Army disarray hobbles Congo's fight with Rwanda-backed rebels, officers say

By Sonia Rolley

Paris (Reuters) - Soldiers from Democratic Republic of Congo's 223rd Battalion were sent to the lush hillsides near Lake Kivu to repel a rebel advance threatening Goma, the largest city in the mineral-rich east and home to 2 million people.

But as the M23 movement closed in last December, the army unit's commander faked a medical note to justify returning to Goma and, in his absence, his troops abandoned their positions without a fight, according to military prosecutors at his court martial.

The case, in which eight officers were sentenced to death in May for cowardice and other crimes, exposed damaging disarray in Congo's armed forces, which have faced a cascade of losses as they struggle to curb a two-year uprising in the eastern borderlands with Rwanda. The officers are appealing their convictions.

The fighting in North Kivu province has sent over 1.7 million people fleeing their homes, driving up the number displaced in Congo by multiple conflicts to a record 7.2 million, according to U.N. estimates.

Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi accuses Rwanda of backing M23, a group formed to defend the interests of Congolese Tutsis, the ethnic group to which his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, belongs. Tshisekedi has threatened to declare war against Rwanda in response, stoking fears of a broader conflict in Africa's Great Lakes region akin to two devastating wars between 1996 and 2003 that cost millions of lives.

A group of experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council to monitor Congo's conflicts has said it has "solid evidence", including drone video and photographs, that Rwandan soldiers are fighting alongside the rebels.

Rwanda has more than 3,000 troops deployed in North Kivu, outnumbering M23's own fighters, four U.N. sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments. Its backing has been critical to the rebels' rapid expansion, they said.

Reuters spoke to six senior members of Congo's armed forces and two Western diplomats who said that Congolese military dysfunction is also a major factor in M23's battlefield successes.

The officers cited mismanagement by army leaders, inexperienced and demoralised troops, and an over-reliance on proxy forces, which they said have kept Congo on the back foot despite ballooning defence spending and the support of troops from regional allies.

Congo's military has long been hobbled by internal divisions, insufficient resources, poor logistics and the country's endemic corruption, according to security analysts and the officers interviewed by Reuters. But the dysfunction has become acute in this crisis.

"We no longer know who commands whom, and the commanders are not in the field," said a colonel deployed against M23, who like other officers interviewed by Reuters was not authorised to speak to journalists.

The Congolese government and army did not respond to requests for comment on the officers' assertions. When asked why Congo was struggling to contain M23, army spokesperson Sylvain Ekenge said Rwanda's direct engagement was the main challenge.

Ekenge said a military reform drive launched in 2022 was starting to bear fruit, including the recruitment of 41,000 additional soldiers and acquisition of new weapons.

Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing M23 and said accusations that its soldiers are fighting alongside the rebels are baseless. A Rwandan government spokesperson did not answer questions about the reported deployment when contacted for this article, however.

"The president of the DRC has said publicly that his enemy is President Kagame and the Rwandan government," the spokesperson, Yolande Makolo, wrote in a statement to Reuters. "The DRC has all the power to deescalate the situation if they want to, but until then Rwanda will continue to defend itself."

Rwanda accuses Congo of financing and fighting alongside a Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), that has attacked Tutsis in both countries -accusations Makolo reiterated.

In November, the Congolese military issued a statement saying any soldiers who cooperated with FDLR would be arrested. But some collaboration continues between army commanders and FDLR against M23, according to the U.N. sources and one Congolese officer.

M23 and FDLR deny joining forces with either government.

Willy Ngoma, an M23 spokesperson, said some rebels speak Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's main language, and get mistaken for Rwandans.

Cure Ngoma, an FDLR spokesperson, said accusations of collaboration between Congo and FDLR were being used as a pretext by Rwanda to invade Congo. He accused Rwanda and M23 of attacking FDLR and Congolese forces, and said each side was defending itself.


Successive Congolese governments and U.N. peacekeeping missions have struggled to quell violence in the east, where more than 100 armed groups are fighting over land and minerals, including rich deposits of gold and coltan, essential for making cell phones.

Some have received backing from Congo's eastern neighbours, which have a history of intervening in the region.

One of the most prominent groups is M23, which says it is fighting to protect Tutsis from rivals like FDLR, whose ranks include Hutu extremists who fled to Congo after participating in the 1994 genocide targeting Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.

Since 2022, M23 has waged its most sustained offensive in years, resulting in hundreds of deaths and sending columns of people fleeing with mattresses on their backs and children in tow. Many have sought safety in overcrowded camps near Goma, which suffered bombardments in recent months as the opposing sides traded fire.

As violence spiralled, Tshisekedi placed North Kivu and a neighbouring province under military rule and committed the equivalent of nearly $4.3 billion to improving the armed forces by 2025. New military leadership was appointed, and officers suspected of disloyalty or corruption weeded out.

However, two officers said a revolving door of commanders and overlapping chains of command had caused confusion. North Kivu has had five provincial armed forces chiefs in as many years.

"It is a cacophony," said one high-ranking military intelligence officer. "To be honest, we don't even know who is in charge."

A recruitment drive launched in November 2022 boosted the size but not the quality of the army, three officers said.

"You can't win a war with soldiers who have only had a few months' training. They can't withstand fire," said an officer based in Kinshasa.

Operations are further complicated by Congo's reliance on an array of partners and proxies, the officers said.

They include a loose alliance of pro-government militias known as the Wazalendo, or Patriots, which they said were often poorly trained and undisciplined. Rights groups accuse Wazalendo members of abuses ranging from extortion to war crimes.

"The army has no control over them. We don't even know how many they are," said a lieutenant colonel deployed against M23.

The Congolese government and army did not respond to questions about the frequent changes in command or use of proxy forces. But in June, North Kivu's military governor, Peter Chirimwami, said Tshisekedi had instructed that the Wazalendo be brought in line.

The fighting has also drawn in troops from eight countries, including an East African regional force deployed in November 2022 to oversee M23's promised withdrawal from occupied areas. Those troops left Congo in December after Tshisekedi accused them of ineffectiveness.

Their departure created openings for M23, which expanded its territory to unprecedented levels while a new Southern African force was deploying, the U.N. mission chief in Congo, Bintou Keita, told the Security Council in March.

Tshisekedi has also asked the U.N. to speed up the departure of its peacekeepers, accusing them of failing to protect civilians from armed groups.


After taking office in 2019, Tshisekedi tried to improve relations with neighbours, including by signing economic and security cooperation deals with Rwanda.

But as relations soured over M23’s rebellion, Tshisekedi exchanged heated rhetoric with Kagame, especially while campaigning for reelection in December, when he threatened war against Rwanda. Kagame vowed that those who plan for Congo's destruction "will experience it instead".

The United Nations, United States and other powers have repeatedly called on Rwanda to stop supporting M23 and withdraw its soldiers from Congo.

As of end-March, Rwanda had about 3,250 soldiers supporting some 2,900 M23 fighters in North Kivu, two U.N. sources told Reuters.

Although much smaller than Congo, Rwanda has one of the region's most capable armies. Its troops engage in direct combat and operate advanced weapons that M23 lacks, including surface-to-air missiles and guided mortar systems, according to two other U.N. sources.

Congo has been equipping its forces with more sophisticated military technology, including armed drones and fighter jets. But it has had to hire foreign contractors to maintain and operate some of the equipment, two U.N. sources and a Congolese officer said, driving up costs.

Equipment losses are high. Congo deployed its first three armed drones in the east in November. Within three months, two had been shot down by suspected Rwandan air defence systems, the sources said.

Congo's government did not respond to questions about the cost of the war effort.

However, military spending more than doubled in 2023, reaching $794 million, according to financial data tallied by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A former finance ministry official and another source involved in reviewing military expenses at the time put the figure even higher, at least $1.5 billion. Reuters could not independently confirm the amount.

"It was difficult to keep up," the former official said. "Sometimes we didn't get any more information than: it's urgent, it's for the high command."


On the frontlines, some officers question where the money is going, saying their men are paid as little as $100 a month and sometimes miss meals or only have beans to eat.

"The soldiers are badly paid. They are badly fed. It demoralises them," the lieutenant colonel said.

In April, Congo's military chief, General Christian Tshiwewe, said those guilty of misappropriating funds would face sanction. However, he rejected complaints that troops were underfed, saying they received three meals a day.

Faced with the combined might of the Rwandan army and M23, Congolese troops have repeatedly retreated without a fight, according to four officers.

"Many units have less than half the number of soldiers they are supposed to have due to desertions and casualties," said Jason Stearns, a former U.N. investigator who now runs the Congo Research Group at New York University. "Above all, there is a lack of accountability and morale."

The army spokesman did not answer questions about the scale of desertions and territorial losses. But in a sign of how seriously the government takes the issue, Congo lifted a 21-year moratorium on capital punishment in February for crimes including desertion and treason.

The eight officers convicted at a well-publicised court martial in May stared blankly as a colonel in a black beret declared them guilty of cowardice for abandoning their posts.

Defense attorney Alexis Olenga rejected the charge, saying the battalion commander, Colonel Patient Mushengezi, was being treated in Goma for high blood pressure at the time, while his men left to replenish their ammunition when another unit failed to deliver the supplies.

A growing number of arrests is spreading fear and distrust in the army, three officers said.

"Even our greatest fighters have been put in prison for mere rumours," the military intelligence officer said. "Every officer who comes in is afraid."

(Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Alexandra Zavis)