Eastern DRC is a complex security puzzle for Rwanda and too far flung for Kinshasa to control

Saturday June 30 2012

Soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Congo Armed Forces stand outside a general’s residence in Goma on April 11, during a meeting called by the chief of staff of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lt-Gen Didier Etumba Longila, in Goma. Picture: AFP

The EastAfrican’s story, “Kagame’s Threat To Release Nkunda Poses Congo War Risk”, (June 25-July 1), points to a bigger problem — just how much the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become a near-intractable dilemma for Rwanda and the region.

As fighting flared up between Tutsi rebels and government forces in eastern DRC, the Rwanda government found itself, again, at the centre of yet another international controversy.

Kinshasa has been joined by international observers, “experts” and local and international human rights groups in a blanket condemnation of Kigali as the mastermind of the rebellion. In the rush to point fingers and apportion blame, the complexity of the problem in eastern DRC has been lost, making a solution much more difficult to craft.

Eastern DRC presents a complex puzzle to the top leadership of the Rwanda government’s security, military, political and diplomatic establishment. DRC has largely been an absentee state in most of its territory. But this problem is much more pronounced in the eastern region.

Because power abhors a vacuum, the absence of even rudimentary infrastructure for basic administrative and security functions of the state has created conditions for the emergence of war lords commanding local militias to fill the void. But because of its own complex history and land ownership wrangles, most of the emergent militias are ethnic based. They emerged primarily to defend the land rights of one community against another.

To extend its administrative reach and try to be institutionally present in most of eastern Congo, the central government in Kinshasa has often signed agreements recognising these militias and their control of those specific areas.


Warlords become governors and military commanders. But it also means that the government in Kinshasa has little effective control over its appointees. The state in Congo is therefore a mosaic of ethnic chieftains led by belligerent overlords.

President Joseph Kabila is more a “war lord-in-chief” than a commander-in-chief. Hence, Kinshasa can issue orders and threats; but local commanders are at liberty to disregard or accept them — making the governance of DRC even more difficult.

And this is how the recent flare up in eastern DRC began. Kinshasa accused CNDP (the Tutsi militia) commanders of refusing to deploy troops as it had instructed them to. This is unusual since commanders should obey, not question orders. Refusal is tantamount to mutiny. CNDP argues that they are not sure of their security if deployed in other areas. They claim that 50 of their soldiers who were deployed out of the eastern region were all killed in cold blood. Kinshasa has promised a commission of inquiry to establish what actually happened but nothing has come of it — yet.

Bosco Ntanganda, a Congolese Tutsi and leader of the CNDP (now M23), is an indicted war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC). In its naivety, and ignorance, the international community has been putting pressure on an impotent Kabila to arrest him. Perhaps it is in response to this pressure that Kabila issued orders transferring commanders hoping to separate Ntanganda from his troops, orders M23 rejected. Technically, that amounted to a mutiny and Kinshasa responded by launching an offensive against M23 hence the current fighting.

Although Tutsi militias are the main focus of news and international diplomatic activity, they are not the only ones. There are other commanders and warlords in eastern Congo who are in rebellion against Kinshasa. They claim to defend their communities against hostile neighbours.

In fact, in a strange twist of fate, some of the Tutsi militias in Congo have allied with Hutu militias to fight the Kinshasa government. This is because for some local communities in eastern DRC, there is no distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. They see both of them as Banyarwanda because they share a common language, culture and came from “the same place.”

This brings us to Rwanda’s regional dilemma. In part of eastern DRC is the FDLR, an extremist Hutu rebel group that has anything between 4,000 and 6,000 troops under its command. One of its missions is to overthrow the Kigali government; the other to exterminate all Tutsi.

It has allied with some local communities in DRC to fight the “Tutsi scourge,” a factor that gives FDLR daunting political weight. FDLR does not distinguish the Tutsi of Congo from those from Rwanda. This has created an automatic alliance between FDLR and other eastern Congolese communities hostile to the Tutsi. By extension, these dynamics have created a shared threat between the leaders of Rwanda and the Tutsi militias in eastern DRC. Therefore Tutsi militias in eastern DRC are, by the nature of the threat they face, natural enemies of the FDLR and thereby natural allies of the government in Kigali.

Yet Kigali finds it difficult to officially and actively and openly support its natural allies in eastern Congo. If you talk to top security and military strategists of the Rwanda government, they feel wary of Tutsi militias in DRC.

They complain that these militias and their leaders are “Congolese.” By “Congolese,” the RPF leaders are not merely referring to citizenship but to culture, attitude and behaviour. The typical Rwandan Tutsi is reserved and will probably have Spartan discipline, qualities shaped by decades of harsh life in refugee camps. The Congolese Tutsi is boisterous and lax. Consequently, the Rwandan security personnel accuse Congolese Tutsis of being undisciplined. The Congolese Tutsis accuse Rwandan security officials of being control freaks.

These differences are not merely at the level of behaviour and attitude but also at the level of operational method. The leaders of Rwanda would prefer full control over M23; the Congolese Tutsis insist on independence. Although they share a common ethnicity, the two are as different culturally as an Athenian was from a Spartan in 5th century BC Greece. So there is therefore constant tension between them.

Kigali is acutely aware that if it supported the Tutsi militias yet it lacks effective control over their operations, it would risk being held responsible for their actions. Yet Kigali cannot completely abandon them either.

For example, if Tutsi militias were defeated, there is a real risk of genocide against ordinary Tutsis by Hutu extremists and other Congolese communities hostile to them. Kigali cannot politically afford to sit by and watch such a thing happen right at its border.

Therefore, to understand the complexity of the current flare up in fighting in DRC is to first appreciate the fears and temptations people in Kigali face. First, the Tutsi militias in Congo, even without Kigali’s active support, act as a buffer between Rwanda and the FDLR.

Second, they protect local Tutsi populations that face existential threats from the FDLR and other Congolese communities.

Third, these militias and their warlords ensure order in a region where the Congolese state in almost absent. Therefore, their defeat would present a key security challenge to Rwanda. Thus Kigali finds itself in a position where it cannot support the Tutsi militias in Congo while at the same time it cannot abandon their cause.

To resolve this dilemma, Kigali adopted a two-pronged approach: One short-term and tactical; the other long-term and strategic. In the short term, Kigali would not support any Tutsi militias in eastern DR Congo but it would not act against them either.

Control over militia

Kinshasa and the international community believe that Rwanda has absolute control over these militias. Both therefore demand that Kigali either directs them to stop fighting or takes active action against their activities. Kigali does not have absolute control, but it does have leverage over them. If it sought to actively undermine their activities, it can bring them to their knees — but at a price.

Rwanda knows that any action it takes against Tutsi militias cannot destroy them completely but only weaken them. In fact, there is a real possibility that they can form new alliances with other groups and therefore also become hostile to Kigali. Besides, if these Tutsi militias were severely weakened, there would be a power vacuum in eastern DRC. Without an alternative source to supply security to the area, the region would degenerate into anarchy, a situation Kigali cannot afford.

These fears have made Kigali adopt a “turn-a-blind-eye” strategy towards the Tutsi militias. Thus, whenever individuals inside Rwandan society are involved in helping their kith and kin across the border, Kigali refuses to play the role of Congolese policeman.

For example, assuming Rwandan security services got intelligence that some individuals inside the country were actively raising funds and meeting some of the militia leaders. Kigali would turn a blind eye and pretend it did not hear it. Assuming Rwandan officials heard that one of the militia leaders was in some village in Rwanda, the government would look the other way.

It is in this context that some human rights groups that claim that some of the rebel leaders enter Rwanda could be telling at least a slice of the truths. Kigali has taken a tough line on two things: It is not going to play cop for Kinshasa or the international community.

Kigali’s view is that Kinshasa has to find a way to work with its citizens to create a stable political order or the international community should pull up its socks and provide the security in the area. What Kigali is not going to do is help the two create a security vacuum in the region.

At a press conference in Kigali on June 19, President Paul Kagame was emphatic: these warlords live in DRC which has 17,000 UN troops costing $1.2 billion a year — 50 per cent of Rwanda’s annual budget. If the issues of Congo are that simple, why can’t this force arrest these rebel commanders with all the capacity it has? Why transfer the responsibility to Rwanda?

Officials in Kigali are discouraged from dealing with rebel leaders and other Congolese. For instance, when information emerged that some top generals in the Rwanda security services had been involved in meetings and financial transactions with Congolese businessmen, President Kagame placed them under house arrest.

However, Kigali is smart enough to understand that this cannot be a long-term policy to solving the problem. The source of Rwanda’s security vulnerability is the long standing governance issue in DRC ie the absence of an effective and functional state. The solution for DRC lies in reconstructing the state. Ironically Kigali is even more concerned about security in the eastern DRC than Kinshasa.

For example, Rwanda is positioning itself as the region’s main high-end tourism destination. Its prize in this strategy is the mountain gorillas right at the border with DRC. Nothing threatens this strategic interest than insecurity in eastern DRC as it scares away tourists — but most especially rich ones whom it charges top dollar.

Secondly, Rwanda is making a couple of strategic investments right at the border with DRC. First, it is developing a methane gas plant in Lake Kivu, just a stone throw from the border with Congo, to produce 150MW of electricity.

Kigali has further signed a multimillion dollar joint venture investment with New Forest Company, a consortium of Britain’s high net worth individuals alongside HSBC Bank and the European Investment Bank. The consortium are going to cut and replant Nyungwe Forest and develop a regional timber and furniture industry on one hand and on the other, produce 100MW of electricity.

Finally, Kigali is beginning to increase its mining and export of Coltan — located in the same place.

Kigali says that insecurity in eastern Congo would be a strategic vulnerability in its pursuit of its Vision 2020. Also that it cannot attract and sustain serious investments if eastern DRC is controlled by war lords — however closely tied to Kigali they may be.

It is the same kind of threat that Somali militants in the south of the country posed to Kenya’s tourism industry and the country’s Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET). 

Kenya resolved this by sending an army into south Somalia, and got an African Union and UN Security Council vote supporting it. If Rwanda did anything like that in DRC, it would have its legs cut off at the knees by the international community.

Rwanda’s leaders argue that their vital national strategic interests are best served by a stable and effective state in DRC. Kigali also knows that it cannot manage Congo — a country that is 27 times larger.

As a foreign policy strategy, Rwanda has long abandoned its earlier faith in influencing regime change in neighbouring states. By 2004, Rwanda had also abandoned ambitions to fight proxy wars, realising that they may achieve short term gains at the price of creating long strategic vulnerabilities.

This lesson was driven home by Kigali’s fall out with former Congolese president and erstwhile ally, Laurent Kabila; coupled with its fallout with Uganda in Congo. The lesson from these two experiences, every strategist in Kigali will tell you, was that helping someone capture power in another country does not automatically guarantee a durable alliance between you and them.

RPF had been supported by Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni. But this did not sustain the alliance as the two countries degenerated into hostilities and finally fought in Congo. Equally, Rwanda had helped Kabila and installed him president in Kinshasa. They turned enemies and fought pitched battles.

Kigali realised that it has fought more wars against its former allies than those it was allied to. The lesson sunk: you can make a king, but you cannot control them once you have made them. Its own strained relations with Congolese Tutsi works always as a reminder that it should not rely on them entirely. The view is that government should always seek to deal with the leaders neighbours produce rather than seek to influence who emerges as leader.

Therefore, Kigali decided that it needed to engage Kinshasa and leverage whatever connections it had with the Tutsi militias to arrive at a solution for eastern Congo. It offered to help bring the militias to agree with Kinshasa on a peace deal. Kinshasa agreed to integrate the militias into its army but leave them in control of their troops to protect their communities. The two sides also agreed that Rwanda would send its special forces into eastern Congo to fight the FDLR. Even today, Rwanda has its special forces inside eastern DRC who have been conducting joint operations with the Congolese army.

This joint effort offers the best possible solution to the DRC crisis and should be the agreement that the international community push Kagame and Kabila to uphold rather than condemn one side and push Kigali over the edge into letting Nkunda off the leash.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the managing editor of news magazine The Independent, of Uganda.