By Arinaitwe Rugyendo

The M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo have once again been accused of gross human-rights abuses by Human Rights Watch.

An earlier accusation by the UN implicated neighbouring Rwanda and accused it of not only supporting the rebels but also of complicity.

According to Human Rights Watch the rebels, which constitute a large number of soldiers that broke ranks with the Kinshasa government, have committed acts of rape, summary executions and child-soldier recruitment. In effect, Human Rights Watch and by extension, the international community has indicted them for crimes against humanity.

So far there’s no mention of the fact that despite these “mistakes”, the M23 have genuine concerns that need to be addressed. Much in the same way the international community has sought to address the concerns of the Northern Alliance rebels in Afghanistan, the Kurds in Iraq, the Israeli and Palestinian guerrillas and the Arab Spring revolutionaries in Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt. All have committed atrocities but because they fit into the western narrative of enforcing targeted democracy in those particular regions the collateral damage doesn’t matter.

The M23 are ostracised because the DRC is a unique case. Unlike the countries mentioned above the DRC is a watering well where everyone’s (regional countries and resource-hungry western nations) interests have clashed in a struggle. In a bid to upstage the weaker nations, the international community has sought to use the human-rights abuse justification and intervention by neighbours who need to secure their borders. They paint the M23 as a bunch of idiots hell-bent on destruction with no genuine cause. In a series of subsequent instalments I will elect to disagree because I think the international community has decided to deliberately misinterpret the DRC crisis.

On May 23 this year a group of rebel fighters led by Jean Bosco Ntaganda attacked the eastern border towns of DRC and took the Congolese army by surprise. When Rwandan forces captured Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese dissident, a few years ago the Joseph Kabila government thought all was over as Nkunda was the only active general in the Kivu province.

But a surprise attack by M23 awakened the reluctant Kabila because their initial success against his forces reminded him of how his father managed to remove Mobutu Sese Seko with the backing of the Kampala and Kigali regimes in 1996. It was therefore important for Kabila to realise that as long as eastern DRC still posed a security threat to Rwanda and Uganda there would always be options available to address the problem in the interest of their long-term and strategic interests. The international community doesn’t want to appreciate this yet. Uganda and Rwanda have genuinely felt they deserve to be comfortable with a friendly government in the northern Kivu region since Kabila has failed to take control of his huge nation militarily and administratively. No state in the world can be comfortable with a mismanaged neighbour. The US cannot sit and watch as North Korea tests a missile that can hit Alaska in seconds. There are many such cases in the West. But to appreciate this we need to ask one important question: why are the M23 justified?

M23 are the remnants of several rebel groups that have been trying to create a separate state in the eastern DRC called the North Kivu State, an area largely dominated by the Banyamulenge or Congolese Tutsis. These Congolese are related to the Rwandan Tutsis and have been oppressed in the DRC ever since the Tutsi-led government took over power in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994.

The Hutu militia crossed into the DRC and started killing the Banyamulenge in large numbers, the same way they had killed their Tutsi brothers and sisters in Rwanda during the genocide. The international community didn’t pay any attention. The Banyamulenge took up arms to protect themselves against the Hutu in the DRC whose interests were to re-organise and return to Rwanda with the help of some in Kabila’s army. The Kigali regime must have a special interest in what’s happening across the border, which is why Kabila points a finger at Rwanda for supporting M23 rebels.

It’s obvious the Kigali regime would be more secure along its borders if the Banyamulenge were liberated and allowed to form their own state in areas they occupy in the North Kivu Province. Is this possible? Do they have a genuine cause? Are they threatened because of their ethnicity? Why isn’t the international community looking at these issues and facilitating a process of genuine dialogue in the DRC? I’ll be back next week to answer these questions with examples of where this has been possible.

Arinaitwe Rugyendo is a journalist and the founder and chief marketing officer of the Red Pepper newspaper in Uganda — the first tabloid in East Africa


  • Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards the continent’s development. The Tutu Fellows are practitioners spread across various social, political, economic, environmental and activist sectors throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last six years the Tutu fellows have formed a strong alumnus of leaders communicating across country borders with the aim of realising the potential and power of a truly pan-African continent. The opinions shared by the Archbishop Tutu Fellows are not necessarily those of the African Leadership Institute or of our patron, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.


Tutu Fellows

Archbishop Tutu Fellows comprise dynamic young African professionals awarded the fellowship in recognition of their leadership qualities and the role they are currently playing in contributing towards...

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