Army Disarray Hobbles Congo’s Fight with Rwanda-Backed Rebels


In the lush hillsides near Lake Kivu, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) 223rd Battalion faced a critical test as the rebel M23 movement threatened Goma, a bustling city of 2 million people in the mineral-rich eastern region.

Last December, as the M23 advanced, the battalion’s commander reportedly fabricated a medical excuse to return to Goma. In his absence, the unit abandoned its defensive positions without resistance, a move that led to military prosecutors charging eight officers with cowardice and related offenses. Despite their subsequent sentencing to death in May, the officers are now appealing their convictions, highlighting broader challenges within the DRC’s armed forces.

The ongoing conflict in North Kivu province has displaced over 1.7 million people, contributing to a record 7.2 million internally displaced persons across the DRC, according to UN estimates. President Felix Tshisekedi has accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels, a group formed to protect Congolese Tutsis, of which Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a member. Tensions have escalated to the point where Tshisekedi has threatened war against Rwanda, evoking memories of devastating conflicts in the Great Lakes region between 1996 and 2003.

UN-appointed experts have asserted with “solid evidence,” including drone footage and photographs, that Rwandan soldiers are actively engaged alongside the M23 rebels. Reportedly, Rwanda maintains over 3,000 troops in North Kivu, outnumbering M23 fighters and significantly bolstering the rebels’ operational capacity.

Amidst this turmoil, sources within the DRC’s military and Western diplomats have pointed to significant dysfunction within Congolese ranks as a contributing factor to M23’s gains. Cited issues include leadership mismanagement, inexperienced and demoralized troops, and an overreliance on proxy forces. These factors have stymied DRC’s efforts despite increased defense spending and regional support.

DRC’s military has historically grappled with internal divisions, inadequate resources, logistical challenges, and pervasive corruption, exacerbating the crisis in the current conflict. Recent attempts at military reform, including substantial troop recruitment and weapon acquisitions starting in 2022, aim to address these longstanding issues, though progress remains uneven.

Rwanda has consistently denied allegations of backing M23 and refuted claims of direct military involvement in the conflict. Rwandan officials have dismissed accusations as baseless, emphasizing self-defense in response to perceived threats from DRC, particularly regarding alleged support for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group accused of targeting Tutsis in both countries.

While both sides trade accusations and tensions escalate, civilians bear the brunt of the conflict’s humanitarian toll, caught in the crossfire between armed factions with complex political and ethnic dynamics.

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