In the last week of October, the Democratic Republic of the Congo became a world turned on its head. The Congolese army, better known for its human rights abuses than for its battlefield efficiency, finally steamrolled through the positions of the so-called March 23 Movement, or the M23, breaking the deadlock with the rebels they had been fighting since April 2012. The UN peacekeeping mission there, long criticized for inaction, put attack helicopters up in the air and ordered its soldiers to use deadly force to back the Congolese army’s offensive. And the Rwandan government, which had intermittently supported armed groups in eastern Congo for the past 17 years, suddenly cut off its aid.

Within a week, the M23 officially disbanded, and its leaders fled to neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. It is hard to overstate how historic a development that is. For the first time since 1997, Rwanda has no military footprint in eastern Congo and the Congolese government has been able to defeat a serious armed rebellion. In recent days, villagers have laid down palm fronds and fabric for the country’s victorious army -- a far cry from the suspicion and derision it usually receives.

The biggest reason for the sudden turn in events is that Rwanda pulled the plug. As I wrote recently in “Helping Congo Help Itself” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2013), the Rwandan government has long deemed it necessary to have an armed ally across the border to protect its interests in the Congolese highlands. The Rwandan army backed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo from 1996 to 1998, the Congolese Rally for Democracy from 1998 to 2003, the National Congress for the Defense of the People from 2004 to 2009, and the M23 for the past 19 months.

But as the Rwandan government faced heightened criticism for helping the rebels, especially on the part of the U.S. government, it changed course. Although the Rwandan army was still providing support in August, when the Congolese army launched its offensive on October 25, “the Rwandans stopped answering their phone calls,” a source close to the M23 leadership told me. This shift in outsiders’ attitudes has been critical. Ever since the 1994 genocide, when the world looked the other way as 800,000 of its citizens were butchered, Rwanda has benefited from the deep sympathy of foreigners. And the country’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has earned international praise for its admirable progress in rebuilding the country since then. Foreign allies have always viewed Rwanda’s meddling in eastern Congo critically, but Kigali justified the intervention by pointing to the threat posed by the anti-Rwandan rebel group based there, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLDR), some members of which had participated in the genocide.

By October, that justification had begun to look flimsier than ever: those rebels have seen their numbers fall by over 60 percent over the past four years, reducing the threat to Rwanda. If anything, the M23 breathed new life into the FDLR, as Congolese government operations against them ceased and opportunities for new alliances arose. These changing circumstances prompted Washington to adopt a stern tone with Rwanda. Hours after the last round of fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 kicked off, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Rwandan President Paul Kagame, telling him to stay out of the conflict. Meanwhile, months of unfavorable international press coverage had taken their toll on a government extremely proud of its reputation.

This change in regional relations is not the only reason for hope. Even if the Rwandan government had wanted to maintain an ally across the border, it would have been harder to do so than ever. In Congo, the Tutsi community, from which the M23 drew its core leadership, has begun to turn against its former allies in Rwanda. As one prominent Tutsi leader, Enoch Ruberangabo, said in a recent interview, Rwanda “instrumentalizes our problems for its own interests. And all this falls on the back of the community, which wins absolutely nothing from these repeated wars.” 

The M23 suffered a defeat not only because it lost the support of the Rwandan government but also because it faced a more capable Congolese army. To be sure, the Congolese army is still hampered by corruption, and its soldiers have committed mass rape, pillage, and torture. But President Joseph Kabila did suspend key abusers and streamline the top-heavy chain of command by removing dozens of officers in the east, which got rid of parallel chains of command and embezzlement rings. During its final offensive, the army’s leaders made sure that the troops had the basics: fuel, ammunition, and salaries. Still, these ad hoc changes could easily be reversed, unless the Congolese government overhauls its security sector, transforming it from a collection of criminal rackets into a more accountable force.

The UN peacekeeping mission also provided key support for the recent offensive. Congolese soldiers benefited from UN military rations and water, UN troops protected the rear and flanks of the Congolese army so it could focus on hitting the M23, and UN officials ensured that the Congolese army had food, water, and sufficient logistical support for its operations. These changes in the UN’s approach -- a more aggressive attitude toward the M23 and stronger support for the Congolese army -- came about partly thanks to the mission’s new civilian head, Martin Kobler, and its new military head, General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz.

Also playing a crucial role was the Force Intervention Brigade -- a UN unit, formed in March 2013, composed of Tanzanian, South African, and Malawian soldiers who were authorized to take more aggressive measures than most peacekeepers. The South Africans in the brigade deployed their deadly Rooivalk attack helicopters, which helped the Congolese government retake the steep hills that the M23 controlled. These operations mark a welcome shift in the UN’s approach to protecting civilians. No longer forced into a reactive crouch, for the first time peacekeepers were allowed to take the fight to the armed groups threatening the population. 

The Congolese army’s victory over the rebels is only a first step in addressing the broader ills afflicting Congo. It will take decades to reform the weak and corrupt Congolese state, and there are still dozens of other armed groups operating in eastern Congo, many of which have deep ties to Congolese politicians and military commanders. Meanwhile, Congo’s neighbors will continue to pose plenty of problems. Current President Joseph Kabila and three of his counterparts -- the presidents of Rwanda, Burundi, and the Republic of the Congo -- face constitutional term limits that should have them handing over power between 2015 and 2017. These deadlines could create turbulence as the incumbents try to change their constitutions or find other ways to prolong their tenures. Instability in one country could easily spill into another.

The defeat of the M23 represents a historic opportunity for a lasting peace in Congo, and it comes at a time of intensified diplomatic activity. In February, 11 countries signed the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework, which aims to end cross-border meddling and reform Congolese institutions. Earlier this year, former Irish President Mary Robinson was appointed UN special envoy to the region, and former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold was appointed U.S. special envoy to the region. They face steep challenges. If conflict in the Congo is to be snuffed out for good, outside powers must use their financial and diplomatic leverage to empower citizens to finally hold their local and national governments accountable. Unfortunately, that is exactly what they have been remarkably reluctant to do.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JASON STEARNS is the author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa and Director of the Usalama Project, a research program on Congolese armed groups at the Rift Valley Institute. Follow him on Twitter @jasonkstearns.
  • More By Jason Stearns