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Resigning Prime Minister: Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge

Photo: Ludovic Marin / AFP

Thousands of people have been on the run from eastern Congo for weeks because of the escalating violence there - now the prime minister also wants to resign from office. Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge has submitted his resignation, according to a statement from the presidential office in Kinshasa. At the same time, he submitted to President Félix Tshisekedi the resignation of several members of his cabinet, including the Defense Minister. Concern is now growing in civil society that a power vacuum could play into the hands of the rebels in the east of the country.

The resignation is related to provisions of the Congolese constitution: eight days ago, Lukonde's mandate as a member of the National Assembly in Kinshasa was confirmed after the parliamentary elections in December. According to the constitution, elected officials must decide between their official mandate and their representative mandate within eight days. Lukonde now wants to fulfill his mandate as a member of parliament. The other government members who resigned also received seats in the National Assembly or in provincial parliaments.

Lukonde has been Prime Minister of the resource-rich Central African country since February 2021, in whose region on the border with Rwanda a conflict has been escalating for months. Hundreds of thousands of people are on the run in North Kivu province. There, the M23 militia has advanced shortly before the provincial capital Goma and is fighting against government troops and allied militias.

Tshisekedi called on Lukonde and the resigned ministers "in view of the special situation in which the country finds itself" to continue to carry out their duties until their successors are appointed, the statement said.

Are the Eastern Congolese rebels taking advantage of the power vacuum?

In Goma, civil society representatives reacted with concern to the resignation of the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues. They feared that the power vacuum in Kinshasa would be exploited by the rebels and that violence in the region could further increase. "We hope that the discussions (on a new government) will be accelerated so that the Democratic Republic of Congo has a new government as quickly as possible," said Marrion Ngavo, head of the alliance of civil organizations in Goma.

Even before Lukonde's resignation, aid organizations had warned of a further escalation of violence due to the advance of the M23 militia. Eastern Congo has been plagued by conflict for decades. The M23 is one of more than 100 armed groups fighting for dominance in the area near the border with Rwanda. Some of them are accused of committing mass murders.

In recent weeks, fighting between the M23 rebels and the Congolese armed forces has increased again. At the same time, the United Nations wants to withdraw its peacekeepers from the region by the end of the year.

Over the weekend, the US State Department condemned the “intensifying violence.” Aid agencies estimate that a million people have already been displaced by the fighting in the last three months.

Tensions with Rwanda are increasing

Tensions are also increasing between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Both countries accuse each other of supporting different armed groups. Kinshasa accuses Kigali of supporting the M23.

The March 23 Movement (M23) is a military rebel group made up primarily of ethnic Tutsis that split from the Congolese army just over a decade ago. In 2012, they conducted a major offensive to capture the provincial capital of Goma, near the border with Rwanda, which they are now threatening again.

The USA and UN experts also accuse Rwanda of providing military aid to the M23. Kigali denies this but admitted on Monday that it has troops and missile systems stationed in eastern Congo. Rwanda said this was done to ensure its own security as Congolese forces had increased near the border. Rwanda rejected US demands for a withdrawal.

The conflict also has links to the Rwandan genocide of 30 years ago. The M23 and Rwanda separately said they were combating a threat from a Congolese rebel group linked to the Congolese army and made up partly of ethnic Hutu who carried out the 1994 genocide.

Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus fled to Congo, then Zaire, after the 1994 genocide. Among them were soldiers and militiamen responsible for the murder of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Is the conflict spreading?

Two years after the genocide, Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo to combat the remaining perpetrators of the genocide. Tensions between the two countries escalated again in 2021 with the resurgence of M23 attacks on Congolese soldiers after the militia remained relatively inactive for nearly a decade under a 2013 peace deal. It is believed that the presence of so many armed groups in the region is also linked to illegal mining.

The M23 launched new attacks at the end of last year and continued to intensify them in recent weeks. The new fighting could lead to further regional escalation and involve additional countries. As the United Nations wants to end its 25-year peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo, a multinational force with soldiers from South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania is to step in. They are supposed to support the Congolese armed forces, but this could lead to direct conflict with Rwanda.