GOMA, DRC -
A faction of the rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo has chosen a new civilian leader who says he won’t challenge the legitimacy of President Joseph Kabila.
There was a festive atmosphere at Thursday’s M23 congress at Bunagana, a small town on the DRC-Ugandan border.
'We’re talking about peace, we’re talking about peace' was the chorus of this theme song for the day, which played as the 200 or so M23 members, wives, husbands and other guests waited for the announcement of the movement’s new president.
The M23 and the government have been talking about peace for the past three months and during that time the rebel movement has split into two warring factions.
This congress was called by one of those factions, led by Sultani Makenga. The other faction is led by Jean Marie Runiga, who is close to Bosco Ntaganda, a former DRC army general who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
The high point of Thursday’s meeting was the announcement that Runiga had been removed as M23 president and replaced by Bertrand Bisimwa, a former spokesman for the M23 and for previous rebel movements.
In a brief speech, Bisimwa outlined his version of the movement’s program, which, unlike Runiga’s, does not include trying to overthrow or replace the government.
Later, he told journalists that the split between the Makenga faction and Runiga was over this issue.
Bisimwa said the Makenga group recognizes the government, and he claimed the government returns the compliment.
"We are the real M23. I heard yesterday the government of Kinshasa was talking about this and they said they are going to negotiate with our M23. There is no confusion about that," Bisimwa said.
Some people think Kinsahsa and Sultani Makenga have already reached a peace deal. Makenga was asked by journalists on Thursday if it was true Kinshasa had paid him millions of dollars to sweeten the deal. His reply was confusing.
He says he cannot say whether or not he has taken the money, adding that it’s a rumor put out by Runiga to blacken his reputation. It’s a lie, he says finally, and journalists should ask the government, they will deny it.
Makenga was also asked if he will sign a peace deal with the government on March 15.
He says he does not know if that will happen, adding that negotiations have not yet ended.
Most observers think the Makenga faction has the upper hand in the M23.
Djentio Maundu, head of research for the North Kivu Civil Society Association says the Makenga faction controls most of the territory M23 occupied last year, while the Runiga-Ntaganda faction controls only a small area. He said the faction is leaving that area and moving towards the neighboring territory of Masisi.
A Runiga faction combatant inside that faction’s territory said this week that he wants to join the government forces.
He said he and his colleagues could join the government forces as there is no international arrest warrant against them - only against Bosco Ntaganda.
The fact he was prepared to say this to a reporter, regardless of the possible consequences, suggests that Runiga and Ntaganda are losing control of their faction.