Will M23 step-down set the stage for peace among armed groups in the Congo?

The M-23 rebel group announced Tuesday it is putting down its arms after 20 months of insurgency against the government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For more on what this means for the future of the Congo and the other armed groups there, Gwen Ifill talks to Jon Sawyer of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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GWEN IFILL: Now to Africa and a breakthrough in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The M23 rebel group announced today it is abandoning its 20-month armed insurgency against Congolese government. The insurrection displaced 800,000 people and claimed the lives of thousands.

For more on the group's announcement and what it means for the region, I'm joined by Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He recently return from a reporting assignment in the DRC for the NewsHour.

Welcome, Jon.

JON SAWYER, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us about the M23. Who is it, and what is the significance of what they have done today?

JON SAWYER: The M23 is a mostly Tutsi ethnic group, same ethnic group that rules Rwanda, the neighboring country next to Eastern Congo.

And they started this rebellion about 20 months ago in early 2012. They had been in the Congolese army. They left the army. They started the rebellion. And they have been holding large parts of the territory just north of Goma, the major city in Eastern Congo, for the past year-and-a-half.

GWEN IFILL: Is what they're doing -- or is what they have done today laid down arms, or are they being forced militarily to step back?

JON SAWYER: Well, it's the result of action by the Congolese army and by the United Nations, MONUSCO, as it known in the Congo, that's been there for 14 years and for most of that time has not really taken decisive action.

But this year -- I mean, last spring, the United Nations Security Council approved a tougher mandate for the force intervention brigade, as it's called. They set up a 3,000-person intervention brigade to go after and to neutralize armed groups in Eastern Congo.

And M23, allegedly backed by Rwanda, Rwanda's government denies it, but the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Nations have all said that, in fact, they do back the M23 militia. So what happened was the intervention brigade, working with the Congolese army, acted more decisively than it's ever acted to take action.

GWEN IFILL: And did that happen because of the occupation of Goma? Was that what made the U.N. suddenly more muscular in this?

JON SAWYER: That's considered the nadir.

This happened late last year, November. The M23, which had had this territory just north of Goma, marched -- marched into the city, and basically the FARDC, the Congolese army, walked out. They abandoned the city. The United Nations troops based in Goma stood by and did nothing. And so it was a humiliation both for the Congolese army, for the Congolese government and for the U.N. And this tougher stance came about as a result.

GWEN IFILL: M23, this is a major coup to have them lay down their arms, but they're not the only group active.

JON SAWYER: There are an estimated three dozen or more armed groups in Eastern Congo. The North and South Kivu provinces of the country just along the border with Uganda and Rwanda are littered. It's a checkerboard of small militias occupying villages, suppressing the people, a lot of rape, a lot of killings, taking out the resources.

It's one of the richest, most fertile territories in the entire world in terms of mineral wealth and agricultural potential. A lot of it has been taken out of the country, used to empower these armed groups. And what the government, what the United Nations, what the U.S. and its allies all hope is that by taking out M23, which was the most prominent of these groups, that it would set the stage to disarm all of these other armed groups throughout the region.

GWEN IFILL: That the others would collapse on their own, or that they would be more susceptible...

JON SAWYER: Well, they would come in and voluntarily disarm. They would reintegrate into society, give up control to the Congolese government and to the army.

I had an interview when I was there a few weeks ago General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the head of the U.N. military force. He said something really extraordinary in a video interview with us, saying -- that was on NewsHour, on the NewsHour website, saying that the -- that they were there to take action, to find threats, and to neutralize -- to neutralize the threats. And he said, we have to act.

And nobody's heard that kind of talk from the United Nations in peacekeeping missions around the world for a long time. And if it works, it's got an important -- it's going to set an important precedent.

GWEN IFILL: Is in the part because the peace talks haven't really worked?

JON SAWYER: Well, the peace talks have been off and on.

And I think here, the other story is that it's not just a military triumph for the Congolese army, not just a success for the U.N. intervention brigade. It's also a success for the diplomatic territory, because there were talks going on in Kampala in Uganda, the next country over. And then more recently this past week, in Pretoria, the heads of states of many of the African countries were together negotiating the end of this.

And there was a lot of pressure. There were calls from John Kerry, our secretary of state, to Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, saying, do not pursue this. Lay down -- tell the M23 to lay down their arms. And that made a difference.

GWEN IFILL: But, as you point out, it had a big regional impact and could yet have a regional impact. But there -- are all the countries in the region -- you talk about next-door neighbors, especially Rwanda -- are they signed on to this?

JON SAWYER: Well, Rwanda, as I said, Paul Kagame wasn't in Pretoria this week, when this thing was announced. And we haven't heard from the Rwandan government yet.

But we have heard from the M23 leadership saying that this is an unconditional surrender, they're laying down their arms, and they are going to reintegrate into Congolese society and pursue their goals through political means, not -- and if we can hold them, if the world can hold them to that, if the Congolese government can, that would be a big breakthrough.

GWEN IFILL: Quite a big breakthrough.

Jon Sawyer of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, thanks so much for everything you do for us.

JON SAWYER: Thank you. Good to be here.