EXPLAINER - Why escalating DR Congo conflict is fueling anti-West sentiment

Demonstrators have been burning flags of Western countries they accuse of backing M23 rebels through Rwanda

James Tasamba  | 25.02.2024 - Update : 27.02.2024
EXPLAINER - Why escalating DR Congo conflict is fueling anti-West sentiment

- New wave of fighting between M23 rebels, DR Congo army has set off protests throughout country  

- Demonstrators have been burning flags of Western countries they accuse of backing M23 rebels through Rwanda    

KIGALI, Rwanda 

Demonstrators in the Democratic Republic of Congo are burning the flags of Western countries, reflecting anger about their perceived support to Rwanda through the M23 rebels.

The anti-West sentiment started in Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo, earlier this month, where demonstrators burned vehicles belonging to embassies and the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

Demonstrators accuse the international community of “indifference” to the security and humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo.

In recent weeks, the protests picked up, extending to eastern DR Congo where fighting has flared between the army and M23 rebels.

During the latest demonstration in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu province, on Feb. 20, dozens of angry youngsters, some draped in the Congo flag, trampled on the flags of France, the US, EU and Poland.

DR Congo accuses Rwanda of backing the M23 rebels – a claim Kigali has consistently denied.

It is hard to ascertain the amount of pressure the protests could have on Western governments, but it drives the point home that Congolese lives matter, according to analysts.

“It's clear those ‘citizens' manifestations’ against Western missions in Kinshasa were the last ploy by Kinshasa to put diplomatic pressure on Western states in order to hold Kigali accountable for allegedly backing the M23 rebels!” Louis Gitinywa, a Rwandan-based political analyst, told Anadolu.

“The efforts have been fruitful as we recently observed a radical shift from the US, EU and the UN Security Council, issuing strong statements calling on Rwanda and other parties to cease their support to the belligerent parties in the conflict.”

Harold Acemah, a political scientist based in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, said the attacks on Western embassies are ill-conceived and not advisable.

For nearly three decades, the eastern DR Congo has been facing insecurity posed by several armed groups with thousands of people living in camps in the two most conflict-affected provinces of North Kivu and Ituri.

About 6.9 million people are estimated to have been driven out of their homes by conflict since March 2022.

After being dormant for roughly a decade, the M23 rebel group resumed fighting in 2021.

As such, the conflict has put DR Congo and neighboring Rwanda on the brink of war.

Fighting between the M23 rebels and the Congolese army intensified in recent days around Sake, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Goma.

Since the first week of February, more than a dozen civilians have been killed and several injured around Goma and Sake, according to the UN refugee agency.

Around 135,000 internally displaced persons have fled Sake to Goma. 

What could be the politics behind renewed fighting?

The escalation has led to calls by the US and France to Rwanda to stop support to the M23 and pull out troops from Congo.

Willy Ngoma, the M23’s military spokesperson, was among six people from armed groups in eastern Congo sanctioned Feb. 20 by the UN Security Council.

Rwanda argues that the recent M23 advances are in response to the Congo’s decision to expel the East African Community Regional Force in December, which oversaw cease-fire and withdrawal efforts.

Gitinywa thinks the renewed fighting is meant to put sustainable pressure on Kinshasa to come to the negotiation table.

Eastern Congo is rich in mineral wealth. Some analysts say the fighting in eastern Congo is fueled by foreign countries seeking to maintain geopolitical influence and profit from the extraction of the area's mineral riches.

“The ongoing conflict in Eastern DRC (DR Congo) is regrettable, avoidable and unnecessary. DRC's enormous mineral wealth has sadly been a curse for the country. The illegal exploitation of the mineral resources of DRC thrives on anarchy, chaos and lawlessness in the country,” said Acemah.  

Who are the M23 rebels?

M23, an ethnic Tutsi-led rebel group, was formed in 2012.

The name M23 was derived from the March 23 date of a 2009 accord that ended the group’s previous revolt in eastern Congo.

Key elements of the accord were to fully integrate Congolese Tutsis into the army and government.

But the M23 accused authorities of not living up to promises.

The rebel group claims to defend Tutsi interests against ethnic Hutu militias whose leaders are linked to the 1994 genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda.

The Tutsi make up 1-2% of Congo’s population.

M23 fighters seized vast swathes of the eastern Congo in 2012 and briefly occupied Goma, a city with 2 million people.

But they were later driven out the following year by the army and UN peacekeepers, fleeing into Rwanda and Uganda. 

How bad could the conflict get before peace prevails?

DR Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi has rejected any dialogue with the M23 rebels.

If the claims that the M23 is supported by Rwanda are anything to go by, then the prospects for peace and security in eastern DRC are not good, Acemah, a retired career diplomat, told Anadolu.

For Gitinywa, as things stand for now, it is not predictable but clear that all the belligerents in the conflict are ready to defend their interests unmindful of Western pressure or sanctions.

Amid the hostilities, several central African countries, including Burundi, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, now have troops in DR Congo.  

What are the chances of conflict sucking in regional forces?

Gitinywa said that for the last three decades, the Great Lakes region has always been a “very volatile” region and “the recent strategic alliance made by the different actors of the region have simply heightened the risk of full-blown war.”

He said, however, so far “we observe that the parties are observing restraint as none wants to take the blame of starting a war.”

Acemah urged regional blocs – East African Community (EAC), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union – to demand a cease-fire and promote a political solution to the conflict, noting that there is no lasting military solution to the conflict.

“What DRC deserves and needs is a peaceful political solution through negotiations in which all stakeholders participate. AU and EAC should broker the negotiations at Addis Ababa or Arusha or another venue acceptable to all parties,” he said.

“Restoration of peace and security in DRC is good for the social and economic development of the Great Lakes Region,” he added.

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