The Democratic Republic of Congo has accused neighbouring Uganda of allowing former M23 rebels to cross the common border, sparking fears of a new armed rebellion and yet more humanitarian suffering in a region long used to violence.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende Omalanga said hundreds of armed ex-M23 fighters, supposedly exiled in Uganda, had re-emerged in North Kivu Province in eastern Congo, from where they waged a 19-month war against the Congolese government in 2012-2013. “We are disappointed with our Ugandan colleagues for letting these criminals out, moreover armed,” said Mende. “We can’t allow this [destabilisation] to happen. We engaged these criminals in confrontations and flushed them out.”
The clash he refers to took place in the border town of Ishasha on 14 January, but it’s unclear how many ex-M23 or Congolese government troops were killed.
The M23 (March 23 Movement), a largely Tutsi rebel group, began as a mutiny but rapidly gained ground in North Kivu, taking control of the provincial capital, Goma, in November 2012. It was finally defeated by the Congolese army and the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade in November 2013.A UN group of experts’ report in December 2013 concluded that the M23 fighters were backed by Rwanda and Uganda, a charge both countries’ governments have denied.
Under the terms of the Nairobi Declarations that ended the hostilities, the M23 renounced the rebellion in return for the Congolese government’s commitment to a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programme, and a limited offer of amnesty. Almost 1,400 M23 fighters were initially cantoned in the Bihanga Military Training School in western Uganda after surrendering nearby, awaiting eventual return to Congo. Fewer than 300 remain.New rebellion?
Last week, Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo admitted that some ex-M23 rebels had escaped from Bihanga. They have “lately and quietly been escaping in small groups of about five into the general public, and some to unknown places,” he told IRIN. On 18 January, the Ugandan military apprehended a group of 101 former M23 rebels in Uganda’s western towns of Mbarara and Kabale. They were disguised as civilians en route to Congo. More arrests of former fighters have since been made.
“There was always a danger of M23 returning to the DRC.”
“We caught them trying to escape back to DRC under unclear circumstances,” said Ugandan army deputy spokesman Major Henry Obbo. Some 40 to 50 former combatants had also escaped a week earlier.But, according to a 19 January Ugandan government statement, just 270 of the original 1,377 ex-M23 fighters cantoned in Bihanga actually remain there. Subtracting those and the roughly 200 former fighters who have returned home to Congo under the DDR programme suggests around 900 have fled the camp.
“With the M23 leadership and much of its rank and file still intact, there was always a danger of M23 returning to the DRC,” Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, told IRIN.
Uganda insists it was not involved in the escape of the rebels and is in no way backing another rebellion.
“These are individuals who are escaping on their own,” said Opondo. “Uganda will not and does not support any armed activities to destabilise the DRC.”
Nicaise Kibel Bel’Oka, director of the Centre for Geopolitical Study and Research of Eastern Congo, believes Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has no appetite for backing a new rebellion as he is more concerned about shoring up the support of his own generals.
Bel’Oka told IRIN it was “an open secret” that there were now divisions within the Ugandan military, adding: “
If Kampala takes the risk of arming ex-M23 elements and sending them to fight in Congo, it runs the serious risk of seeing them turn against the [Museveni] regime.”