On Tuesday 5 November, good news emerged from what many have described as Africa’s sleeping and tumultuous giant, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after the M23 rebel group in the eastern part of the central African nation announced it was ending its insurgency, hours after the government claimed military victory.
According to a statement, the movement said it would adopt “purely political means” to achieve its goals and urged its fighters to disarm and demobilise.
The surrender of M23 followed an apparent heavy and sustained military assault by the combined forces of FARDC, the DRC’s national army, backed by the United Nations Force International Brigade (FIB), it also followed an agreement by African leaders on Monday night that the M23 should make a public announcement renouncing rebellion to allow a peace accord to be signed with the Congolese government.
Their defeat and subsequent surrender signaled the end of M23 who took up arms in 2012 accusing the Kinshasa government of segregation, and is a beacon of hope to the oil rich nation that has been the centre of violence in the past decades. This violence has left more than five million people dead, millions more have been driven to the brink by starvation and disease and several million women and girls have been raped.
M23 leader Sultani Makenga’s admission of defeat and subsequent surrender to Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) on Thursday together with 1700 of his forces put the icing on the cake for DRC’s triumph.
This article seeks to explain why and how FARDC, the DRC’s national army, backed up by the United Nations Force International Brigade (FIB) was able to dislodge M23 so rapidly.
It’s an axiom of military strategy that whichever force has both the advantage in positioning and logistics has a much greater chance of winning any battles. This is especially true when doing so can cause the opposing army to split its forces.
When fighting between FARDC, the FIB and M23 resumed recently, FARDC and the FIB were well prepared and well-placed for an engagement.
Over the past few weeks, both FARDC and the United Nations moved troops to new positions around North Kivu that were designed to encircle and split M23′s forces in and around the major towns on the important Kibumba-Rumangabo-Rutshuru axis.
According to a sources in the area, this was done after intelligence reports indicated that M23 may try to launch an attack if the Kampala peace talks failed to bear fruit.
FIB troops armed with UN Mi-8s, Oryxes and Mi-26s were separated into three task forces and deployed near Kiwanja, Munigi/Kibati and north-west of Rutshuru. These FIB task forces were deployed as a blocking force to back up FARDC as was the case during the last round of fighting in August with the mandate to take the lead in any operation.
At the same time, FARDC also established three of its own task groups, including 41, 805, 806 and 809 infantry battalions amongst others, backed up by heavy artillery, rockets and air support along three fronts near Kibati, Kiwanja and inside Virunga National Park between Busenene and Kalengera respectively.
Crucially, this involved establishing sufficient logistics for each front, avoiding the typical problem in Congolese operations where poor roads make operations riskier the further they move away from main logistics bases. It was also the first time the entire FIB was together in a single operation, as the Malawian infantry who arrived earlier in October were part of the UN positions.
These combined forces created a three-front war against M23 for the first time, establishing a southern, western and northern front and forcing M23 to split its forces. It formed a pincer movement that squeezed M23 out of its strongholds and into the Virunga mountains near the Rwandan border.
It also proved that the FIB concept works, as the support its troops provided were what allowed for the three fronts to be established.
DRC’s forces that were deployed against M23 since August were a totally different force compared to the disorganised, demoralised and poorly-trained soldiers that were so easily swept aside when Goma was captured in November last year.
Most credit for the improvement must go to the new commander of North Kivu’s 8th Military Region, Maj. Gen. Bahuma Ambamba, and his subordinate unit commanders.
DRC President Joseph Kabila recalled most of the 8th Military Region’s commanders back to Kinshasa following the embarrassing loss of Goma last year and replaced them with a trusted team led by Maj. Gen. Ambamba.
In less than a year, Maj. Gen. Ambamba had transformed the forces under his control, improving training especially for combined operations, raising morale and earning a good reputation both amongst his soldiers and the MONUSCO forces in North Kivu.
He also became popular among the locals.
The result was a FARDC that is capable of effective combined-arms operations involving artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems and attack helicopters while advancing at a previously-unseen pace through M23-held territory. There have not been recent reports of atrocities committed, something which used to be a hallmark of many FARDC operations.
This had interesting implications for the potential of FARDC to eventually be able to maintain a monopoly of force in the eastern DRC.
The new commanders of both MONUSCO and the FIB also played critical roles in rolling back M23, as they have pursued a more pro-active stance and exploited UNSC Resolution 2098 to the fullest to enable direct combat operations against M23.
FIB commander Brig Gen. James Mwakibolwa in particular has shown excellent tactical understanding by utilising the UN’s air assets and the FIB’s artillery and mortar units to act as force multipliers that supported FARDC’s offensive against M23 to great effect without the need to commit large numbers of infantry from the FIB’s three national contingents.
However, that would have meant nothing without the strong backing of Lt. Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz, the MONUSCO Force Commander, and Martin Kobler, the Special Representative for MONUSCO. Both men came to MONUSCO with a reputation for decisiveness and have provided the space for the FIB to conduct offensive operations.
Despite this, there were occasions where the FIB was frustrated in its requests for stronger action, but it had much greater freedom to act than any other UN force in recent history.
The FARDC assault began on the M23 positions atop the strategic hill of Kanyamahoro, less than a kilometre from the forward line of FARDC troops near Kibumba.
Over the past month, M23 had significantly reinforced their position on Kanyamahoro, building deep earthen bunkers, stationing machine guns and concentrating a large number of soldiers. As it overlooked the Route Nationale 2 that goes from Goma to Kibumba, this hill had to be conquered first by any force coming up from the south if they wanted to reach Kibumba.
Despite the fortifications, Kanyamahoro fell swiftly to the rocket fire, Mi-24 attack helicopters and troops of the FARDC, surprising the M23 defenders and opening the route to Kibumba.
At the same time, the FARDC forces on the northern and western fronts sprang into action, heading towards Rumangabo, Kiwanja and Rutshuru. In each case the fighting was brutal and bloody but over quickly, as the M23 forces retreated under heavy fire.
Within four days, every major town and position held by M23 had fallen and the group had retreated to a small area in the Virunga mountains near the border with Rwanda.
The FIB and greater MONUSCO role in this action should not be overlooked, as the FIB blocking forces deployed along both the northern and southern fronts were crucial in freeing up FARDC forces to go on the offensive.
FIB infantry forces were engaged with M23 both in the south and in the north, especially in Kiwanja and in the hilly region north-east of Rutshuru. It was in these engagements that Lt. Mlima, a Tanzanian peacekeeper with the FIB, was shot dead during a battle with M23 forces in the hills.
But direct FIB involvement was less this time around than back in August, perhaps because the counter-attack against M23 came as a surprise. No UN artillery, mortars or Mi-24P attack helicopters were used, though they were placed on standby if needed.
On January 25, the UN Security Council approved a proposal to deploy surveillance drones along the eastern border of the DRC, a move supported by Washington.
The United Nations said in August it had ordered its first surveillance drones from an Italian company to patrol the volatile eastern region, centered around the flashpoint city of Goma.
M23 rebels were used to the the usual jungle guerrilla warfare, not thermal technology that can detect a rebel hidden under a tree as one pundit put it.
The drones’ 24 hour surveillance also monitored the DRC borders with Rwanda and Uganda and this explains why towards the last days of the offensive, bombs were said to be dropping on Ugandan and Rwandan territory.
The fleet of United Nations drones monitored rebel activity on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo and this helped to pinpoint the locations of M23 thus giving the combined forces an edge over the rebels.
What waits to be seen is how the Kinshasa government led by Joseph Kabila will consolidate this victory and bring peace to the vast mineral rich nation whose progress has been hampered by colonialism, slavery and corruption thus turning it into one of the poorest nations on earth.
Additional Information From Agencies