The reported re-emergence of M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could present a security problem for President Joseph Kabila, who is currently facing political resistance. There are fears that the rebel insurgents could unleash chaos in the already fragile east of the country.
When Kinshasa initially raised the red flag saying that a group of M23 rebels had crossed over from Uganda and captured a village in the eastern region, the Ugandan government denied the claims. But on Thursday, Kampala confirmed that 40 members of the rebel group interned in a military base in western Uganda had escaped from the camp, while more than 100 were arrested as they tried to cross over to the DRC. Conflicting reports indicate that a bigger number could have escaped from the Bihanga Army Barracks.
Ugandan government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo confirmed that a group of rebels were intercepted in the western Uganda district of Mbarara on their way to the DRC. But a government statement did not indicate how many had escaped.
“The Ugandan government would like to inform the public and the international community that the M23 rebels that have been cantoned at Bihanga Military Training School in Ibanda district since the Agreement of 2014 have been quietly escaping into the general public and some to unknown places,” the statement reads. “Last night, Uganda security intercepted four vehicles at Mbarara carrying 101 former M23 combatants who were travelling to the DRC.”
According to the statement, the rebels had disguised themselves as ordinary passengers and upon interrogation, it was established that they were part of the M23 former combatants who had been cantoned at Bihanga Barracks.
“They were stealthily leaving their gazetted place of abode contrary to the Agreement of 2014 and the protocols signed with the DRC government,” said Mr Opondo.
Only 270 of the 1,400 former rebels who were at Bihanga remain while others either escaped or were repatriated willingly.
In August last year, President Yoweri Museveni in a meeting with his Congolese counterpart said that about 730 former rebels were still at Bihanga. The rebels arrived in Uganda in 2013 after they were defeated by the United Nations joint intervention force. Over 600 fled to Rwanda after the rebel group, which was created by mutineering soldiers in 2012, split into two.
In Rwanda, less than 200 ex-rebels remain interned in a camp in the country’s eastern province district of Ngoma, while more than a dozen have been repatriated. More than 400 joined their families in DRC quietly while others declared themselves refugees.
A source among the rebels confirmed that the former rebels have been regrouping secretly, and are likely to re-emerge under a different name.
"Our concerns were not addressed. Our leaders did not push the government to meet our terms which were set in the December 2013 Peace Agreement. The other reason is because President Kabila is staying in office despite his term expiring,” the source said.
The source further said that they are not led by the former rebel commander Col Sultani Makenga who remains in Uganda and neither are they loyal to Bishop Jean Marie Runiga and former M23 commanders in the breakaway group that fled to Rwanda.
The source confirmed that the breakaway group has support within DRC and is composed mainly of former rebels who were in Uganda and Rwanda. While a large number of the rebels refused to be repatriated citing lack of government will to honour the terms in the peace deal, others feared for their lives.
Kigali has not spoken out on the new developments.
Conflicting reports on an alleged attack last weekend indicate that the rebels had captured a small town west of Ishasha, Uganda, before the DRC government forces engaged them.
“They made an incursion from Uganda at Ishasha in two columns, and the Congolese armed forces have dealt with them for now,” said government spokesman Lambert Mende, referring to a border crossing near Virunga National Park.
The Governor of North Kivu Province Julien Paluku, said that the Congolese government forces have beefed up security near the border with Uganda in Virunga National Park.
“We are on alert. At this point we don’t have a clear picture but our forces will ensure that the security of the country is not destabilised,” he said in a phone interview.
Jason Stearns, a political analyst and researcher focusing on DRC said that as long as the fate of the hard core of M23, some 50 officers, is not addressed, either by arresting them or giving them amnesty, they will remain guns for hire, adding that relations between Congo and Uganda have deteriorated in recent weeks.
“The UPDF crackdown in Kasese in November shows signs of that, as well as the M23 episode. And I am sure that political turmoil in both Kampala and Kinshasa have fed into that,” said Mr Stearn.
The developments have presented a stumbling block for President Kabila, who has promised to step down by April 2018.