Renewed pressure from the United States (US) on both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo seems to be bearing early fruit after Kinshasa banned its troops from having any links or working relations with the Rwandan rebel group, Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR).
A statement issued on Tuesday by the Congolese army (FARDC) said Congolese soldiers are forbidden, “whatever their rank, to have any contact whatsoever with the FDLR”.
FARDC Spokesman Sylvain Ekenge added that "anyone contravening this instruction will be placed under arrest and will suffer the rigours of the law". The Congolese army has decreed "zero tolerance" in relation to this instruction.
The FDLR are remnants of the masterminds of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in the neighbouring Rwanda, in which an estimated one million people died. The group, mostly composed of Hutus, has been the centre of a simmering dispute between Rwanda and the DRC.
While Rwanda has demanded that Kinshasa stops working with the FDLR, Kinshasa has accused Kigali of supporting the M23 group, composed of Tutsis in the Congo, and now considered the strongest rebel group in the DRC.
The declaration by Kinshasa did not come from the blue. It was part of pressure from Washington, which wants Kigali and Kinshasa to stifle incessant violence in the eastern parts of the DRC.
And the US, which has previously directly blamed Rwanda for backing the M23 group and accused DRC of warming up the acts of FDLR rebels, wants de-escalation, especially as the country’s elections near.
On November 19 and 20, the US Director for National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines travelled to Rwanda and the DRC, where she held talks with the two heads of state on the issue of restoring peace in the eastern part of the Congo-Kinshasa.
In Kinshasa, Haines made no statement after her meeting with President Félix Tshisekedi, which lasted more than two hours, but the White House later said she “met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi to obtain commitments from both leaders to defuse tensions in eastern DRC.”
“Recognising the long history of conflict in this region, Presidents Kagame and Tshisekedi plan to take specific measures to reduce current tensions by addressing the respective security concerns of the two countries. These measures build on previous agreements reached with the support of neighbouring countries as part of the Luanda and Nairobi processes,” read the White House press release.
Both sides have often rejected accusations of fanning rebels. But it hasn’t helped that the M23 rebels have always made the same accusation against the Congolese army.
“This communiqué (by the FARDC) is a distraction,” argued Bertrand Bisimwa, chairperson of M23.
The US is optimistic, however.
“The US government welcomes and intends to follow these de-escalation steps taken by the DRC and Rwanda, and plans to support diplomatic and intelligence engagements between the two countries to promote greater security and prosperity for the Congolese and Rwandan peoples," read the statement.
The White House statement didn’t say explicitly what measures have been taken by the Rwandan and Congolese authorities to reduce tension.
As was the case just over a year ago, the US says it is closely monitoring the security situation in the Great Lakes region. In August 2022, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made the same trip to Kinshasa and Kigali to meet with Presidents Tshisekedi and Kagame.
While in Kinshasa, Blinken said he was concerned about "Rwanda's support for the M23 rebel group, which is responsible for massacres in DR Congo.”
The DRC still claims that Kigali is providing the rebels with weapons and fighters, a claim that Rwanda rejects.
Two years after the resurgence of the M23 rebels, in addition to hundreds of national and foreign armed groups present in the two Kivus and in Ituri, the security situation in North Kivu, in particular, is as bad as ever. After more than seven months of ceasefire, fighting has resumed between the M23, the Congolese army and the self-defence groups supporting the DRC army.
There is no hope of dialogue. The Nairobi and Luanda processes have stalled. And in a report on the situation in the DRC a few weeks ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern about the risk of a “direct confrontation” between Rwanda and Congo.
Huang Xia, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region, expressed the same concern at a security council meeting in October.
“The military build-up in the DRC and Rwanda, the absence of direct high-level dialogue and the persistence of hate speech are all worrying signals that we cannot ignore,” he said.
Xia also added that the overall situation in the DRC has worsened.
“Over the past six months, the security and humanitarian situation has not improved on the contrary”, he said.