabila announced a process to increase national cohesion. Everyone had their own understanding of what a process of increasing national cohesion could or should look like, or what it should even be called.
Eventually des concertations nationales were organised in September and October 2013 and a list of recommendations were adopted. Kabila announced a new government, but it is not clear yet what it will look like or who will lead it.
Some people fear that the PPRD barons and party apparatchiks around Secretary-General Boshab see this as an excellent occasion to get rid of Prime Minister Matata Ponyo.
They wouldn't be at all averse to sending 'le petit' into the desert as a scapegoat. We can't exclude that a government reshuffle will be presented as a reform, while in reality it is the opposite - the restoration of the previous, pre-Matata regime, with negative consequences for real reform.
Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes.
Until recently, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.