Recent articles will have you think that chaos is coming (again) to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while the M23 rebels, a force of between 1,000 and 3,000 defected Congolese soldiers fighting against the government since May, have taken the capital of the mineral rich region of North Kivu, they are not currently sliding the DRC into chaos any faster than it already was going to.
Unfortunately, the northeast region of the DRC is no stranger to conflict and armed groups have effectively controlled territory and taxed citizens there since 2003. The advance of the M23 rebels is another, almost predictable, move in the waltz that is the country’s instability. The rebels’ take over of Goma, capital of North Kivu region, last week has sent shock waves throughout the media as they then claimed to be prepared to march all the way to the capital of the DRC, Kinshasa. While this ‘victory’ is significant for the group as it has been accumulating territory since May, it does mean its future prospects to overthrow the government will be successful. The rebel force is relatively small compared to the entire Congolese army of 40,000 and regional and international actors have already made it clear that an overthrow will not be tolerated. In fact, a regional group of actors recently released an ultimatum for the rebels with a deadline to surrender their newly acquired territories and retreat back north of Goma.
In a surprising twist, the rebels have said they would honor this request and are in the process of pulling back their troops, leaving just one company of 100 soldiers to guard the airport. International and regional actors were beginning to breathe a sigh of relief, when the Friday deadline passed and the rebels are still in Goma. M23 leaders have blamed the UN peacekeeping troops, MONUSCO, for hindering their movements and ability to gather their troops and arms prior to their march out of Goma and southern territories. While these claims may be true, it is more likely that the group does not intend to honor the request. The mineral-rich region leaves many possibilities for wealth and the M23 rebels have had relatively little resistance thus far to their efforts to take territory. So while the M23 leaders talk of wanting to ‘give peace a chance,’ they have very few incentives to actually act on those words.
The situation in Goma, with the M23 rebels, is unfortunate and a cause of significant pain for the long-suffering civilians of the region as well as for the political and economic stability of the DRC as a whole. But this one instance is not going to bring the entire country into chaos immediately as some reporters would like to pronounce. The DRC has managed to survive a hard and imperfect life cycle of regional instability and rebel uprisings, the M23 rebels are not very different from groups fighting in the 1997-2003 war. What happens next will depend on what the DRC government, regional powers and the international community, through the United Nations, do when the M23 rebels do not comply with the surrendering of territory ultimatum.