Things are heating up in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). On Tuesday, the rebel group M23 seized the city of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. They also appear to be advancing on Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province. If the rebels succeed in taking Bukavu, they will hold the most territory of any rebel group since the Congolese civil war “ended” in 2003.
At first glance, it is surprising that M23 has been able to accomplish this much. The group is only seven months old. The group is estimated to be comprised of 700 former members of the Congolese army that defected over accusations over neglected pay and that the government was not honoring a peace agreement signed with another former rebel group, CNDP, in 2009. Sizing Goma — a city of more than 300,000 people — is a significant milestone for the group. The Congolese army had soldiers in and around Goma, and the United Nations has a significant peacekeeping force located in eastern Congo.
How did 700 soldiers manage to challenge a national army and capture a city of 300,000 people? There are two key parts to the explanation. First, eastern DRC has virtually all of the factors that make areas of the world prone to insurgency. The DRC is huge, and the capital, Kinshasa, is located in the far west of the country, nearly 1,000 miles away from Goma. Congo is very poor with little infrastructure, severely limiting the ability of the government to project power into the countryside. Despite extreme poverty, however, the Kivus are rich in natural resources. The population of North and South Kivu is ethnically divided and includes a relatively large group, the Banyamulenge, that migrated from Rwanda in the late 19th century and are seen as outsiders by much of the rest of the population of the Kivus. Additionally, eastern DRC contains rebels from civil wars in neighboring countries, primarily Rwanda and Uganda.
All of these factors help to explain why insurgency is relatively easy in eastern DRC and why the Kivus have been one of the most conflict-torn parts of the world for decades. But why has M23 in particular been so successful? That brings us to the second part of the explanation — external support. While they deny it, it is virtually certain that Rwanda and Uganda are supporting M23 (see my blog post for a discussion of Rwanda’s involvement in the Congo). External support gives the rebels access to sophisticated weapons and equipment, giving them military superiority over the more poorly equipped and organized Congolese army. The extent of external support is unknown, but it is significant, and in the absence of this support M23 would be unable to accomplish nearly as much as it has.
This Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebellion will not end the way the 1996-1997 one did, with the overthrow of the Congolese government. Seven hundred soldiers are not going to make significant advances toward the capital, and Rwanda and Uganda are not going to project power 1,000 miles from their borders this time. But, the combination of geography, lack of infrastructure, ethnic division, natural resources, and external states willing to meddle beyond their borders mean that, whatever happens to M23, eastern Congo is likely to be conflict-torn for years to come.
Note: A previous version of this post erroneously stated that the group formed on March 23, 2012. The name “M23” refers to March 23, 2009, when a peace agreement was signed between the Congolese government and the rebel group CNDP. The group was formed in April 2012.