Source: Flickr by Al Jazeera English, M23 troops Bunagana 3

Background to the M23 group within the DRC

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) holds a “total mineral wealth estimated in the tens of trillions of dollars,” (United States of America 2022) but, according to the World Bank (2022):

… nearly 64% of Congolese … lived on less than $2.15 a day [in 2021]

Considering this unique situation, where natural wealth is plenty but evidently not utilised for the overall benefit of the populace, questions arise as to what exact factors contribute to such gross mismanagement. One contributing factor is a raging civil war, where a militant group calling itself the March 23 Movement, often abbreviated to M23, is ravaging swaths of eastern DRC in a bid to topple one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

“March 23” is a phrase alluding to a peace agreement signed on 23 March 2009 between the DRC government and the Congrés National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) to “cease its existence as a politico-military movement” (Democratic Republic of the Congo 2009).

The CNDP was one of many reactions to increased discrimination against ethnic Tutsis in all areas of society, including politics and business, throughout the 1980s. The 1981 Citizenship Law proceeded to restrict Congolese citizenship only to residents, which according to Franck Kamunga (2022) was:

On the basis of having ancestors who belonged to tribes that had historically been present on the territory of the Republic of Zaire [i.e., DRC] from 15 November 1908 to 1 August 1885

This was a particularly contentious step, as both Tutsis and Hutus had been mainly emigrating from their native Rwanda in the mid-1900s to the Congolese region of North Kivu.

1994’s Rwanda Genocide, which resulted in one million deaths and was ignited by anti-Tutsi hatred. This spurred an all-out war between Rwanda and the DRC in 1996, over the latter’s influx of both Hutu perpetrators of the genocide and innocent refugees.

These developments ensured a fertile breeding ground for armed militant troops like the CNDP to emerge. The 23 March agreement between the DRC government and CNDP failed to appease a faction of the latter group, which later mutinied to form the M23 rebel army.

As of 2022, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2022), an estimated 521,000 people were displaced due to the conflict between M23 and the DRC government. 

DRC socioeconomic situation

Whilst understanding the history of ethnic antagonism in the DRC is important, it is mandated that one must examine the current socioeconomic situation in the country; this will aptly indicate how vulnerable the average citizen is to armed conflict, and how reliable the national government is in eradicating such a brutal rebellion like that of M23. Thus, certain human development indicators are used in this analysis to isolate and identify various factors that significantly determine a particular standard of living.

In 2020, the DRC’s Human Capital Index (HCI), which “conveys the productivity of the next generation of workers compared to a benchmark of complete education and full health …,” was 37, which falls below both the averages for Sub-Saharan Africa and all low-income countries.

The GDP per capita, measured in United States dollars (USD), for DRC in 2021 was $577.20, which is only 4.7% of the global average of $12,234.80 (The World Bank 2021). Moreover, the United Nations Capital Development Fund’s LDC SME Pulse Survey (2020) explicitly states that the DRC’s poverty rate was 62.5% in 2020 and that both the accessibility and effectiveness of government services rank extremely low. These figures appear appalling when absorbed in the context of how naturally endowed the DRC is with mineral resources.

The United States International Trade Administration (2022) asserts that the “DRC has substantial untapped gold, cobalt, and high-grade copper reserves, but equally significant security risks accentuated by a lack of robust infrastructure …” It is evident that the nation’s poor security and weak government racked by corrupt officials are to blame for the absence of any real policy aiming to exploit such mineral wealth for the benefit of the country. 

Governmental corruption is the main reason to point fingers at the DRC’s abysmal security and economic positions.

Transparency International’s (2022) Corruption Perception Index, ranging from 0 (extremely corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt at all), in 2018 measured the DRC with an index of 20, ranking it the 166th most corrupt out of all 180 nations, included in the study. How does this data explain the emergence and success of the M23 rebel group? For starters, there is a clear correlation between corruption levels and national security. Le Billon (2003) argues that corruption’s negative impact on economic growth undermines public services delivery, particularly with education, as mentioned earlier, thus translating to a population of youth that is more prone to joining armed groups for their own financial security and sustenance. Clammer (2012) contends that “ … a corrupt outcome is more probable in situations of weak organisational culture, an inefficient or corrupt police force or a cowed press or one with little tradition of investigative journalism.”

Besides the national state of security, corruption also directly affects the business industry and employment levels. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Governance and Anti-Corruption Assessment of the DRC cites, among other reasons, widespread mistrust in the tax system, “inefficient management of revenue,” and an absence of a general tax code for the whole country (Di Benedetta et al. 2020). Taxes enable the government to pour financial investment back into the economy, so a weak taxation system evidently throws any economic benefit, particularly that which leads to a bolstering of the general business climate, into doubt. This lowers the economic prospects of youth seeking legal avenues of money creation, which, just as Le Billon (2003) stated above, exacerbates their vulnerability to criminal activity and human rights abuses.

How invested is the Congolese government, in controlling the M23?

Against a backdrop of impoverished instability, the Congolese government is tasked with controlling M23 but questions arise over how invested, or rather not, government officials are in M23’s demise. The fair question to ask initially is, “How much has the government accomplished up to now in terms of defeating M23?”

Ben Shepherd (2018) at the Stabilisation Unit of the United Kingdom Government researched how the Congolese government has taken a wide array of strategies to weaken and dismantle M23: “direct talks, regional political activity, and international diplomacy, both bilaterally and multilaterally …” Despite many failures in the dialogue aspect of this situation, one winning approach implemented by the government was keeping the conflict at a table moderated by African leaders, so as not to unnecessarily involve powers like that of the West, who could steer the conversation towards their own selfish benefit or even display unperceptive ignorance.

However, the further dissolution of M23 should be credited more to the army’s lack of inner unity, which made them increasingly susceptible to the government’s military campaign against the rebel group. Shepherd (2018) also points to mechanisms tasked with monitoring threats on the DRC’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda and both assess and plan a scale of military operations. Unfortunately, in the end, these mechanisms did not possess “motivation nor means … [and neither] troops, leadership, and political backing …”

When considering the DRC’s world-renowned reputation for graft, all these reasons for a lack of efficacy in combatting M23 make valid sense. Furthermore, besides the usual financial advantages corrupt officials reap for themselves, are there any specific reasons for certain factions within the government to side with the M23 rebels? There is no real indication that the DRC government genuinely wants to witness a more potent M23, but, nevertheless, a culture of complacency with graft makes the government its own worst enemy.

Possible solutions

As this article refuses to end on a purely negative note, solutions must be proposed so as to boost the DRC government’s capacity in defeating M23 and the wealthy sponsorship these rebels have found in Rwanda once and for all.

Graft is the primary concern, not just because it is the focus of this essay, but because corruption represents a fundamental defect within the DRC’s government that gets in the way of its own ambitions and objectives. For starters, the government must improve its service delivery and enforce mechanisms of holding officials accountable so that tax revenue is not diverted or lost and financial investment in the country is maximised. To be more specific, the government can start by digitalising its payments services, just as Rwanda was cited to be doing so earlier in this paper, so that there is always a paper trail and less money goes missing, also bolstering federal savings and augmenting the budget to fight M23 effectively.

Besides corruption, more funds must be placed aside for the purpose of job creation and educational opportunities, because, as mentioned earlier, the youth population is the most impressionable and vulnerable to M23’s recruitment efforts. Engaging both the public and private sectors to offer adequate jobs reduces people’s desperation and need to find any means of survival. This suggestion is directly linked back to reforming the tax sector, as responsible utilisation of taxes ensures the logical cycle of employment growth leading to increased government revenue leading to more human development investment.

Whilst poverty is a huge sore spot, lack of education and awareness for ways to harmonise ethnic relations and prevent a genocide like that of Rwanda in 1994 is additionally a problem that needs to be addressed urgently.

Ethnic hate stems from ignorance and groups like M23 harp on acts of violence from years ago to perpetual disunity and conflict.

Whilst, yes, most of the victims of the Rwanda Genocide were innocent civilians, the dialogue surrounding the genocide has been appropriated by political figures with their own agendas to garner more money and power.

The government would benefit from facilitating more healthy conversations relating to Hutu-Tutsi relations, teaching this history from a purely unbiased standpoint, and underscoring the dangers of xenophobia to children from primary school onwards. Again, the issue of human development investment arises, as this cannot occur without schools and adequate teaching resources.

This education policy must be particularly focused on the most impoverished areas of the DRC, as residents there are least likely to see the world outside of the lenses of war and prejudice. Educating the populace sufficiently results in them being less influenced by those who warp history for their own selfish gain.

Final thoughts

Although none of these solutions can be realised in a short amount of time, one way to ensure that they maintain steady progress is by increasing the number of stakeholders in these projects. Because the DRC government does not at the moment possess the will nor the faculties to overcome fundamental shortcomings like graft, involving intergovernmental organisations, more prosperous nations with aligned interests, and socially responsible corporations will do better in maintaining enough funding and growth.


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Published by Althea Chokwe

Masters student currently in England | Native New Yorker

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