The largest rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo decided to lay down its weapons this week. The surrender of the M23 rebels, an ethnic Tutsi group that gets much of its funding from gold mining, provides a glimmer of hope that Congo’s tragic civil war may finally be coming to an end.
The civil war in Congo has dragged on for more than 15 years, claiming more than 5 million lives and shocking the world with abuses like sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. Although now mostly confined to eastern Congo, the war had shown few signs of stopping until lately. But in August, a United Nations “intervention brigade” consisting of 3,000 African peacekeepers began to take a more offensive role. Joining with Congo’s army, the UN troops put the M23 rebels on the defensive. A string of defeats sled the rebels to announce on Tuesday that they were giving up. More than 1,000 M23 rebel soldiers already have turned themselves in, including the group’s leader, Sultani Makenga. M23 will sign a peace deal on Monday.
The surrender of the M23 rebels is important not just because they will no longer be fighting the government. It could also help address one of the root causes of the violence: gold mining. Only a month ago, a human rights group issued a report finding that the M23 rebels were deeply involved in Congo’s illicit gold trade. The report explained how the M23 rebels, led by Makenga, were working with local armed groups to smuggle gold into neighboring Uganda and Burundi. From there, the gold is exported again and mixed into the international gold supply. An estimated $500 million in gold is smuggled out of eastern Congo each year, with much of that money being used to support rebel forces.
M23’s surrender is therefore very good news. Would it be too early to say that this is the beginning of the war’s end? Unfortunately, past experience cautions against too much optimism.
In some other civil war, perhaps, the surrender of the biggest rebel force would be a sure sign that the war’s end was near. But over and over throughout Congo’s civil war, the conflict has appeared over, only to spring back to life. The M23 rebels themselves were formed two years ago by ethnic Tutsis in the Congo military who alleged that Congo’s government had reneged on a previous peace deal reached on March 23, 2009. Just because the M23 rebels surrendered this week doesn’t mean that some M23 soldiers won’t take up arms again.
In addition, the M23 rebels aren’t the only rebel force in eastern Congo. Dozens of rebel groups operate in the Congo countryside. (This infographic shows some of those groups and their complex relationships with one another.) Other rebel groups could simply become more powerful now that M23 is weakening. It is possible, as well, that someone else will become the next boss of Congo’s conflict gold trade. Makenga himself has only run M23’s gold smuggling network since March, when the previous M23 commander, Bosco Ntaganda, turned himself in to the International Criminal Court.
This is therefore not the time to for the Congolese government or the international community to declare victory. Companies need to continue their efforts, spurred by the Dodd Frank financial bill, to understand their supply chains and avoid buying conflict minerals from Congo. The United Nations and the Congolese army should continue their military offensive against the remaining rebel groups. And all the countries in the region need to come together to forge a lasting a peace.