The downfall of Laurent Nkunda was startlingly swift. In late 2008 he had seemed untouchable. His forces had humiliated the Congolese military (FARDC) three times in as many years. His politico-military movement, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) was exerting increasingly coherent administrative control over a growing fiefdom on the eastern fringes of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Nkunda had resisted or ignored the attentions of a wide variety of international envoys and was beginning to express national political ambitions. Conflict in North Kivu appeared to be entrenched and doomed to repeat. But by early 2009, just weeks later, he was a prisoner in Rwanda and the CNDP was in the process of disintegrating.
According to its public statements, the CNDP represented the interests of the marginalised population of eastern DRC, providing authority and security in a region of minimal state control. Although it claimed to be acting on behalf of all local ethnic groups, the grievances of the Congolese Tutsi were central to its agenda, including demands for political representation, refugee returns and protection from the predations of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a rebel group from neighbouring Rwanda long active in the forests of eastern DRC.
Many Congolese observers, however, saw CNDP as a Rwandan proxy; the latest in a sequence of Kigali-backed actors dating back to the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) that had played a central role in the second Congo war (1998-2003). Many CNDP combatants had previously fought for the RCD, and had resisted integration into the Congolese national army during the post-war transition, re-emerging under Nkunda’s leadership during the Bukavu crisis of 2004 and later forming the core of the CNDP military. Nkunda himself had fought for the Rwandan army in the 1990s, before holding a senior position in RCD. From this viewpoint, CNDP was no more than a mechanism for continued Rwandan meddling in the political, economic and security landscape of the Kivu provinces of eastern DRC.
In fact, CNDP was a hybrid organisation, reflecting the deep complexity of parallel local, national and regional conflict systems operating in eastern DRC. It represented a local reaction to the abject weakness of the Congolese state and the long-standing grievances of Congolese Tutsi over political power and land. At the same time, it was also a cross-border Rwandan surrogate. The violence between CNDP and FARDC that caused such enormous humanitarian suffering from 2006-08 was therefore a product of state weakness, the marginalisation of a borderland community, and a cross-border intervention by a neighbouring state.