GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Over the course of last week, the M23 has been consumed by internal fissures so profound they might precipitate the demise of the group. The M23 has long struggled with an internal division between the military leader Sultani Makenga on the one hand and the International Criminal Court indictee General Bosco Ntaganda and his sidekick, the groups’ political leader Jean-Marie Runiga on the other. But it wasn’t until last week that the infighting spilled into the wide open—with dramatic consequences. The pro-Makenga wing is now at full-fledged war with the pro-Ntaganda side, causing dramatic humanitarian fallout and plunging the Kivu provinces further into turmoil.
On the day the United Nations together with 11 African heads of state convened in Addis Ababa to sign a peace agreement for the Congo and the region, the simmering squabbling among the M23 finally sparked heavy fighting. A total of three soldiers and eight civilians, including a journalist of the Rutshuru-based La Colombe Radio Station, are reported to have been killed in the assault. The M23 tried to save face by blaming the attack on its long-standing adversary, the FDLR.
Makenga and his troops reportedly withdrew to Bunagana and Tshanzu, close to the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Ntaganda’s forces, on the other hand, pulled out of Kiwanja, Rutshuru city, and Rubare and headed to Kibumba, 30 km north of the provincial capital of Goma. Makenga’s men followed suit and engaged in heavy fighting with Ntaganda, triggering the displacement of thousands of people both in Rwanda and Congo.
Amid the fighting, Makenga took a bold political step on February 27, sacking M23’s political chairman, Jean-Marie Runiga, citing “[i]incompetence, financial embezzlement, divisionism, ethnic hatred, deceit and political immaturity.” Others suggest that both sides fought over spoils of war and how to proceed with the current peace talks in Kampala, Uganda.
Following the ousting of Runiga, the fighting intensified dramatically. On March 1, both sides reportedly reached Kibati, a village just 17 km north of Goma under the aegis of a South African contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping mission. The Enough Project witnessed first-hand the tense atmosphere at the MONUSCO headquarters in Goma, when the news came out that the M23 was once again coming dangerously close to the provincial capital. U.N. staff of the so-called Joint Verification Mechanism, or JVM, and other U.N. observers, rushed to a helicopter and flew to Kibati to assess the situation. A U.N. source commented to the Enough Project that “[r]obust protection measures are in place to protect Goma.”
On March 3, the Congolese national army withdrew again from areas previously taken from Ntaganda to prevent a confrontation with Makenga. Other areas vacated by both Ntaganda and Makenga are currently disputed between different militias including the FDLR, Mayi- Mayi Shetani, and the Nyatura.
The reasons for M23’s internal struggles remain disputed. Some argue that Ntaganda supposedly tried to topple Makenga by installing Col. Baudouin Ngaruye as the new military leader. Makenga responded in turn by attacking Ngaruye and his men in Rutshuru, North Kivu. Another theory avers that Runiga wanted to resume large-scale fighting. Others suggest that Kinshasa has bought off Makenga, offering him the prospect of reintegration into the Congolese national army for bringing in Ntaganda. On radio, the Enough Team heard Makenga’s forces chanting “Capture Bosco Ntaganda and hand him over to the ICC” as they were heading back to regroup in Bunagana.
It remains a matter of speculation whether the current infighting will accelerate the group’s demise or cause panic and ultimately more fighting. At the moment, Makenga’s forces seem to have an upper hand in the fighting. On March 1, they successfully forced Ntaganda’s forces into Virunga National Park.
Will Makenga arrest Ntaganda and reintegrate into the national army? And what happens to the peace talks in Kampala? The fate of the M23 remains uncertain.
Photo: M23 rebels in a pick-up truck (AP)