What are the main armed groups active in eastern DR Congo?

The two provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are plagued by violence from around a hundred armed groups. France 24 returns to the complex trajectories of four of the main groups, the M23, the FDLR, the ADF and Codeco.

Unstable for decades, the two provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, located in the border region in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have been placed under siege by the government of Félix Tshisekedi since May 2021.

One hundred and twenty armed groups clash there, according to the KST security barometer. Seeking to control territories for ethnic reasons and/or to extract rich mineral resources, they cause a reign of terror among the civilian populations and displaced persons camps. They are being fought by the Congolese army, with the support of UN forces, and by local Mai-Mai armed groups. A military coalitionsent by neighboring countries and placed under the tutelage of Kenya, is, finally, also present to implement the peace processes decided in Luanda in November and in Nairobi in December 2022.

France 24 looks back on the history of the main armed groups which maintain the chaos in the east of the DR Congo.

Ituri and North Kivu have been placed under siege by the Congolese government since May 2021.
Ituri and North Kivu have been placed under siege by the Congolese government since May 2021. © Infographic France 24

  • The M23, or March 23 Movement, increases attacks against civilians and strains relations between DR Congo and Rwanda

This predominantly Tutsi movement is at war with the Kinshasa government and has conquered large swaths of the Rutshuru region in North Kivu province, bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Founded for the first time in 2012 and again active in Congo since the end of 2021, it is part of a long history, and in particular that of the genocide in Rwanda.

In 1994, faced with the genocide perpetrated in Rwanda by the Hutu regime against the Tutsi community, an armed Tutsi column left Uganda and crossed eastern Congo to reach Kigali and put an end to the massacre, recruiting Congolese Tutsis on the way. Three years later, troops led by Laurent Désiré Kabila left Rwanda to march on Kinshasa and overthrow President Mobutu there. Some of the fighters then took the opportunity to settle accounts with the Rwandan genocidaires, mostly Hutus, refugees in North Kivu.

The M23 is one of the heirs of this episode of the first Congo war, and is part of the continuity of the Tutsi rebel movements: created for the first time in 2012, it was subdued a year later by the Congolese state, supported by a UN intervention force. Its fighters then took refuge in Rwanda and Uganda.

At the end of 2021, some of them, who returned to Congo, accused the government of Félix Tshisekedi of not respecting a demilitarization agreement concluded in 2009 and reactivated the M23. Since then, he has managed to inflict regular defeats on the Congolese army. Massacres of civilians are also attributed to him, such as that of Kishishe and Bambo last November, where at least 131 villagers were killed, according to a United Nations preliminary investigation, whose experts have not yet been able to visit the site. For its part, the M23 denies its involvement in this massacre.

The historical, ethnic and geographical proximity of the M23 with the Rwandan regime pushes the authorities of the DR Congo to accuse its neighbor of supporting it, which Kigali denies. Since the resumption of the conflict, the armed group has therefore been at the heart tensions between the two countries. The links between Rwanda and the M23 have nevertheless been accredited by a confidential UN report, and several diplomats, including those of the European UnionUnited States, Belgium, Germany and France, called on Rwanda to stop helping the M23 in December 2022.

M23 fighters also feed on the frustrations caused by poor Congolese governance; and, while historically made up of Tutsis, the group is increasingly less ethnically homogeneous.

Multiple abuses against civilians.
Multiple abuses against civilians. © Graphic Studio

  • The FDLR, or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, are fighting the M23 alongside the Congolese regular army in an alliance of convenience, according to the UN

This group, originally made up of Hutu genocidaires who fled Rwanda after the change of regime in 1994, has also been present in North Kivu since its creation in the 2000s. eastern Congo, of an ideology anti-Tutsi. Linked to a host of Congolese Hutu-dominated groups, the FDLR is currently made up of Congolese and Rwandan fighters who control parts of North Kivu.

Faced with the return in force of the M23 in the region, the group, on the decline, has allied itself, according to the UN, with the Congolese regular forces in an alliance of convenience, which Kinshasa denies.

Further north, the province of Ituri, bordering Uganda, is also experiencing its own conflicts.

  • The ADF, the Allied Democratic Forces, a violent rebellion of Ugandan origin linked to the Islamic State group, fighting against the Congolese and Ugandan armies

Considered the most violent group in the region, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) was originally an armed opposition movement to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Marginalized in the 1990s in Uganda, its fighters took refuge in neighboring Congo.

Since 2014, and the start of a strong campaign of repression against them led by the Congo and Uganda, its use of violence has exploded: it is blamed for the massacre of thousands of civilians and numerous attacks.

Muslims since the 2000s and linked to the Islamic State (IS) group since 2015, these fighters promote a Salafist faith in a predominantly Christian Congo. They are notably held responsible for the bomb attack that killed at least 10 people in mid-January in a church of the city of Kasindi, claimed by IS. At the same time, they are very integrated in Ituri, and their struggle is therefore also linked to local conflicts and regional tensions.

  • Codeco, a disparate movement posing as the protector of the Lendu community, against the Hemas and the Congolese army

This set of armed groups claims to protect, since 2017, the interests of the Lendu community, the majority in the Ituri region, against the Hema community. Named in reference to a defunct agri-religious enterprise called “the Congo Economic Development Cooperative”, the movement is divided into several more or less institutionalized factions and commits numerous abuses. They are thus suspected of being at the origin of the death of more than 80 people since the beginning of January, in the territories of Djugu and Mahagi.

Initiated by Belgian colonization, which had favored the Hemas to the detriment of the Lendus, this ancient inter-community conflict also covers tensions related to the management of local power and the use of land, the latter being more farmers and the former more herders. .

However, it would be too simple to sum it up like this: a report by the Governance in Conflict Network, published in April 2021, asserts that “closer examination suggests that this binary is fluid”. The conflict is therefore complex and takes place at several levels throughout Ituri.

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