President Paul Kagame has said that a “red line was crossed” in the Congo crisis, when Kinshasa enabled anti-Rwanda forces based in the Democratic Republic of Congo to shell the country and kill innocent citizens.
In an interview with The EastAfrican in the Rwanda capital Kigali on Wednesday, President Kagame said the DRC government has armed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group active in the eastern DRC, with modern weapons.
FDLR evolved directly from the militias that killed nearly one million people in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“The FDLR shelled Rwandan territory with BM-21s (self-propelled multiple rocket launchers), which they could only get from the (DRC) government,” Kagame said.
He noted though the “red line” has been crossed, Rwanda has so far acted with restraint.
“We respect DRC’s territorial integrity, but we have our territorial integrity too to protect. We need no invitation to do that,” he said, suggesting further such attacks could bring a direct military response from Kigali.
In the turbulent eastern Congo crisis, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, like a panel of UN experts, the US, and the EU, accuses Rwanda of supporting the March 23 (M23) rebels who are fighting Kinshasa.
The M23, a largely Tutsi-led group ended nine years of inactivity in November 2021 and returned to war, accusing the DRC of ignoring a promise to integrate its fighters into the army and ethnic-cleansing their supporters and related groups in the Kivu.
Since then it has scored a series of victories over Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), the state army, capturing swathes of territory in North Kivu Province and nearing the city of Goma.
Both Rwanda and M23 say FARDC relies on the more battle-hardened FDLR rebels, who function as a shadow government force. Though Kinshasa denies giving succour to FDLR, on February 14, 2023, while again blaming Rwanda for supporting M23, in a notable shift, urged the Congolese army to stop collaborating with armed groups, including the FDLR.
President Kagame sees FDLR and FARDC as one army in all but name.
“The Congo government not only arms the FDLR, they work closely together, although sometimes FDLR operates independently”, he said.
Maintaining that Rwanda does not supply M23 with weapons, Kagame said the rebels don’t need Kigali for that, because they have seized more than enough from what he portrays as an incompetent FARDC.
“M23 have collected a lot of arms from the government forces. They have lost more weapons to M23 than anyone can possibly give [M23],” the Rwandan leader said.
He denied that he was playing a high-stakes political game, when he said Rwanda would no longer shoulder the burden of refugees fleeing the conflict in DRC.
Speaking to the Rwanda Senate in early January, Kagame said: “We have had refugees here for over 20 years, from DRC. I am refusing that Rwanda should carry this burden and be insulted and abused every day about it”.
Critics and refugees expressed concern that the Congolese would be locked out of the country’s relatively progressive refugee policy.
However, demonstrating the complexity of the Congo crisis, some Congolese refugees in Rwanda and Burundi lauded Kagame’s statement, reading it as a double-edged weapon: seeing the Rwandan leader as saying he would back the refugees to return and settle in the areas captured by M23 and replaying a situation akin to October 1990, when the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army defected en masse from Uganda, to begin the fight to return home.
Regional analysts argue that if that were to happen, the situation in Kivu would harden, and balkanisation could possibly enter an irreversible split. Because of that, they reason, Kigali’s leverage in the Congo question has increased, and Kagame can use it as a bargaining chip.
But President Kagame flatly dismisses the view.
“Of course, we will not chase the Congolese refugees who are here. My point is that for those who think Rwanda is the problem, take the refugees back to Congo. They will be persecuted. They will have to protect them, or let them be killed. So they need to look at the other problems, including hate speech (in DRC) that is creating refugees.
In the past 20 years, Western countries have resettled about 9,000 refugees who were in Rwanda. But those 9,000 refugees have been replaced by new ones. If they recognise the danger these refugees are in, doesn’t M23 have legitimate cause to protect them?”
Taking a tough line, he said: “Against this background, the effect of what FDLR is doing is to follow refugees to Rwanda and kill them and Rwandans – and they expect Rwanda to do nothing? It won’t happen!”
What’s striking today in Kigali is that the split over M23 is not too far below the surface. While some celebrate a hard-line, many pragmatic and pro-business voices don’t think it is a serious enough organisation, and Rwanda stands to benefit more from a peaceful, friendly DRC, where cross-border trade flourishes, as opposed to supporting a rebel group that gets in the way of making money.