Conflict Watchlist 2023

Democratic Republic of Congo: Rising Tensions with Rwanda Amid Escalating Violence and Upcoming Elections

Posted: 8 February 2023

The presence of over a hundred armed groups engaging in multiple conflicts over territorial and resource control continued to create instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2022. While many of these conflicts have been active for years, the sudden onset of inter-communal clashes in Mai-Ndombe province and surrounding areas over land taxation was a potent reminder of the volatility of conflict dynamics in the DRC. Amidst the growth of activity by the March 23 Movement (M23) rebel group and the outbreak of new conflicts in 2022, the coming year offers minimal hope for wide-scale conflict resolution. Indeed, escalating tensions between the DRC and Rwanda, and potential voting disruptions to national elections in December 2023 could lead to worsening violence, especially in the eastern provinces.

Political violence events remained concentrated in the eastern region in 2022, driven by political rivalries, land disputes, mineral interests, and foreign intervention. Specifically, Nord-Kivu province accounted for the highest number of political violence events and grew by 7% from last year. Of the groups operating in eastern DRC, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) remained two of the most active. The ADF has early roots as an opposition group to the Ugandan government but later positioned itself as an Islamist militia with pledges to the Islamic State and merger with other militias operating in Nord-Kivu and Ituri provinces.1Lindsay Scorgie, ‘Conflict at the Edge of the African State: The ADF Rebel Group in the Congo-Uganda Borderland’, Lexington, 2022 Despite an overall decrease in ADF activity from 2021, the group directed more violence toward civilians in 2022, driving an overall increase in attack events in the DRC of 12% compared to 2021. ADF’s targeting of civilians accounted for nearly 40% of the total estimated fatalities across the country and comprised 27% of violence targeting civilians in Ituri province.

CODECO began as an agricultural cooperative in Ituri province, later becoming an armed coalition primarily composed from the ethnic Lendu community before fracturing into smaller armed groups in 2020 following the death of former leader Justin Ngudjolo.2Kivu Security Tracker, ‘Armed Groups’, 31 January 2023 CODECO activity remained at similar levels to 2021 after nearly doubling the year prior. Following participation in peace talks and mediation last year,3The East African, ‘Mediators walk a tightrope with mention of fear of polls’, 4 December 2022; United Nations Security Council, ‘Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’, 14 June 2022 CODECO reduced its involvement in violent activities until offensives by rival Ituri Self-Defense Popular Front– more commonly known as FPAC-Zaire– led to yet another escalation in December, especially in Mahagi territory. Further, CODECO was responsible for over 700 reported civilian deaths in Ituri province, primarily in Djugu territory.

The M23 – an armed group formed in 2012 and primarily made up of ‘Rwandaphone’ Tutsi rebels – re-emerged as a prominent conflict actor in 2022, with a nearly thirty-fold increase in activity compared to the year prior.4Delphin Ntanyoma, ‘M23: Four things you should know about the rebel group’s campaign in Rwanda-DRC conflict,’ The Conversation, 23 November 2022 An increasing number of investigations have linked the recent growth of the M23 to backing from Rwanda, intensifying tensions in the Great Lakes region.5Cara Anna, ‘Growing pressure on Rwanda from France, Germany over Congo,’ Associated Press, 21 December 2022 To combat the M23 insurgency, the DRC turned to the East African Community (EAC) to form a Joint Regional Force.6East African Community, ‘DRC President presides over signing of Agreement giving greenlight to the deployment of the EAC Joint Regional Force,’ 9 September 2022 Events involving foreign military actors, including United Nations peacekeepers, more than tripled in 2022. Foreign forces diminished in popularity among local populations last year for their inability to quell ongoing violence and an increasing number of allegations of sexual exploitation, evidenced by numerous demonstrations against EAC regional forces and UN peacekeepers since July.7Kirstin Wagner, ‘Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers in DRC,’ The Conversation, 9 August 2022

The outbreak of violence between Yaka and Teke communal groups in the western province of Mai-Ndombe over a land dispute further highlighted the volatility of conflict dynamics in the DRC. In 2021, Mai-Ndombe was one of the least violent provinces in the DRC. Following the outbreak of fighting in the second half of 2022, however, Mai-Ndombe rose to become the fifth most violent of 26 provinces. The conflict peaked in September before subsiding toward the end of the year. Nevertheless, the fighting affected nearby areas and added a layer to the already complex dynamics of insecurity in the country.

As in previous years, the distinction between state and non-state armed groups remained blurry, with the military (FARDC) incorporating numerous former rebel militants and operating alongside other armed groups, such as the Bwira faction of Nduma Defence of Congo-Renovated, Nyatura militias, and local Mayi Mayi militias.8International Institute For Strategic Studies, ‘The Military Balance,’ 2022, p. 436-452 These joint operations against groups such as M23 created challenges for effectiveness and were frequently referenced by Rwanda as a source of distrust.9Nelleke van de Walle, ‘East Africa’s DR Congo Force: The Case for Caution,’ International Crisis Group, 25 August 2022

What to watch for in 2023

Relations between the DRC and Rwanda have soured in recent months, bringing the two countries close to open conflict. Increasing confrontations between the two countries, including cross-border shelling and military flyovers, may lead to a new violent escalation, with Kigali not ruling out the prospect of its troops intervening in Congolese territory.10Musinguzi Blanshe, ‘DRC / Rwanda / Uganda: 10 key moments in a complicated relationship,’ The Africa Report, 2 June 2022; Moise M. Bahati, ‘Rwanda Ready to Protect Its Sovereignty – Foreign Minister,’ The New Times, 27 January 2023 The hostilities between the two countries may also negatively affect international relations between other EAC member states currently involved in joint military operations against the M23 – an indirect pushback against Rwandan interests. Following a UN inquiry showing links between the Rwandan government and the M23, a growing number of rights groups and foreign governments, including the European Union and United States, called on Rwanda to stop supporting the M23 in late 2022.11Al Jazeera, ‘EU calls on Rwanda to stop supporting M23 rebels in DR Congo,’ 1 January 2023 Growing diplomatic pressure on Rwanda may lead to a withdrawal of support and diminish the strength of M23 forces. While fighting will likely continue in the coming months, Huang Xia, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Great Lakes region, called for peace talks to resume; contributing to mounting pressure for Rwanda to cease support or face diminished external legitimacy – crucial to the current regime.12Aurore Bonny, ‘UN calls for talks between Rwanda, DRC after shooting targeting Congolese fighter jet,’ Anadolu Agency, 27 January 2023; Benjamin Chemouni, ‘The politics of state effectiveness in Burundi and Rwanda: ruling elite legitimacy and the imperative of state performance,’ PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2016 

Regional initiatives and joint security operations are unlikely to resolve the myriad of conflicts in the eastern provinces. However, a multilateral EAC force may stop the expansion of M23, as was the case when joint forces expelled the M23 from the area in 2013. External armed actors also introduce new dynamics of disorder into the DRC. While the EAC regional force has shown some support for the FARDC in regaining control from the M23, another foreign contingent could escalate insecurity by continuing the escalation of attacks against civilians and looting of local, ‘RDC: ‘La force de l’EAC freine les opérations contre le M23’,’ 9 January 2023 

Despite some clashes late into 2022, the inter-communal conflict over land disputes between members of Yaka and Teke communities will likely subside in 2023. The FARDC withdrew from positions in Kwamouth territory of Mai-Ndombe province, integrated some fighters into the army, and militants handed over weapons in December, signaling a likely decrease in violence in the coming months.14Pompon Beyokobana, ‘RDC: vers l’intégration des anciens assaillants de Kwamouth dans l’armée,’ Election Net, 9 January 2023 While some local leaders claimed the restoration of peaceful relations, recent arrangements between the Yaka and Teke over local power arrangements and land rights could break down and lead to renewed fighting.15Actualite, ‘Kwamouth : Une centaine d’assaillants se sont rendus à la délégation du gouvernement , des armes et munitions récupérées,’ 29 December 2023 Further, the outbreak of violence in this region showed the possibility of conflicts spiking in provinces with a recent history of limited violence. 

The Congolese general elections on 20 December 2023 may also stoke existing tensions between party supporters and political candidates. As in 2018, voter exclusion due to insecurity and potential election delays could escalate demonstrations and exacerbate political tensions. After two postponements of the 2018 general elections, demonstrations and election-related violence rose across the country. Evidence of election-related violence began in late 2022 when M23 rebels ransacked electoral offices in Rutshuru town, and reports of government workers also being the targets of violence. President Felix Tshisekedi will likely run for a second term, with others expected to make public candidacy announcements throughout 2023.16[Paul Lorgerie, ‘Congo schedules presidential elections for Dec 2023,’ Reuters, 26 November 2022/ With the elections in December, the year ahead brings a high potential for increasing excessive state force against protesters, rioting, and violence targeting civilians based on party or government affiliation.