As tensions mount between Kigali and Kinshasa over allegations of official support for rebel groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, there are growing concerns that an escalation could undermine recent gains in stability across the Great Lakes region and East Africa.
The current diplomatic and military standoff lends credence to a warning by Xia Huang, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Great Lakes region, who in April told the UN that the March 23 Movement (M23), the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and other armed groups were committing atrocities against civilians in eastern DRC.
“Peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains fragile,” Mr Xia said.
In the past week, tension has continued to rise in the Great Lakes, after DRC accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, a Congolese Tutsi grouping who recently relaunched attacks against government forces, FARDC. Rwanda, on its part, accused the Congolese army of supporting remnants of the 1994 genocidaire army, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), responsible for the Genocide Against the Tutsi.
But Kigali has warned Kinshasa not to drag it into its “internal matters,” — “as the M23 are Congolese” — and vowed to retaliate against any aggression from its neighbour.
The diplomatic row has left the region on edge at a time when DRC’s entry into the East African Community was viewed as a game-changer in healing the east of the country, which has been wracked by violence for decades.
But the tiff continues, despite various efforts towards de-escalation and anxiety about disruption of trade flows and exposure of the region to opportunistic negative forces.
While bilateral trade has been expanding, the diplomatic row dampens the prospects. According to Rwanda Institute of Statistics, in the last quarter of 2021, DRC accounted for 96 percent of Rwanda’s total re-exports, covering food and live animals ($39.87 million), and mineral fuels and lubricants ($33.55 million).
Also read: Rwanda denies backing armed group in DRC
The Nairobi Accord
In Kenya, officials said that they were monitoring the situation and urged de-escalation. A source close to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s peace efforts in DRC told The EastAfrican that they feel the Nairobi process will have been in vain if the situation deteriorates.
The two armies signed to extend the operations on Wednesday to enable them continue with the mission. Initially, the mission was scheduled to last six months, which would have seen Kampala withdraw its troops by June 1.
Uganda’s commander of the ground forces Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba had earlier indicated that they would recall the troops. But this week General Camille Bombele Lohola, the commander in charge of the joint operations, said: “We were given the mission to eradicate the ADF, but we have not yet eradicated the enemy, so we are continuing with the mission.”
The Rwanda-DRC matter has been discussed both at the AU and the UN with calls for a peaceful resolution.
Congolese authorities have classified the M23 as terrorists. Patrick Muyaya, government spokesman, said the rebels are excluded from the Nairobi peace process, talks initiated by the EAC Heads of State Summit in April to find lasting peace in EAC’s youngest member. But Bertrand Bisimwa, leader of one of the M23 factions, has accused Kinshasa of choosing “the military option”.
In the Nairobi talks attended by at least 23 rebel groups from eastern DRC, the participants agreed to set up an EAC intervention force to neutralise the negative forces that plague DRC’s east. They also agreed to start integrating rebels into the society and develop their areas to foster peace.
There are about 120 armed groups in eastern Congo, making it one of the most violent places in the world.
Since May 19, 2022, violent clashes have increased in North Kivu, displacing civilians and creating despondency. But it is the May 23 shelling Rwandan territory that has had Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) and FARDC beating the drums of war. Rwanda has threatened “to retaliate in case of further attacks”.
Congolese troops seized two RDF soldiers “on Congolese territory, 20km from the Rwandan border,” according to Sylvain Ekenge, spokesman of the North Kivu Governor, but the Rwandan army said the two were “kidnapped” while on patrol in their country.
Kinshasa announced on June 1 that the two Rwandans would be released after intervention by Angolan President João Lourenço. President Félix Tshisekedi on May 31 travelled to Angola for talks on the DRC-Rwanda relations at the prompting of AU chairman, Senegalese president Macky Sall. President Lourenço is the chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.
DRC’s Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula claimed that RDF had bombed Congolese villages in Katale, North Kivu, and on May 31, while addressing the UN Security Council on the matter, he seemed to accuse Kigali of arming M23 when he asked: “How did this movement, which was defeated in 2013 by the Congolese army and about which no one spoke anymore, manage to reconstitute? Who is arming the M23? Where does it get heavy armament from?”
In an apparent rejoinder, on June 1, Rwanda’s Presidential Press Secretary Stephanie Nyombayire dismissed the claims by DRC, saying in a tweet that “M23 is not a Rwandan problem.”
Ms Nyombayire said Rwanda had disarmed the M23 rebels who fled to the country in 2013 and handed their weapons over to Kinshasa, and that a repatriation plan was put in place but never implemented.
“Its members are Congolese and a process of resolving this issue had been started in Nairobi at the request of the President of DRC. How was the decision made to break from the process and turn it into the senseless killing it has become today?” Ms Nyombayire added.
Meanwhile, anti-Rwanda demonstrations have been organised in Kinshasa and several provinces, with some radical Congolese demanding severance of diplomatic relations.
Rwanda said some of its citizens have been targeted with violence while Congolese authorities have blockaded the common border and banned national carrier RwandAir from flying into Congo.
Also read: RwandAir cancels flights to DR Congo
Cases of violence against Rwandan nationals were reported in Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu Province, adding fuel to the travel and trade fears. There are fears that the new tensions will dent efforts to implementing the EAC Common Market, with new travel restrictions and blockage of movement of goods, services and labour.
This brings back memories of the politico-diplomatic row between Rwanda and Uganda that saw a three-year blockage of the Katuna/Gatuna one-stop border post and massive loss of revenues amounting to over $2 billion.
The entry of DRC in EAC gave hope of a market expansion and further integration in the region that now boasts 266 million people and a GDP of $243 billion.
For the residents and informal cross-border traders, the situation evokes memories of 2012, when a similar conflict erupted between the two neighbours, paralysing business.
In Rwanda’s Rubavu district, which borders DRC, residents fear that their lives and businesses, which largely depend on cross-border trade, will be hard hit, even as they struggle to recover from the Covid-19 shocks.
The Congolese authorities have made it mandatory for Rwandans crossing into Congo to have work permits. A permit, valid for three months, costs $40.
Losses all round
The Rubavu cross-border station, locally known as Petite Barriere, records the highest activity compared with other land borders. Traders, students, and people with family across the border pass there every day. The daily traffic is 45,000 people, 90 percent of whom are women. A majority of these women are informal cross-border traders who sell vegetables and cannot afford work permits.
Francine Mukamurego, a mother of seven who is a vegetable vendor, told The EastAfrican she makes an average of Rwf3,000 ($3) per day. She walks from Rubavu to Goma and back — a round trip of 24km — every day.
“I have not made any money since Saturday (May 28). My vegetables have gone bad, and my investment wasted. I have been in this business for years, and have never been required to have a work permit. If this becomes as bad as it was in 2012, our lives will end,” Ms Mukamurego said at the border point.
Saba Restaurant, situated near the border point, hosts Rwandans and Congolese who cross the border for work. About 150 people eat there every day. In the first week of the standoff, the restaurant lost 60 percent of its customers.
“We have seen this before,” Jean-Luc Gakuru, a waiter, told The EastAfrican. “Ten years ago, the border was closed due to conflict, and the situation is likely to worsen.”
He said this conflict would not have come at a worse as they were trying to recover from losses incurred during the pandemic “and it was going well.”
Gakuru said insecurity in the area would scare away visitors and tourists.
“We hope both countries find a peaceful way out of this,” he said.
Among those affected by the standoff is Emerithe Mutezinka, 45, whose bar worth Rwf6 million ($6,000) was blown up in the May 23 shelling. She had built the business over seven years, with a daily income averaging Rwf20,000 ($19.5), enough to provide for her family of four.
When The EastAfrican visited her neighbourhood, it was calm but fear still reigned. “I have lived here for 15 years, and I would not wish for anything to make me abandon my home,” she said.
Rwanda says it is committed to the existing mechanisms to resolve the standoff with Kinshasa, but the continued presence and integration of FDLR into the Congolese army is a major threat to its stability, which must be addressed.
Claver Gatete, Rwanda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, during the Security Council meeting on the situation in DRC on June 1, said that Rwanda was committed to “existing bilateral, regional, and international efforts to stabilise the region through established regional initiatives.”
Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, on Tuesday reiterated the need for peace, stability and economic development of the region.
“We wish to continue working with the DRC bilaterally, and through the established regional initiatives,” he said.
John Ruku-Rwabyoma, a member of Rwanda’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Security, told The EastAfrican that Rwanda is being used as a scapegoat for internal issues DRC has failed to resolve for years.
“Monusco (UN peacekeeping force) and the state army are in bed with genocidaires. That can never work out well, and Rwanda will not accept to continue to be blamed for what is going wrong in DRC,” Mr Rwabyoma said.
Jean-Claude Ntezimana, MP and secretary-general of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, warned both countries against going to war.
DRC is the world’s most neglected displacement crisis according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s annual analysis. The annual list of neglected displacement crises is based on three criteria: lack of funding, lack of media attention, and lack of international political and diplomatic initiatives. The DRC is followed by Burkina Faso, Cameroon and South Sudan on top of the bleak ranking.
“DRC has become a textbook example of neglect. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises of this century, yet those inside and outside of Africa with power to create change are closing their eyes to the waves of brutal and targeted attacks on civilians that shatter communities,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, while launching the report.
The northeast of the DRC has been plagued by intercommunal tensions and conflict, with a dramatic increase in attacks on displacement camps since November 2021. Some 5.5 million people are displaced within the country and a third of the population going hungry.
Anatomy of the conflict
From March 2019, relations between Rwanda and DRC appeared to be on the mend when Tshisekedi became president in January 2019, after winning the December 2018 election.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame first met him on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in 2019, and later President Tshisekedi visited Rwanda twice — in March at the 7th edition of the Africa CEO Forum and at the launch of the Nation Media Group-led Kusi Ideas Festival in December.
Since then, the leaders have met several times, raising expectations that they are determined to address the issues that have largely shaped the frosty bilateral ties between the two neighbours, with insecurity being of most concern.
In effort to iron out their differences, military and intelligence chiefs from both countries have had bilateral meetings in Kinshasa and Kigali, with the most recent being February 12-14, 2021 in Kigali, where both countries agreed to “cooperate and coordinate in the fight against common security threats,” a communique after the meeting read.
The February meeting followed a visit by a high-level Rwandan delegation to Kinshasa on January 19, 2021, which was in line with the decisions of the virtual mini-summit in Goma that convened on October 7, 2020, by President Félix Tshisekedi, and attended by Rwanda’s Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Angola’s Lourenco.
At the summit, the heads of state reaffirmed their commitment to work together to tackle armed groups in the region.
Relations thawed with both countries seeking to bolster ties. On June 27, 2021, Kinshasa and Kigali signed three agreements on cooperation after a meeting between the two heads of state in Goma.
However, security sources say communication between the two countries broke down after M23 relaunched attacks as it reignited suspicion that Rwanda had supported it.
On November 9, 2021, the RDF issued a statement stating that it “is neither involved in nor supports any activities of the ex-M23 armed group” after it had been reported that an armed group believed to be ex-M23 rebels, on November 7, crossed into DRC from Uganda where it is based, and attacked and occupied the villages of Tshanzu and Runyoni.
“The ex-M23 group in question did not seek refuge in Rwanda during their retreat from DRC in 2013, but has been based in Uganda, from where this attack originated, and to where the armed group retreated,” RDF said.
But a day later, the head of the Congolese army Gen Célestin Mbala Munsense made an official visit to Rwanda to discuss “the regional security situation and the fight against terrorist groups” with his counterpart in Kigali.
In statement after the meeting on November 10, Gen Munsense said his delegation was in Rwanda to “discuss a framework of plans established with our neighbouring countries in dealing with terrorist groups and other transnational threats.”
On allegations that M23 attacked DRC territory from Rwanda and Uganda, Gen Munsense said: “We have opted to give time to the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism to do its work and give us a report on the situation. Can the 13-year-old M23 rebel movement force Kinshasa to play ball? Yes, but President Tshisekedi is playing hardball. His government has said it will finish off the M23.
“Either they join the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme and return to civilian life, or they will be subjected to force, because force is the alternative that was proposed in Nairobi,” said the government spokesman, Mr Muyaya.
Import of escalation of hostilities
According to Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s current ambassador who previously served as the Deputy Permanent Representative at Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN when Rwanda was member of the UN Security Council 2013-14, “we kept on asking the Special Representative of the Secretary General why Monusco never attempted to neutralise the FDRL, as per its mandate. The answer was always that Monusco could not locate FDLR’s leaders. However, in June 2014, Monusco sent a helicopter to FDLR Leader Victor Byiringiro to fly him to Kinshasa, from where he would depart to Italy for a Sant’Egidio meeting. As he was under travel ban, Rwanda formally objected to the UNSCA while Byiringiro was already in Kinshasa. This serious incident happened while the UN Group of Experts had, its 2013 final report and 2014 midterm report confirmed the collaboration at the local level between the FDLR and FARDC as well as political alliances between the FDLR and Rwanda’s opposition groups.” (In a tweet posted on 30/05/2022).
EAC governments are currently fighting specifically the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) (originally from Rwanda), ADF (originally from Uganda) and Red Tabara (Burundi), operating in eastern part of Congo.
Rwanda-DRC trade (Data from World Bank Report: Rwanda Economic Update: Boosting Regional Integration in the Post-Covid Era): By 2019, Rwanda had exported more goods to the DRC than to the EAC. The main exports to the DRC include livestock and crops. The potential market which includes all goods either transiting or originating in Rwanda, totalled 4.2 million tonnes in 2018. The DRC accounted for 82 percent of total Rwandan informal exports to the four countries from 2012-2020.