A Chat with the Executive Secretary of Congo's Rampant M23 Rebels

By Alex Chitty, Photos: Bastian Schnabel


Francois Rucogoza, executive secretary of the M23 rebel group.

For 20-odd years, the eastern regions of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have played host to a terribly complicated and bloody conflict. The latest chapter in that history has seen the rise of the M23 rebellion, a mutiny of former rebels who are so angry at a botched peace deal that they named themselves after the date it was signed.

In April of last year, the newly formed March 23 Movement (the M23) began rampaging through Congo’s North Kivu province, adding themselves to a long list of rebel groups in the region, each with their own shadowy supporters and opaque political aims. Those groups include the Nyatura, an ethnic Hutu group, the FDLR, a group dominated by perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and Mai-Mai, loosely organized militias who—along with the M23—have all spent recent years raping and robbing their way through villages in the region.

In the latest twist to the story, the M23 has split into two rival factions—one run by the group’s military boss, Sultani Makenga, and the other by its political leader, Jean Marie Runiga, and the war criminal General Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda. The groups clashed two weeks ago in Rutshuru, near the border with Uganda, and, this past weekend, the Runiga half fled to the Rwandan border, leaving Makenga in charge of M23 and Runiga in a Rwandan jail.

A few days before the weekend’s scuffle, I caught up with Francois Rucogoza, executive secretary of the M23 and a Terminator loyalist. He took a break from peace talks in Kampala, Uganda, to chat about war, peace, sexual violence, and forced recruitment.


The Nyakabande refugee camp in Uganda, which houses some of those displaced by fighting between the DRC army, the M23 and other rebel groups.  

VICE: Hi, Francois. What does the M23 want?
Francois Rucogoza: We want to solve North Kivu’s social and economic problems by tackling security. Once that’s solved, the other issues will follow. To start with, we want Congolese refugees to return, which will get development started. If we get a good result from the talks here in Kampala, North Kivu will be economically prosperous. It's rich now, but we have the problem of armed groups. There are Congolese ones, but also groups coming across the borders from Rwanda and Uganda.

But you represent an armed group—aren’t you the problem?
Yeah, but the FDLR are the main problem in North Kivu. Also, the government creates armed groups and has no capacity to control them. They’ve created the Nyatura and supported the APCLS, helping them to hit people in Kitchanga, a town in North Kivu. This is the big problem—they’ve created new armed groups to fight against us, and they can’t control them.

What’s so bad about the FDLR?
They've been the main problem in eastern Congo since the genocide in Rwanda. There are two categories—some are former genocidaires and some are recruited by genocidaires. They don’t want to go back to Rwanda because they’ll be arrested. Unfortunately, the government in Kinshasa is working with them, so now it's hard to say who’s part of the FDLR and who’s government forces.


A police officer at the Nyakabande refugee camp

What should be done with the groups?
They could be integrated into the Congolese army, but they’ll need training because they're civilians. Or they can be integrated back into society.

OK, back to the M23—aren't you just after all the natural resources in North Kivu? 
No, no, no. The M23 is in Rutshuru, and that’s an agricultural zone.

An agricultural zone full of mines and minerals. What kind of support does the M23 get from the Ugandan government?
None.

But a report from the UN Security Council says it provides logistics and other assistance.
I can’t explain that. The UN experts wrote rumors, and their informants gave them bad information. Uganda has closed the border—how could they possibly help over a closed border?

I'm pretty sure it's possible to send logistics over a closed border. But you're getting help from Rwanda, right?
No way. We're fighting against the FDLR, which is from Rwanda; that’s why people make these claims. If Rwanda were supporting us, we wouldn’t be stuck where we are. The UN is confused, and I want to tell you the reality—the people of North Kivu are no different to those of Rwanda, in terms of language and culture. There are refugee camps in Rwanda and people are leaving the camps without permission to go to the DRC, which is where the confusion comes from.

So the UN Security Council is wrong?
They’ve been wrongly informed. Some of their spies are being paid off, then they go underground and stay in Goma and Rutshuru.


The reception of the Nyakabande refugee camp

Regardless of who's helping you, how can a divided M23 build peace?
It depends how it's divided.

How is it divided?
The situation is that the M23 has been infiltrated by the Congolese government—that’s their strategy. While we’ve been in Kampala discussing all this, they tried to divide us. Unfortunately for them, they failed.

So, the M23 isn't divided?
No. Well, I can't say it's not divided because Sultani Makenga, our chief of staff, has defected, so they've succeeded in that way. But the command remains. It’s composed of our president, the chief of staff, me, the chief of police, and Makenga. Only Makenga defected—the Congolese intelligence service must have offered him money and a position in government.

What about Rwandan intelligence meddling?
No, that's speculation.

What do you think of Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda?
[Laughs] What do you think of him?


Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda, photo by Lionel Healing

He seems like a pretty evil guy. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the M23 is committing a “horrific trail of new atrocities, including summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment.” Is that right?
No, no, no. This is important. I worked with Anneke Van Woudenberg of HRW, and unfortunately, Anneke has been manipulated by the Congolese government. I was the minister for justice and human rights in North Kivu, and I don't accept any of these allegations at all. They're false, fraudulent. We actually called HRW, they came to Rutshuru, and we showed them how things are. But HRW has been giving money to local organizations, and these organizations have an obligation to find bad things to report back with, so they make up stories to get money. If we could, we’d sanction those involved.

You'd punish them?
Yes, we’d create a tribunal and would follow the judicial process. We actually do this in Rutshuru already.

How are the current peace talks going?
We've finished the first round of talks, and we're getting ready to discuss security; without that, we can’t begin to discuss political and economic issues. The main conclusion was that there’s a problem—the Congolese government in Kinshasa didn't respect the first peace agreement [the peace agreement that spawned the M23].

Thanks, Francois.

***

After the interview, I reached out to Human Rights Watch, who made it clear they never pay for information and always verify facts with multiple sources. They say the M23 leadership, including Francois, seems to have made no effort to stop human rights violations on the ground and that executions and forced recruitment are continuing right now. Since the Runiga faction was kicked out of Congo on Saturday, Francois has stopped answering his phone. 

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty

More from the Democratic Republic of Congo:

The M23 Advance Throughout the Congo as Innocents Run for Their Lives

Sleeping Through the Slaughter

The VICE Guide to Congo

Watch - Bush League Rebels

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