‘Stakes are high’ amid renewed Rwanda-DR Congo tensions over rebel fighters

‘Stakes are high’ amid renewed Rwanda-DR Congo tensions over rebel fighters

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Fresh clashes broke out Thursday between the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DR Congo) army and the M23 rebel group, one day after DR Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame met in Angola and agreed to de-escalate tensions amid renewed fighting, which risks “inadvertent escalation”. FRANCE 24 spoke to Chatham House’s Ben Shepherd to get an understanding of the origins of these tensions, which can be traced back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Renewed fighting over the past month between the DR Congo army and M23 in North Kivu (eastern DR Congo) has led to increased tensions between DR Congo and Rwanda. M23 is a rebel military group that is based in eastern DR Congo and mainly operates in the North Kivu province. The rebels are named after a peace agreement they signed with the Congolese government on March 23, 2009, form part of the minority Tutsi ethnic group and are closely linked to the Tutsi in Rwanda. DR Congo has accused Rwanda of using the rebel group, which captured the key border town of Bunagana last month, as a proxy. Rwanda has denied these accusations.

Following weeks of rising tensions, DRC and Rwanda agreed Wednesday to a “de-escalation process” after mediated talks. The mediator, Angolan President Joao Lourenco, went further, stating that the agreement was a “ceasefire”. This agreement however was short-lived, as fresh clashes broke out Thursday between the DR Congo’s army and M23 rebel group, which have stated that they are not bound by the ceasefire deal.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Ben Shepherd, a leading specialist on DR Congo and the Great Lakes Region from the London-based Chatham House, about the origins of the ongoing tensions between DR Congo and Rwanda, which has resulted in DR Congo still being the scene of one of the world’s most neglected refugee crises. We also asked him whether this renewed fighting means that war is on the horizon.

FRANCE 24: Can you explain why tensions have been brewing on and off between DR Congo and Rwanda ever since Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 genocide arrived en masse into DR Congo?

Ben Shepherd: A significant force of génocidaires [Rwandans who were responsible for and carried out mass killings during the 1994 Rwandan genocide] crossed into what was then Zaire mingled with hundreds of thousands of refugees. They were able to reorganise and resupply with the complicity of President Mobutu and mount attacks back into a fragile post-genocide Rwanda, as well as pose a severe threat to marginalised Zairean Tutsi communities. This led to Rwanda’s new RPF government invading Zaire two years later, forcing most of the refugees back to Rwanda, pursuing the génocidaires across Zaire’s vast forests – amid widespread allegations of war crimes – and overthrowing Mobutu in 1997, alongside Ugandan forces and Congolese proxies.

Rwanda was the power behind the throne of the newly minted DR Congo’s President Laurent Desire Kabila. However, he did not tolerate external patronage for long – he rejected Rwandan control in 1998, turning as he did so against Congolese Tutsi communities perceived as close to the Rwandan government, and allying with the remnants of the génocidaires, now organised into an armed group that became known as the FDLR. The result was the second Congo war (1998-2002), which at its height drew African armies from Angola to Zimbabwe into a ferociously complex conflict that ended in stalemate – and the final negotiated withdrawal of Rwandan forces.

However, Rwanda never completely let go. They left behind them a politico-military group, the RCD-G, that still controlled a third of DR Congo – with significant Rwandan help. The RCD-G fared extremely badly in the landmark 2006 post-conflict elections, but was followed almost immediately by another rebel group, this time called the CNDP, which controlled a smaller area but was made up of many of the units that had fought for the RCD-G, again with Rwandan backing. The CNDP dissolved in 2009, but a core of former CNDP fighters were then central to the creation of the M23 in 2012, which took major Congolese cities before it was defeated a year later. Tensions have persisted because the interlocking crises of the post-genocide period were never fully resolved.

How much is the M23 rebel group to blame for the tensions brewing once more between DR Congo and Rwanda? There are at least 122 rebel groups active in eastern DR Congo, why is this one in particular making headlines and being blamed for escalating tensions ?

The return of the M23 after nearly a decade of inactivity is qualitatively different to the vast number of other armed groups active in eastern DR Congo. For many Congolese it resurrects memories of the abuse they suffered under successive armed groups they see as proxies for Rwanda – there is a direct line of continuity between the M23 of today and the RCD-G which was founded back in 1998 – and raises the spectre of a return to decades of regional conflict. Tensions are as much a product of the fraught history of the Great Lakes region and the perception of the M23 as a vehicle for Rwandan interests as they are of the military capacity or political weight of the group itself.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has stated that DR Congo is home to the world’s most neglected refugee crisis, how has this conflict affected DR Congo/Rwandan citizens?

It is always the ordinary citizens of the region who suffer the most. Congolese communities in the east of the country have been displaced multiple times over decades – UNHCR estimated that DR Congo was home to more than 5 million IDPs at the end of 2021, though there may well be more now. Provision of humanitarian assistance has always been challenging in eastern DR Congo, with mountainous terrain, degraded infrastructure and threats from violence and crime – this new crisis has reawakened inter-community tensions, closed important border crossings, and can only make that urgent work even harder.

Why has Rwanda been blamed for these rebel groups’ actions (in particular M23)? What does it stand to gain from supporting them?

The M23 stands as the latest in a long line of armed groups in DR Congo. There have been convincing allegations of significant Rwandan backing for each iteration, many subsequently corroborated. Obviously, this does not mean that the current incarnation of the M23 is indeed receiving help from Rwanda – something that Kigali vehemently denies – but it does explain why allegations have been made. And the M23’s ability to reconstitute itself so swiftly, sufficiently armed and organised to take Congolese territory and face down the Congolese army and UN, does suggest that it is receiving external assistance from somewhere.

It is far harder to answer what Rwanda might stand to gain from supporting them, having suffered from aid suspensions and damage to its international reputation from previous association with violence in DR Congo. Rwandan leaders have highlighted the continued marginalisation of Congolese Tutsi communities, and demanded action by the Congolese government against the FDLR. But though the FDLR still persists in DR Congo after nearly three decades, it is vastly reduced in capacity. And though there is anti-Tutsi sentiment in DR Congo, this will only be made worse by a further iteration of armed community mobilisation – and the majority of Congolese Tutsi are in any case tired of being instrumentalised in cross-border geo-political struggles that have little to do with them. Rwanda’s current role and motivation are both hard to determine with certainty.

Is it possible that these tensions will result in outright war? Given that DR Congo asked for US support in dealing with Rwanda and the M23 rebels two weeks ago?

It is unlikely that the crisis will result in open warfare between Rwanda and DR Congo, at least in the short term. But the stakes are high. Beyond the tragic consequences for the people of eastern DR Congo, which should never be underestimated, there are real possibilities for inadvertent escalation. The last round of violence between the M23 and DR Congo was ended by a SADC [Southern African Development Community]-led intervention; this time round, the EAC [East African Community] is proposing an intervention force, despite Rwanda itself being an EAC member state, and southern Africa’s heavyweights, notably Angola and South Africa, still having significant stakes in the game. It is imperative that DR Congo does not become once again a battleground for competing geo-political aspirations, but this will take careful diplomacy.

This interview was conducted on July 4, 2022.

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