The Congolese Army and many independent armed groups wreak havoc in eastern Congo by terrorizing communities and fighting for control of and access to mineral resources.
During the Congo wars from 1996 to 1997 and 1998 to 2003, the conflict involved nine countries and more than 40 rebel groups. Today three main categories of armed groups operate in eastern Congo: the Rwandan Hutu FDLR; the Rwanda and Uganda-backed M23; and various local armed “Mai Mai” groups. In addition, the Congolese army has committed many human rights abuses. All of these groups have attempted to seize control of natural resources in order to continue fighting.
The most recent rebellion, called "M23," began in March 2012 when 300 soldiers decided to mutiny from the Congolese Army, or FARDC. The rebels argue that the Congolese government failed to deliver on the promises it made in an earlier peace agreement concluded on March 23, 2009. The rebel group’s name is in reference to this agreement.
M23 now has more than 1,500 troops, including alliances with several Congolese armed groups, and their fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. According to the U.N. Group of Experts, M23 is being backed by Rwanda and to a lesser extent by Uganda, with heavy weaponry, troops, and recruits.
The M23 rebel group was created in March 2012 based on a mutiny led by Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga. According to the U.N. Group of Experts on the Congo, neighboring Rwanda and Uganda supported the rebellion in order to advance their own economic and security interests. In addition, M23 attempted to gain the support of various local armed groups, including one branch of the brutal Raïa Mutomboki.
The rebellion took the name “M23” in recognition of March 23, 2009, the date of the peace treaty that integrated the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, into the national army. M23 rebels claimed that the Congolese government did not hold up its side of a previous peace agreement.
After some intense sparks of fighting in North Kivu, M23 occupied Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, on November 20, 2012. The Congolese national army and the international peacekeeping mission did little to halt the invasion. On December 1, 2012, M23 withdrew from Goma and agreed to peace talks with the government of the Congo. Unfortunately, the negotiations taking place in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, crawled ahead, heavily impeded by political stalemates and ongoing violence.
In March 2013, M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda surrendered to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, and was transferred to the International Criminal Court for trial. This unprecedented event signaled a turning point for engagement with the M23.
With international pressure at an all-time high in October 2013, the spotlight returned to the failing peace negotiations in Kampala. As the process continued to stall, fighting between the M23 and Congolese army re-intensified increasing tensions with Rwanda to the east and spurring refugee flows into Uganda to the north. But this time the FARDC forces were gaining ground.
Finally, on November 2, 2103, the Congolese army took the last of the M23’s rebel strongholds. The victory was a result of concerted international diplomacy and action, pressure from Congolese civil society for FARDC reforms, and a robust global activist movement calling for an end to the violence and a ban on the country’s conflict minerals trade. Three days later, on November 5, the M23 leadership announced its decision to lay down its weapons and move forward using only diplomatic means. The defeat of the M23 came as a victory for the 18-month effort led by the Congolese army and the U.N. Intervention Brigade, and supported by a vast network of Congolese and international civil society groups and activists.
Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, is one of the most powerful armed groups operating in eastern Congo. Formed by the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the FDLR is on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations. While the original soldiers were Rwandan exiles, most of the current FDLR soldiers have been recruited from refugee camps in eastern Congo. Approximately 1,000 to 2,000 FDLR rank-and-file fighters are said to be currently operating in eastern Congo. The FDLR receives assistance and guidance from Rwandans in Africa, Europe, and the United States.
What are Armed Groups?
Armed groups employ the use of force to achieve political and/or economic objectives. They are not within the formal military structures of states, state alliances, or intergovernmental organizations. Armed groups are not under the control of the state or states in which they operate and can include rebel movements, ethnic militias, and economic and military entrepreneurs.
To learn more about the region's armed groups check out this Infographic: Networks of Eastern Congo's Two Most Powerful Armed Actors, along with the corresponding Explanatory Note and Armed Groups Table.
National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP)
The National Congress for the Defense of the People was a rebel group turned political party that disbanded in April 2012. Founded in December 2006 by Laurent Nkunda, the CNDP reportedly sought to protect the Tutsi minority in eastern Congo against discrimination and maltreatment, particularly at the hands of the FDLR. Prior to the founding of CNDP, Laurent Nkunda was a major of another rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, or RCD, which was a major player in the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003.
Until it became a political party in March 2009 and was renamed the ex-CNDP, the CNDP was one of the most destructive groups in eastern Congo, committing heinous human-rights violations. In 2008 the CNDP participated in a full-scale war against the Congolese national army and international peacekeepers.
In January 2009, following a joint Rwanda-Congo military campaign against the CNDP, Nkunda was arrested. CNDP commander Bosco Ntaganda filled his role as leader of the rebel group and signed a peace agreement with the Congolese government in March 2009. Ntaganda agreed to end the rebellion and integrate into the Congolese army. The integration, however, failed: From 2009 through 2012 Ntaganda’s former rebels operated under their own chain of command within the FARDC—an army within the army—and were able to gain control of eastern Congo’s lucrative minerals trade. On April 4, 2012, 300 former soldiers mutinied and formed the M23 rebellion, accusing the Congolese government of failing to hold up its side of the agreement. Most of the soldiers were former CNDP rebels.
Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)
The Allied Democratic Forces is a Ugandan Muslim rebel group with limited activities in Uganda and the DRC. In 2010 ADF forces were active in the Beni district near the Ugandan border until an FARDC operation dislodged ADF forces. According to U.N. officials, the operation also displaced an estimated 100,000 Congolese civilians.
Mai Mai Militias
Mai Mai is a loosely grouped collection of Congolese militia operating in eastern Congo. There are currently six main groups operating in the Kivus: the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, Raia Mutomboki, Mai-Mai Nyakiliba, Mai-Mai Fujo, Mai-Mai Kirikicho, and Resistance Nationale Congolaise. Mai Mai groups are often formed by combatants who refuse to participate in FARDC reintegration processes, and ascribe to autochthonous beliefs, meaning they believe the land should belong to its original inhabitants. Mai Mai groups feel threatened by Rwandophone communities—Hutu and Tutsi—which they see as foreigners trying to take over their land and power. They are not unified under any political or racial affiliation, but all actively target civilians and U.N. peacekeeping forces in eastern Congo.
Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO)
The Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance was created in 2007 and is currently the largest Mai Mai militia group. The group worked closely with the FARDC through 2008. By 2010 most of PARECO integrated into the FARDC except one faction: the Patriotic Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo, or APCLS, led by Gen. Janvier Buingo Karairi. The APCLS is currently allied with FDLR and refuses to integrate into the FARDC.
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony that has been active since the mid-1980s. At this point, it is unclear whether or not the LRA has a political agenda. This ruthless militia directs its violence toward civilians and attacks local communities, which involves massacring innocent people, razing villages, and abducting children and forcing them to serve as soldiers, porters, and sex slaves. The LRA is currently active in parts of the Central African Republic and eastern Congo. Go here for more on the LRA .