The network of derelict mud trails finally came to an end as we approached the gate to perhaps one of the most heavily guarded compounds in the Northern Kivu province of DR Congo.
A guard directed us to proceed into a spacious makeshift military base. Our mission was to meet the generals behind the M23 group that is at the centre of the current conflict in eastern DRC.
That was three weeks ago, well before last week Tuesday, when the group declared an end to its violent insurgency, following a string of military defeats at the hands of Congolese army forces backed by a new UN combat brigade. Then on Thursday, General Sultani Makenga surrendered himself along with hundreds of M23 fighters to the Uganda army in the Mgahinga National Park, in Kisoro district, Western Uganda.
As we reached the top of a hill overlooking the compound, from an imposing house there emerged an even more imposing man.
The man whom everyone here knows as “Brigadier General Sultani Makenga,” or simply “Afande,” is a man of few words. Instead, his actions against a government that considers him a renegade have seized the attention of the region and, from time to time, the world.
And yet long before he became supreme commander of the Congolese Revolutionary Army (the armed wing of the 23 March Movement rebel group) he was a young man from North Kivu searching for his vocation. It seems Makenga found his calling in life when the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) launched an armed struggle to topple Rwanda’s long-time dictator Juvénal Habyarimana, whose policies of ethnic discrimination had transformed his country into a powder keg.
Although he is not Rwandan, the young Makenga became one of the many people who joined the RPA to help it realise its goal of creating a more equitable and prosperous society, free of ethnic discrimination — work that became still more imperative in 1994 as the RPA raced against time to halt the genocide.
“In 1990, I was serving as a soldier in Uganda. After that, we went to help the Rwandans. They had a problem returning to their country,” he said. Nonetheless, General Makenga becomes tight-lipped about his personal experiences at the time. He prefers to frame the situation in terms of ideas rather than men; the focus should not be on him, but on the movement he has created.
Since its inception, M23 has been the object of allegations that it has committed crimes against civilians and has destabilised the region. Meeting leaders of M23 face to face, they are keen to tell their side of the story.
Seamlessly switching between Kinyarwanda and Swahili peppered with bits of French and English, Makenga explained that he was unaffected by sanctions and a travel ban placed by foreign powers on his person, insisting that M23 was a force for good in the region and that it had been created specifically to address some of the many problems plaguing the DRC.
“We fight the government because it refused to put in place a mechanism for mutual understanding. In the past, we were the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). We fought the government for five years until we reached an agreement in 2009. However, there began to arise disagreements and the government began to arrest and kill people. I formed a group and went to a place called Runyoni in Rutshuru Territory — perhaps the government would listen to me or understand what we were saying. I created M23 on 6 May .”
Makenga and his associates are keen to stress the date of M23’s formation. It has been widely reported in the international media that M23 was created in April 2012 when Bosco Ntaganda defected from the Congolese government army. Nevertheless, it was a press communiqué signed at Rutshuru on May 6, 2012, that announced the creation of M23 within the fold of the CNDP and the designation of Makenga as “co-ordinator” and sole commander of the movement.
Today, Bosco Ntaganda is a prisoner at The Hague. He had been named at one point as founder and leader of M23, a claim Makenga vehemently denies.
“We used to be together in the CNDP. The leadership of M23 is here. You know us. Bosco Ntaganda was not with us. He was not in M23. There was an international warrant for his arrest because of crimes he has committed, which he must respond to.”
To understand Makenga’s distaste for Ntaganda, a look at the political history of the CNDP sheds some light, on the schism that was to cripple the movement later on. The mention of Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, who was at one point president of M23, does not go down well with Makenga.
It was said Runiga promoted Colonel Baudouin Ngaruye to the rank of brigadier general against Makenga’s wishes in a deliberate attempt to undercut his authority.
Many observers consider Ngaruye to be close to Ntaganda; Makenga, on the other hand, is widely considered to be carrying on the tradition of Laurent Nkunda, the charismatic general who led the CNDP until his arrest in January 2009 in Rwanda following a push by Ntaganda — up until then his right-hand man.
Indeed, Makenga today still praises Nkunda as the senior figure in “the CNDP revolution” and hopes to see him return to the field. It might take Makenga some years to meet his friend Nkunda as Rwanda has shown no signs of releasing him soon.
“He’s Congolese like all of us. He must come.” At the time, Makenga shrugged off talk of a rift between pro-Nkunda and pro-Ntaganda camps in M23, noting that as president, Runiga had the authority to make promotions regardless of Makenga’s views.
Makenga said M23 is more organised and under one leadership. “There are no divisions in M23 — none. M23 was created by me. It is one organisation and we have one leadership.”
During bishop Runiga’s tenure as M23 president, which began with his appointment by Makenga in 2012, Runiga provided the movement with charisma and diversity.
However, tensions and mutual suspicions between the Runiga and Makenga camps gradually developed, culminating in the schism of February 2013.
The Makenga camp claims that Runiga was caught communicating with Bosco Ntaganda on the sly, harbouring the fugitive in secret, embezzling funds, supplanting Makenga’s authority and placing M23 members with a history of ties to Ntaganda in high-ranking positions.
Specifically, they claim that Runiga took advantage of the defection of Congolese parliamentarian Roger Lumbala to the movement to shake up the composition of M23’s delegation to the Kampala negotiations so as to favour the pro-Ntaganda camp.
The Runiga camp responded to these accusations by alleging that Makenga had been bought off by Kabila and is co-operating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), remnants of the Interahamwe militia that carried out the 1994 genocide, who are known for their long-running conflict with the CNDP in all its manifestations. After several weeks, Runiga’s side lost the battle for control of the M23 name, and the bishop accepted internment in Rwanda, where he is still held today together with other M23 fighters.
Three days after Runiga’s surrender, Bosco Ntaganda emerged from hiding and turned himself in to the US embassy in Kigali. In Rwanda, Runiga explained his version of the story.
“I have never been with Ntaganda and his surrender to the American embassy for the ICC is a personal act. Whenever I would receive a call from him, I would tell him to gather courage and present himself before international justice so as not to give Kabila the chance to use the Bosco issue as an excuse for bad governance and obscure the legitimate demands of a whole people through M23.”
M23 puts forth a transparent, media-friendly image, and you will always find someone ready to answer the more controversial questions you ask.
On reports by the UN and human rights organisations accusing the movement of a litany of abuses, including killings, rapes, looting and forced recruitment of child soldiers Makenga said: “The UN is just spreading whatever news makes Kinshasa happy. They’re accusing us of killing people. If we were killing people, everyone in the area would flee. There is a refugee camp in this area. Activities are going on like normal. If we were killing people, no such activity would be present. On the contrary, in the area we control, there is more positive activity than in government-controlled territory. Our soldiers reject rape, murder and looting. But for anyone who makes mistakes, there is justice. We also don’t take anyone under the age of 18. We take recruits from the age of 18 and above.”
But one soldier we talked to said he was 17. In response, Makenga said that many of the people growing up in refugee camps do not know exactly when they were born, and that others might doctor their ages to gain admission.
But the allegation with the most dramatic geopolitical implications is that M23 has been receiving crucial supplies from Rwanda and Uganda. Not surprisingly, Makenga dismissed the idea outright.
“Any time someone in the Congo does well for himself and he is Rwandaphone, they call him a Rwandan. However, M23 is an organisation for all Congolese. But normally in the Congo, there is extremism in the government; when Rwandaphones speak out, stand up or ask questions, they are told they’re from Rwanda. In the past, when they controlled Rutshuru, the Armed Forces of the DR Congo (FARDC) worked with Rwandan Special Forces. Rwanda can’t be helping the FARDC and then be helping us. This is also the case for Uganda. Nine of our soldiers crossed into Uganda and were arrested; if they were helping us, they would have given them back. This is Kinshasa’s propaganda portraying us as non-Congolese.”
A defining moment in M23’s struggle, and an event that brought the movement to the world’s attention, was the capture of Goma in November 2012, and the decision by M23 10 days later to withdraw.
“The leaders of the countries of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, requested that we leave Goma, and in return, they began the Kampala talks. We respected what the presidents and the international community requested of us. If we talk with one another, we will talk about the protection of the general population. They are all our people; they are all Congolese.
“We fight against everyone who threatens security in this region because we want stability and security. That’s why we’re fighting the instability provoked by all those people — the FDLR, ADF-NALU, Joseph Kony, Mai-Mai and so on — they all work with the FDLR. It is they who caused the civilian population to flee. They are responsible for the camps you see in this region. So that’s why we’re fighting.
“We have the strength to take Kinshasa or anywhere else. But what we want is to talk about our problems, to talk about what the government isn’t doing. We want peace.”
By Ignatius Ssuuna and John Doldo IV