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Congo’s armed groups display a horrific capacity for brutality.
the region’s staggering natural wealth.
Rebellions frequently begin in North Kivu. The most recent one started nine months ago when army soldiers loyal to Bosco Ntaganda, a Tutsi Congolese general indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, staged a mutiny. With the alleged backing of Rwanda, Ntaganda set out to carve a fiefdom among the forests and hills bordering Virunga. The rebels called themselves of the March 23 Movement, or M23.
An uneasy detente between M23 and the Congolese army was broken in November when the rebels marched on Goma, the provincial capital, and occupied the city for close to two weeks before withdrawing.
M23’s military leadership consists of former members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People, known by its French acronym, CNDP. It’s a defunct rebel group, once led by another renegade Tutsi army officer, Laurent Nkunda, Ntaganda’s former boss.
According to UN investigators, the CNDP — like the M23 — enjoyed Rwanda’s backing during its 2008 rebellion. An agreement struck between the governments of Rwanda and Congo, however, led to the arrest of Nkunda. A related deal, signed on March 23, 2009, sought to integrate the CNDP fighters into the Congolese military. Instead, it gave the latest rebellion its name.
“The Congolese authorities pretended to integrate the CNDP into political institutions, while the rebel group pretended to integrate into the Congolese army,” said a recent briefing paper from the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
THE REBELS TRY TO GOVERN
Inside the territory it now controls in North Kivu, the M23 rebels are busy establishing the trappings of a state as they seek to re-invent their armed rebellion as a broad-based political movement. There are civilian administrators and ministries of health, education, justice, even environment and tourism.
The rebel capital is Rutshuru, an orderly hillside town with a main road bordered by tall trees. Teams of street sweepers keep the place clean. Rebel soldiers maintain security.
Benjamin Mbonimpa is the town’s administrator. He calls himself “the eyes and ears of the executive,” referring to the M23 top leadership: military commander Col. Sultani Makenga and political leader Jean-Marie Runiga.
At Mbonimpa’s office, two military men sat and listened. The taller of the two, folded into his chair so that his knees were higher than his waist, was Seko Nkunda, younger brother to Laurent, the ousted former head of the CNDP. Mbonimpa said he used to be the CNDP’s foreign minister.
Mbonimpa has taken over his predecessor’s abandoned office, including his desktop computer. A large Congolese flag hangs from a pole behind his swivel chair. He is proud of the M23’s achievements.
“The only government services we have not replaced are the taxes,” he said proudly.
“The governor of North Kivu was in charge of taxes and it all went into his pocket,” Mbonimpa claimed as he motioned the pocketing of a fistful of cash, “his, and [President Joseph] Kabila’s.”
The rebellion’s own funding appears to come mostly from levies charged at checkpoints on the roads and from control of the Bunagana border post with Uganda, where goods entering and leaving the country are taxed. The United Nations says the two sources yield $200,000 a month.
M23 leaders, however, deny they are seeking an independent state.
“What we want is to change the Congolese leadership. It is weak, corrupt. We are Congolese, we don’t need to be autonomous,” Mbonimpa said, clutching the national flag at his side for emphasis.
“Kinshasa may be 1,000 miles away, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” he added.
Mbonimpa said his priorities in Rutshuru were security, development and fighting corruption, in that order. To this latter end, a handful of M23-branded signboards — the “M23” painted in black and blue above a Nike-style red swoosh — declare, “We are against corruption”, in block capitals in French, English and Swahili.
As if the signboards might on their own end graft, Mbonimpa said: “You have seen our signs. It is not like before!”
Privately, local residents dispute Mbonimpa’s claims of altruistic governance. They say the rebel ministries are hollow institutions, their services non-existent and their authority rooted in fear.
“The government did nothing, M23 does nothing. It’s the same thing,” said a middle-aged laborer who did not want to give his name. “You ask about ‘the government of the M23’ and I don’t know what you mean.”
“Whether it is the Congo government or the M23, nobody takes responsibility,” said a medical worker, who also asked to remain anonymous. He pointed, however, to a pervasive uneasiness in rebel controlled zones. “Under the previous government, we could do what we wanted, now we are more careful.”
Human Rights Watch and others have documented a series of brutal and violent attacks, including dozens of cases of rape and murders that it says were perpetrated by M23 fighters in Rutshuru and Goma.
The New York-based group has also accused M23 of forcibly recruiting children and young men into its ranks. In an interview, M23 spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama dismissed the allegations with a broad smile.
He insisted that women were safe in rebel territory, no one was murdered and that any and all recruits were volunteers.