Fresh protests break out in Congo against UN and East African forces; anger grows over M23 advance

At least eight people were killed by UN forces in the North Kivu province on February 7. The DRC is witnessing renewed protests against the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) and the East African Community (EAC) regional forces

February 09, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
MONUSCO_peacekeepers DRC
UN peacekeepers near Goma, 2012. (Photo: MONUSCO)

At least eight civilians were killed and 28 others injured by UN forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern province of North Kivu on Tuesday, February 7. The killings took place after confrontations between the local population and forces of the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) near Kanyaruchinya in the Nyiragongo territory. 

The casualties were confirmed by Lieutenant General Constant Ndima on Wednesday, February 8, who added that civilians in the area were opposing the passage of the UN convoy, following which MONUSCO soldiers had fired “warning shots.” The people killed had been displaced by attacks of the M23 rebel group, increasingly acknowledged to be a proxy force backed by neighboring Rwanda, in the territories of Rutshuru and Nyiragongo. 

The provinces of North and South Kivu have witnessed renewed unrest over past weeks as affected populations have accused foreign forces, now including the East African Community (EAC) Regional Force, of “passivity” and a failure to stop the offensive of the M23 rebel group. 

In a statement on Tuesday, MONUSCO said that its convoy was returning from a supply mission to a base in Kiwanja, and was on its way to the provincial capital of Goma when it was stopped near Munigi. It added that the vehicles had been forced to stop after demonstrators had barricaded the roads, after which “attackers” set fire to the convoy’s trucks before stealing their cargo. 

“Three people unfortunately lost their lives during the scuffles, while peacekeepers and the FARDC (Congolese troops) tried to protect the convoy,” the statement said. MONUSCO has said that a joint investigation with Congolese authorities will determine the exact circumstances of the deaths. 

Unrest grows as clashes continue

The killings on Tuesday took place less than a year after over 30 people were killed during major protests demanding the withdrawal of MONUSCO, citing its failure to ensure the security of the people. Amid the protests, it was also reported that members of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade had shot and killed two people in Kasindi, North Kivu, while returning from leave. 

The mission has been present in the country for two decades. It was established by the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 1999 following the second invasion of the DRC by Rwanda and Uganda in 1998. With a current annual budget of approximately USD one billion, MONUSCO is the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation. 

In the wake of growing anti-MONUSCO protests, the UNSC renewed the mission’s mandate for one more year in December, with a troop ceiling of 16,161, of which 13,500 would be military personnel. The mission’s strategic priorities would be centered around the protection of civilians, support for the stabilization and strengthening of state institutions, and governance and security reforms.

Meanwhile, tense conditions were also reported in Goma on Tuesday, where protestors had set up barricades since February 5, cutting off major roads and districts and bringing public and commercial activities to a standstill. 

People have condemned the occupation of the areas of Rutshuru, Nyiragongo, and Masisi by the M23, demanding that either the EAC forces fight the rebel group in these areas, or withdraw from the DRC altogether. 

Fighting between the FARDC and M23 resumed in North Kivu’s territory of Masisi on Tuesday, about 20 kilometers from the town of Sake. The Congolese army was reportedly able to successfully repel the attack. The rebel group had captured the town of Kitchanga by the end of January, following which the FARDC announced that it had withdrawn from the area in an effort to “protect the civilian population.” 

Civil society groups in Masisi have raised SOS appeals amid reports of massive displacement. According to UN figures, over 520,000 people had been displaced by fighting between the M23 and Congolese forces between March 2022 and the end of last year . 

Clashes were reported a few kilometers from Sake, which lies less than 30 kilometers from Goma, on Thursday, February 9, as video footage showed people carrying their belongings and moving along the Sake-Goma road to reach the capital city. As of 2:40 pm local time, the city was still reported to be under the control of the FARDC.

Fighting has continued just days after the 20th Extra-Ordinary Summit of the EAC Heads of State held in Bujumbura, Burundi, on February 4. The final communique calls for an immediate ceasefire by “all parties,” and the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, while calling upon Kinshasa to “facilitate the deployment of troops” from South Sudan and Uganda in the EACRF. 

What of Congo’s sovereignty?

The M23 had initially announced that it had agreed to a ceasefire, as decided by the Mini-Summit on Peace and Security in the Eastern Region of the DRC, held in Luanda, Angola, on November 23, 2022. The ceasefire was set to take effect on November 25, and would also be accompanied by the withdrawal of M23 forces from all occupied areas. 

However, days into the ceasefire, the Congolese government accused the M23 of violating the ceasefire and massacring over 300 civilians in Kishishe, 70 kilometers from Goma. The killings were corroborated by MONUSCO and the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in a report on December 7, which stated that at least 131 civilians had been killed. 

In a report released on February 7, the UNJHRO revised the death toll to 171, affirming that the M23 had killed civilians in Kishishe and Bambo in retaliation “for their supposed collaboration with national defense and security forces and rival armed groups.” 

On December 6, after the conclusion of the EAC-facilitated 3rd Inter-Congolese Dialogue in Nairobi, Kenya, the M23 announced that it was ready to “start disengagement and withdraw.” 

Importantly, the Luanda summit’s final communique called for the “creation of the conditions of M23 currently controlled zones, by the EAC Regional Force,” and not the FARDC. 

On December 23, the M23 announced that it was handing over the strategic town of Kibumba to the EACRF, a move the FARDC denounced as a “sham” meant to serve as a distraction while the rebels reinforced their positions elsewhere. 

However, a confidential UN report covering the period between December 26 and January 3 stated that the group’s “total withdrawal from the area had not been confirmed” and that “suspected M23 movements were still sighted in the area.” It further noted that the group had taken control of further areas, “notably threatening Kitchanga, Mweso, Sake, Kilorirwe, Mushaki, and Nyamilima.” 

Addressing the summit in Burundi, which was also attended by fellow EAC member Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, the DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi told the EACRF commander Major General Jeff Nyagah: “Don’t favor the M23. It would be a shame if the population took it out on you. You have come to help us and not to have problems, be attentive to this, communicate with the population.” 

A press release issued by the Congolese Foreign Affairs Ministry on February 5 highlighted that the summit’s participants had “unanimously noted” the implementation of the Luanda Mini-Summit roadmap by the M23.” Importantly, the statement added that the Congolese government “wishes to recall that the mandate of the regional force is, unequivocally, offensive.” 

Despite being authorized to use force against the M23, the EACRF has reportedly not opted to do so yet. The president of Congo’s National Assembly, Christophe Mboso, has warned that “if within a reasonable time that the Regional Force (EACRF) is unable to support us against the aggressor and that its soldiers take pleasure in supporting or helping our enemies, we will ask the supreme commander of the armed forces, who is the President of the Republic… to take the necessary decision.” 

Millions of Congolese are estimated to have died in the decades of invasion and war in the mineral-rich eastern provinces of the DRC. The theft and exploitation of the country’s resources by foreign armies and armed groups has long been acknowledged as a key driver of the war. In 2022, Uganda was ordered by the International Court of Justice to pay $325 million in reparations to the DRC, including for the damage caused to its natural resources.  

The protests against MONUSCO—and, importantly, the EAC forces—have taken place in the context of increasing fears of Balkanization of the eastern provinces of the DRC to serve the interests of regional forces. 

Protests against the force were held in Goma in January after the EACRF erected a buffer zone around Kibumba, prohibiting access to the area to the FARDC. “It is very serious to prevent the loyalist force from accessing a part of its territory formerly occupied by the enemy,” a member of a local group had said.  

As concerns remain about what shape the EACRF’s presence might take in the DRC and what the outcomes of the Luanda and Nairobi processes may be, the Congolese people have always remained steadfast in their demand that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the DRC must be respected.