Rwanda’s decision to withdraw its two companies of Special Forces that have been embedded with the Congolese army, and its Minister of Defence Gen James Kabarebe’s candid revelations about the origins of the M23 rebels point to Kigali’s frustration with DR Congo’s continuous accusations, a situation that doesn’t portend well for the two countries’ relations.
These two events, coming within days of each other, were interspersed by requests from the DR Congo to the UN Security Council on August 31 to impose sanctions on top Rwandan military officials whom the UN Group of Experts’ interim report singled out in its accusations that Rwanda was backing M23 rebels.
“Since 2009, Rwanda has invested heavily in stabilising eastern DR Congo and we had started to see positive results; the population had gone back to their respective areas and were engaging in socioeconomic activities, the FDLR were demobilising and repatriating in big numbers, one time about 400 in two months,” Brig Gen Joseph Nzabamwita, the spokesperson of Rwanda’s Defence Forces, told Rwanda Today.
“The withdrawal of 357 members of the Special Forces has affected progress that we have made over the past three years, yet it was important that we do it based on the current security situation and allegations against Rwanda by the DR Congo, who knew very well that RDF was helping Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). So twisting facts to say that RDF was helping M23 rebels was being disingenuous,” Brig Gen Nzabamwita added.
The Special Forces have been in the eastern DRC, specifically Rutshuru in North Kivu which M23 rebels took over since February this year.
They’ve been conducting joint operations with two FARDC companies against FDLR elements and other affiliated armed groups.
Their presence was under an agreement with the Congolese government to follow up on the 2009 Umoja Wetu operations that were driven by similar reasons but on a much larger scale involving some 3,000 Rwandan soldiers.
“Following clashes between FARDC and M23, the operational environment has changed and as such we have been planning and negotiating our withdrawal over some time. We have been engaged in discussions with both Monusco and the FARDC regarding this,” Brig Gen Nzabamwita had said in an earlier statement.
Yet their withdrawal on September 1 was as surprising as was Gen Kabarebe’s revealing interview with the Belgian Le Soir newspaper in Kigali on August 29, two days before the Rwandan troops were ordered back.
Not known to give interviews, much less to speak at such length about Rwanda’s military engagements, Gen Kabarebe’s interview carried an eerie similarity with President Paul Kagame’s revelations to reporters in Kigali on June 19 that Western governments had approached Rwanda asking it to help overthrow the DR Congo’s President Joseph Kabila.
In it, Gen Kabarebe details a series of high level meetings between Rwanda and the DR Congo. These engagements were aimed at addressing both the Congolese government’s requests for support to pacify eastern DRC and grievances of sections of the Congolese army who would eventually break away and form M23.
He also directly accuses Kalev Mutondo, the head of the DRC’s National Intelligence, of rubbishing the efforts of these meetings and falsifying information that the UN Group of Experts eventually picked up.
“There are so many stories... there was this one of Capt Saddam who was allegedly captured somewhere by the FARDC. They found on him a Rwandan identity card and presented it to the Group of UN experts. But we do not know this person; he is not on the list of our army...,” reads an English transcription of his interview, which was originally published in French.
“The truth is that while we were in Goma for a meeting, the head of the Congolese military intelligence came to me in my room, and spoke about the story of the captain, he said, “We made a big mistake by making these kinds of stories against Rwanda, it has already cost us so dear ... this Capt Saddam belonged to the Congolese army, but it was Kalev [Mutondo] who decided to make a fake Rwandan identity card and send fake testimony to the UN... .”
According to Brig Gen Nzabamwita, “Minister Kabarebe’s interview was aimed at putting on record the true facts as opposed to the rumours and speculation that had intentionally been circulated by the DRC and the international community.”
Like other senior Rwandan officials before them have noted, both Gen Kabarebe and Brig Gen Nzabamwita plead their country’s innocence.
They insist the problem is within the DR Congo and the government and its people will certainly have to step up and solve it.
“The ball is in the DRC’s court. After the international hullabaloo, the DRC will have to behave like any responsible government,” Brig Gen Nzabamwita noted.
“At the end of the day, bilateral mechanisms are best suited to sorting out these situations regarding particularly the FLDR where Rwanda has a direct interest. About the domestic issues, the DRC has got to stand up and address them. Putting the blame on someone else can work for a few days, but they’ve got to put their house in order,” he added.
According to a researcher who has consulted around the region, “the Congolese are happy to deflect attention since they cannot admit to their own inabilities or those of their army.”
Yet to resolve the current security crisis, “regional countries and the international governments must put pressure where they are supposed to. They must ask the DRC government to accept to negotiate with M23 rebels and seek assistance to enable them stabilise eastern Congo,” says the researcher.