When, recently, Rwanda detained the Kivu-based rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda, nearly everyone else was caught by surprise — and confused.
Nkunda, whose National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) was making rapid advances in eastern Congo, was seen as Rwanda’s man.
And, indeed, Rwanda had been the only country to acknowledge that Nkunda had a cause, although it consistently denied that it was arming his forces.
However, in a move that caught the UN peacekeeping force Monuc by surprise, Rwandan troops entered Congo and, together with the Congolese army, they launched operations against remnants of the Interahamwe and ex-Rwanda Armed Forces (FAR) — which committed the 1994 genocide, and the CNDP.
According to the official account, a cornered Nkunda tried to flee through Rwanda, where he was arrested. Now speculation is centring on whether Rwanda will hand Nkunda over to the Congolese authorities, on exactly where he is, and what caused Rwanda to turn on him.
Nkunda is probably still in Gisenyi in northern Rwanda. He is definitely not in some prison, but is being watched.
Rwanda made common cause with Nkunda when his political agenda was limited largely to stopping the killings of the Banyamulenge — the Tutsi of Congo.
Rwanda, therefore, is unlikely to hand Nkunda to Congo, because it would be seen as a political victory for the anti-Kigali forces in the DRC.
Nkunda’s problems began when, flushed with military success, he became overly ambitious and threatened to march on Kinshasa.
Rwanda preferred the focus to remain on eastern Congo, from where anti-Kigali dissidents had managed, as late as September 2008, to cross into Rwanda and launch attacks in the Busasamana area.
Rwanda, it is now known, was also worried that the rebels, who had been rearmed by Kinshasa to help fight Nkunda, possibly had the ability to reoccupy their former positions along the Congo-Rwanda border.
At the height of the latest round of fighting in eastern Congo, the Southern Africa Development Community, of which Congo is the newest member, voted to come to the country’s aid.
That, according to sources, emboldened President Laurent Kabila to take a harder line on Nkunda and to up his criticism of Rwanda.
In the end, however, SADC didn’t send troops to Kabila’s rescue. Eager to cut his losses, Kabila did a deal with Kigali on joint military action in the east of his country.
One of the immediate results of the joint Rwanda-Congo action was to scatter the ex-FAR and Interahamwe.
While Nkunda’s CNDP easily walked over demoralised and undisciplined Congolese troops, the ex-FAR and Interahamwe were more formidable opponents.
With them in disarray, little else would have stopped Nkunda reaching the capital. Except, of course, the Rwandans. The price was not cheap.
This writer has it on fairly good authority that beyond allowing joint military action with Rwanda, the Kabila government has also given Kigali a long-term role in some kind of “security buffer” in eastern DRC.
Nkunda will probably be re-inserted in this security zone, where the Rwandese would continue to keep him on a short leash. It would also be a good deal for Nkunda, give Kabila peace of mind, and allow Kigali to have its cake and eat it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s managing editor for convergence and new products. E-mail: [email protected]