The simmering conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has roped in Russia and other Eastern European countries now accused of aiding Kinshasa with mercenaries.
Rwanda, a neighbour Kinshasa considers belligerent and roundly accused of supporting the M23 rebels in their fight against the Felix Tshisekedi government, has accused the Congolese government of preparing for war instead of de-escalating tensions in line with the various peace initiatives underway.
Kigali has always denied any involvement with the rebels.
On Thursday, the Paul Kagame administration released a terse statement, alleging that Kinshasa had imported mercenaries to aid its war against the M23.
Presence of mercenaries
M23, in a separate statement the same day, reiterated the presence of mercenaries courtesy of the government.
By press time, Kinshasa had not responded to these claims.
Diplomatic tensions between the two East African Community (EAC) partner states heated up and relations went a notch low, with Kigali accusing its neighbour of undermining ongoing regional efforts to bring stability to the eastern part of the country.
If it is established that the Russian mercenary company, Wagner Group, has set up camp in the DR Congo, it could complicate the conflict, which regional blocs — the EAC and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) — are trying to resolve.
It also provides Kigali with ammunition to counter accusations by Kinshasa of supporting the rebels. Congo has been demanding the exit of all foreign armed groups from its eastern region.
Kigali is now saying, “Look who’s harbouring foreign fighters!”
On Thursday, the Rwanda government statement said: “The recruitment of foreign mercenaries by the DRC is a clear indication that the DRC is preparing for war, and not peace. Of particular concern to Rwanda is the complete disregard of the Luanda decision to ‘consider and resolve the issue of the return of refugees to their countries of origin.’ Rwanda continues to bear the burden of hosting over 75,000 Congolese refugees, with more arriving daily due to continued insecurity and persecution in eastern DRC. The DRC government has not acknowledged the situation of these refugees and made no effort to facilitate their safe return to their homes in the DRC.”
President Kagame first spoke publicly about the presence of mercenaries in the Congo on January 9, 2023, during the swearing-in of the new president of the Rwanda Senate.
‘Situation is a mess’
“When you hear a situation is relying on mercenaries, you know that situation is a mess. If it comes to us dealing with the mercenaries, we are overstocked to deal with mercenaries. Mercenaries are the most useless people you can rely on,” Kagame told the Upper House of Parliament in Kigali, adding that bringing in mercenaries would deteriorate the situation.
“It gets worse, not better,” he warned.
Asked by the Financial Times in October last year about the presence of mercenaries in Congo, President Tshisekedi dismissed the allegations saying, “I know it’s fashionable now… No, we don’t have to use mercenaries.”
German publication Taz was the first to report that its independent investigation with multiple sources in DRC — including local journalists, M23 rebels and the general Congolese public — confirmed the presence of European fighters, whom many refer to as Russians.
According to Taz, an employee of Congo’s immigration department at the airport in Goma confirmed their arrival.
“When the white military arrived on December 22, he stamped passports from Romania in a Boeing 737 chartered by the Romanian airline, Hello Jets. A photo posted online January 2 gives more concrete clues. A white elderly man with cropped hair, dressed in civilian clothes but holding an AK-47 assault rifle, stands between two Congolese soldiers on road north of Goma. This man is a seasoned mercenary from Romania: Horatiu Potra,” the publication wrote.
German public broadcaster DW this week reported the presence of “white military personnel from Eastern Europe” in Mbiza Hotel, Goma, quoting security sources who traced their presence to Christmas.
“There are dozens, maybe even a hundred white men in uniform,” a local journalist told DW. “They wear a variety of uniforms with no national flags, and pistols on belts.”
The journalist added that soldiers of the Congolese presidential guard closely guarded the Mbiza Hotel entrance. They told him foreigners had booked all the rooms for an extended period.
“It is now the headquarters of the whites,” reported DW, quoting a soldier at the entrance.
Diplomatic circles have been speculating for weeks on the coincidence of the presence of armed Eastern Europeans in Goma amid a new round of fighting in eastern DRC.
Then there have been photos circulating on Twitter showing the corpse of a white man in camouflage uniform lying in dirt.
“This is what happens to the Russians of Wagner,” someone commented.
Taz said the M23 leadership confirmed that the white man was killed in the village of Karenga on December 30, 2022.
When the rumours of mercenaries first emerged earlier this month, Kinshasa refuted them. It did, however, suggest that it is free to engage foreign technical support, especially after buying military hardware from Europe.
“It is said today that the DRC is hiring mercenaries. The President had answered this question very clearly. He said that we are not going to resort to a militia to solve a militia problem,” said Patrick Muyaya, the Congolese minister for Information and government spokesman.
“But the DRC, as a sovereign state, is entitled to organise its defence. When we have Sukhoi planes, but there are technical personnel who must maintain them, and if we don’t have the manpower what do we do?
“When the country [DRC] needs to train its military, we need instructors and we have skills, particularly from the French legion. Should we deprive ourselves of the means to train our military to defend the integrity of our territory? All this is part of a bad campaign because they want to avoid international attention on the responsibility of Rwanda through the M23 in the aggression of the DRC, in the massacre of Kishishe,” he said, referring to a recent spate of killings cited in a UN Panel of Experts report.
Since last year, members of the Bulgarian private army Agemira have appeared in DR Congo and were once praised by local officials for repairing old combat helicopters in under two months, according to the DW. They also demonstrated the firepower of a Sukhoi fighter jet to one minister in Kinshasa.
The information about the presence of mercenaries is also detailed in a UN report, which cited Romanians, Bulgarians, Georgians and Belarussians – Europeans who traditionally have close ties with Russia -- among those spotted in the DR Congo.
The Wagner Group, a private military company begun by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former aide of Russian President Vladmir Putin nicknamed “Putin’s Chef,” has been cited across Africa, operating in conflict areas including Mali, the Central Africa Republic, Sudan and briefly in Mozambique.
Their operations have been controversial. In Mali they have been praised for fighting insurgents but are accused of violations, too. The US has since 2021 sanctioned its leaders, including Yevgeny. But the company still operates across key conflicts, providing deniability for Moscow.
Nonetheless, the DRC may be profiting from its recent freedom to engage foreign military support without seeking permission from the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee.
On December 20, 2022, the Council lifted the requirement for notification and countries are no longer required to inform the UN about arms sales or military support for the Congolese government. Three weeks later, a Turkish military aircraft touched down in Goma with a “donation” of weapons.
Lt-Gen Constant Ndima, the military governor of North Kivu, who received the equipment on behalf of President Tshisekedi, said the Turkish donation “will strengthen the Congolese army units on the frontlines” against armed groups and the M23.
But that free access to weaponry has come with possibility of clandestine foreign fighters.
Rwanda has alleged that Kinshasa continues to provide weapons fight alongside illegal armed groups in eastern DRC, including the genocidaire militia, FDLR.
“This also constitutes a clear violation of the Nairobi Process, which is aimed at disarmament and demobilisation of these armed groups, and a threat to Rwanda’s security,” said the statement issued on Thursday by Kigali.
The statement came a few hours after President Tshisekedi told business leaders at the ongoing World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Rwanda is “blocking development in the region” and that M23 rebels have not withdrawn from recently seized positions despite international pressure.
“They pretend to move, they act like they are moving, but they’re not. They’re simply moving around, redeploying elsewhere, and they stay in the towns that they have captured,” Tshisekedi said in a panel session.
Kigali alleges the staged demonstrations against the EAC Regional Force in Goma and other parts of the DRC constitute part of a plan by the DRC military and government to exit the Nairobi and Luanda peace processes.
It added that demonstrations appear aimed at causing the departure of the force, whereas the Luanda Communiqué calls for “continued full deployment of the EAC Regional Force”.
But pulling the EACRF into combat could have ramifications.
One risk is losing the goodwill to pursue diplomacy. But there is also a risk of losing public support if the force looks just as lethargic as the UN stabilisation mission, Monusco, which faced violent protests last year over alleged inaction.
Meanwhile, non-combative efforts to end the conflict are set to continue.
EAC Lead Facilitator for the Nairobi Process, former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, confirmed that the Nairobi 4 Intra-Congolese consultations will kick off next month in some key towns in North Kivu, when the facilitators will interact with affected communities closer on the ground.
They will however, be preceded by a meeting of the Luanda process in Bujumbura or Goma later this month, EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki said in Nairobi this week.
On Thursday, the M23 maintained that it withdrew from Kibumba and Rumagambo on December 23, 2022 and January 6, 2023 respectively, adding that it has been ready to hand over other areas as per the resolution of the Mini-Summit of Luanda.
The group accused Kinshasa of not honouring its part of the communiqué, including the disarmament of local and foreign armed groups.
“We are observing on all frontlines including Kitchanga and its surroundings, the buildup of DRC Government coalition forces (FDLR, Nyatura, APCLS, Codeco, Pareco, Mai-Mai and others) alongside European mercenaries,” the group said in a statement in which they further threatened not to sit and watch the slaughtering of innocent populations.
This week, the ADF terror group that is affiliated with the Islamic State revived its assault with an IED attack at the Community of Pentecostal Churches in Central Africa (CAPAC) in Kasindi that claimed 17 lives and left scores injured on Sunday.
Abdirizak Muktar Garad, a Kenyan from Wajir County who went into hiding after stealing of Ksh11 million from a safe in a building in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi mid last year, was arrested in Kasindi and taken to Kinshasa for questioning after the Congolese authorities linked him to the IED attack.
Two days later, the same terror group attacked and burned six oil tankers belonging to Somali businessmen at Tolitoli in Ituri Province. They are believed to have kidnapped some workers and stolen a vehicle from the area.