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Region steps up diplomatic firefighting in Rwanda-DRC tensions

Saturday June 11 2022
Soldiers.

Soldiers ride on a patrol car on National Road 2 at the edge of the area that was attacked by M23 rebels during clashes with the Congolese army in Kibumba, near the town of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on June 1, 2022. PHOTO | AFP

By AGGREY MUTAMBO
By BERNA NAMATA
By PARTICK ILUNGA

The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda continued to spar over the activities of the M23 rebels, threatening to shake the foundation of the East African Community.

On Friday, Rwanda reported shelling in Gasizi village in Kinigi Sector, Musanze District at around noon, pointing an accusing finger at the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC).

News of the attack came as Rwanda battled allegations by FARDC that it had sent 500 Special Forces in disguise into Congolese territory. In response, Rwanda said it would not respond to such “baseless” accusations. FARDC alleged that the Rwandan special forces, clad in green and black uniform – which is different from their regular gear – had been deployed in the border area of Tshanzu, North Kivu Province.

Kigali, Kinshasa tension

Kenya and Uganda have now stepped in to seek a de-escalation of the tension, saying that further squabbling between Kinshasa and Kigali could ruin regional co-operation on security and trade.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni sent his son Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, now a diplomatic emissary, to Nairobi with a “special message” on the DR Congo situation.

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“Among the issues discussed was the restoration of peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said a dispatch from State House, after Gen Muhoozi met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Senior officials in Nairobi told The EastAfrican that it was “no secret” that allowing the tensions in the Great Lakes to boil over would hamper efforts to end the conflict in eastern Congo.

An official said that eastern DRC, already scarred by decades of war and tension, “may likely be taken advantage of by parasitic elements”. 

Kenya and Uganda are heavily invested in peace efforts in eastern DRC, where conflict has persisted for the past three decades.

Regional effort

Last month, Nairobi launched an initiative, endorsed by EAC member states, to persuade fighters there to choose dialogue with the government in exchange for amnesty and rehabilitation.

Read: East African leaders read riot act to DRC armed groups

Also read: AU, UN endorse new regional peace bid in DR Congo

But the initiative is facing challenges after the M23, one of the militias invited for talks, relaunched attacks on the Congolese army. Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of supporting the M23. Kigali has rejected the accusations.

Observers say the challenge now is to get Kinshasa to negotiate with M23, whom it has labelled terrorists, and demanded they be excluded from the Nairobi peace process.

Rwanda has not made its official stand known on the Nairobi initiative (President Kagame was not at the summit that launched the process) but it may support inclusive dialogue in which the so-called terrorists are also involved. 

Meanwhile, Uganda is concerned that it could be drawn into the Rwanda-DRC tension, just months after ending its own impasse with Rwanda over accusations of supporting dissidents, which caused a three-year border closure. Sources say that President Museveni is keen not to rock the boat, hence the quiet efforts with President Kenyatta to seek solutions.

Asked about the efforts by President Museveni, Uganda People’s Defence Forces Spokesman Gen Felix Kulaigye said that he had not been briefed about Gen Muhoozi’s visit to Nairobi and his intentions.

Renewed conflict

The latest fighting started two weeks ago after the DRC accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels who relaunched attacks on its army. The two countries have not spoken directly to each other since. They have instead communicated through mediators like President João Lourenço of Angola, who is the chairperson of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), and now officially the African Union mediator and Congo-Brazaville President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

President Nguesso said in Brazzaville on June 5: “We had discussed these issues at the Malabo summit within the framework of the African Union, in particular with the current chairperson of the AU chairing the ICGLR. Everything must be done to bring peace.”

At the meeting, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi said there was “no doubt” that Rwanda was backing the M23 rebellion.

"I hope that Rwanda has learnt this lesson, because, today, it's clear … Rwanda has supported the M23 to come and attack the DRC," President Tshisekedi said.

His comments came as Huang Xia, the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region, was engaged in shuttle diplomacy with visits to Kigali, Goma and Nairobi.

“Let’s continue our efforts for peace. People in eastern DRC do not need a new war,” he said in a tweet posted on June 4.

Kigali has maintained that the M23 is an internal Congolese issue that should be resolved as such.

Displaced

According to the UN, the recent upsurge of fighting in eastern DRC has displaced at least 75,000 people internally, and more than 11,000 had crossed the border into Uganda as of May 30.

Rwanda and Congolese officials have been trading barbs on Twitter. Congolese legislator Francine Muyumba and Rwandan diplomat Olivier Nduhungirehe, for instance, questioned whether the two Rwandan soldiers arrested by the Congolese military (FARDC) had in fact been kidnapped.

“They were on patrol at the border when they were kidnapped by FARDC, together with FDLR,” Mr Nduhungirehe said, referring to the acronym for former genocidaires now hiding in Congo. Ms Muyumba had accused Rwanda of not telling the “hard truth” on supporting M23, for which the diplomat had claimed that those who fled into Rwanda had been disarmed and returned to their country.

By press time, there was no indication that the two soldiers had been released as promised by the FARDC last week.

Local politics

With DRC’s presidential election coming in September 2023 and, the tensions are affecting local politics. President Tshisekedi, a declared candidate, could capitalise on the solidarity of the Congolese to reap electoral benefits.

His firm tone in the face of Rwanda has earned him admiration, as one of his opponents, Prince Epenge, claimed that the security crisis in the east could even be choreographed.

“A ploy by Félix and Kagame to create sympathy and mobilisation of the people over Tshisekedi's supposed military victory,” Mr Epenge said.

On May 30, DRC Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Christophe Pen'apala, told the UN Security Council that his government would extend an olive branch to the armed groups, but added that those who fail to lay down their arms would be targeted in military operations.

Security and safety

Felix Ndahinda, an independent researcher and consultant in Tilburg, Netherlands, in a recent paper titled “Streaming Hate: Exploring the Harm of Anti-Banyamulenge and Anti-Tutsi Hate Speech on Congolese Social Media”, analysing the dynamics of hate speech and conspiracy theories on social media in eastern DRC, says the more than 100 armed groups complicate peace efforts. 

“Those are armed groups with local and different agendas, claims and grievances. As long as they are not disarmed, and that part of the country is secured by official authorities and a functional government, they can’t be at peace,” Mr Ndahinda told The EastAfrican.

He added that beyond the security issues, there are identity issues that Congo needs to solve, including recognising historically marginalised groups. 

Despite these attempts to cement local legitimacy, the Banyamulenge, and the Banyarwanda of North Kivu have faced a rising contestation of their citizenship and belonging.

“There is a conflation of ideas. For example, Congo has always had a difficult time accommodating its citizens of Rwandan descent and other countries such as Burundi. Stability depends on being able to accommodate its own citizens regardless of ethnic background or connection to neighbouring countries,” he said.

Rwanda has previously blamed the DRC for welcoming the genocidaires after they fled Kigali. Congo's leaders’ response has been that the FDLR are no longer a danger to Rwanda.

"But on several occasions, Rwanda has carried out operations in the DRC to fight the FDLR, with the authorisation of Congo-Kinshasa," said DRC Government spokesman Patrick Muyaya. "It is inadmissible that our people on both sides [Rwanda and DRC] are still victims of a bellicose attitude. Have you ever heard that the FDLR attacked Rwanda? We are the victims, we fought FDLR and neutralised several of their leaders."

Security operations

A source in the DRC Defence Ministry told The EastAfrican that Kigali was planning operations in North Kivu to neutralise the FDLR. However, Rwanda's request to track down armed groups had not received a favourable response from President Tshisekedi.

"The president made Rwanda wait. But Kigali has taken it badly that permission had been granted to the Ugandan army to hunt down ADF rebels in the DRC. This permission reportedly frustrated the Rwandan authorities. This is a sticking point," the source said.

In June 2021, Presidents Museveni and Tshisekedi launched the construction and rehabilitation of 228 kilometres of roads linking Mpondwe in Uganda to several territories in the DRC. This is a $300 million project, 20 percent financed by the DRC and 20 percent by Uganda. Uganda and the DRC are keen to exploit this route economically.

These tensions have spilled into international fora. Following the resurgence of the M23, the DRC pleaded for international bodies to condemn Rwanda by name, but international institutions, including the UN Security Council and the African Union, condemned just the violence and the rebels. The Congolese leader's opponents describe this as a failure of President Tshisekedi's diplomacy.

On a visit to Kinshasa on June 8, Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo was applauded when he said “you have the right to demand from your neighbours that your territory be respected. You have the right to demand that your neighbours do things that are necessary to avoid insecurity in your country.” Mr Croo was part of the delegation of King Philippe of Belgium who has toured the country for the first time.

King Philippe said: "You can count on Belgium's support, within international bodies, for any initiative aimed at the stability and harmonious development of Africa's Great Lakes region."

Nicaise Kibel Bel, an expert on security issues, told The EastAfrican that Uganda, which is emerging from a quarrel with Rwanda, does not intend to interfere in the quarrels between Kinshasa and Kigali.

“Museveni has economic interests with the DRC beyond military cooperation,” Bel said.

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