Controversy over Rwanda’s alleged support for M23 rebels is set to deepen after the Kagame administration was sensationally accused before the US Congress of pushing to establish a federal state in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Steve Hege, who co-ordinated the UN Group of Experts on Congo until its mandate expired at the end of November, told the US Congress that the Rwandan government organised, supplied and directed the M23 rebel group with the aim of spawning an autonomous federal state.
“There has been speculation over whether Rwandan involvement was driven by security interests, or its economic interests, or ethnic/cultural ties. But a federal state for Eastern Congo would encapsulate all of these issues,” he said in his testimony.
Mr Hege predicted that the M23 rebellion is likely to continue until Rwanda achieves this objective. “Rwanda is determined to win. The costs are already too high for Kigali to settle for anything less now,” he said.
The fresh claims came as talks between the rebels and DRC President Joseph Kabila’s government in Kampala got off with a spate of accusations and counter-accusations that underlined the deep mistrust between the two sides.
René Abandi Munyarugerero, M23’s head of foreign affairs and regional co-operation, who has been engaged in informal talks on the part of the rebels for the past four months, told The EastAfrican in Kampala: “We would like these talks to be different.”
M23 were the first to boycott a session on the grounds that they didn’t want to listen to the government’s response to their opening statement, in which they accused it of “poor governance characterised by the lack of visionary leadership.”
Although the two sides managed to overcome this false start at the urging of Dr Crispus Kiyonga, Uganda’s Minister of Defence, and concluded the ground rules and agenda behind closed doors on Thursday December 13, the next contest was expected over the rebels’ 21 demands.
The demands were formally presented in July to Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, the chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, under whose auspices the talks are taking place.
Several of these demands, apparently including one calling for the setting up of shopping centres and supermarkets in Eastern DRC, are not contained in the March 23, 2009 agreement which integrated the rebels into government before they mutinied in April this year, citing Kinshasa’s failure to fully implement it.
“There is a divergence of views within M23,” a communication analyst in Goma told The EastAfrican.
“When you listen to the chairman of M23 Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga, you don’t understand what they are about. But when you hear [Col Sultani Makenga, the head of the military high command] you get a clear direction of what this group is about.”
Jason Stearns, a researcher on Eastern DRC, told The EastAfrican in an earlier interview M23’s ultimate goal is unknown. “At different times, they have said they want to negotiate their reintegration, but internally their rhetoric suggests they want secession or to march on Kinshasa,” said Mr Stearns.
Of all the new demands, the one that is mostly likely to break the talks is the rebels’ claim that President Kabila rigged the November 2011 election and so it should be reviewed and that the Electoral Commission be disbanded.
Although a review of the Commission is already underway, this demand is unlikely to be entertained by regional leaders who endorsed Kabila by ordering M23 “to stop talk of overthrowing an elected government.”
Meanwhile, observes said the rebels’ tactical advantage has been strengthened by their withdrawal from Goma, which they captured on November 20 and held for 11 days.
They have camped in the Kanyaruchinya hills overlooking the city as the ground of tactical importance of their choice, which the regional leaders allowed them to select when they ordered them out of Goma in their November 26 communiqué.
With the weapons they took from the Congolese army and armoury, security analysts The EastAfrican spoke to in Goma say this position gives them the ability to overrun the capital of North Kivu at will.
By Kevin J Kelley and Gaaki Kigambo