A few days before Christmas, France and Germany openly accused Rwanda of supporting armed M23 rebels in the neighbouring eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
And to start 2023, the European Union, where Germany and France wear the big pants, again called on Rwanda to stop supporting M23, which has captured territory in DRC's North Kivu Province in the past nine months.
The M23 are fighting against what they say is long-running marginalisation and persecution by the government in Kinshasa. Like the historical members of Rwanda's ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front, the M23 mostly comprises Tutsi people, known as Banyamulenge in DRC.
After the RPF came to power in Rwanda in late 1994 after the Genocide against the Tutsi, Kigali directly and indirectly intervened in the DRC. It maintained that its primary goal was to deal with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), made up mainly of elements that carried out the genocide, and moved to set up shop in eastern DRC.
FDLR has staged raids across the Rwanda border with DRC and killed people several times in the past. At the height of their attacks in 1996, Rwanda supported anti-Kinshasa rebels in eastern DRC, who eventually toppled the corrupt government of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
Now, a new wave of hate speech and anti-Tutsi agitation is sweeping across eastern DRC. M23 alleges that the Banyamulenge are already being killed.
Because of the blood relationship and its need to contain FDLR, the popular view is that Rwanda is backing the M23 as a proxy. Amidst accusations by the US, the EU, and a UN experts panel, Rwanda has persistently denied direct military aid to the M23. This has led to a strange situation where all sides are wrong.
The EU, particularly Germany, France, and Belgium, should re-read their own historical role in the eastern DRC problem. Without the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, which partitioned Africa among the European colonial powers, the eastern DRC crisis wouldn't be there today.
The boundaries of the DRC that were drawn by European colonialists incorporated areas near Rwanda around Rutshuru, which is now part of North Kivu Province. The colonialists continued to oversee several migrations.
As historians have noted, between 1930 and 1950, Rwandans — both Hutu and Tutsi — were brought into North Kivu as part of the Belgian colonial government's programme to reduce demographic pressure in Rwanda, another of its colonial possessions, and to meet labour needs in DRC.
The Rwanda government's denial of its support for M23 seems informed by concerns that it could face punishing sanctions. Second, Kigali sees itself as a model pan-Africanist and internationalist government, and being a patron of M23 will paint it as a provincial-minded Tutsi hegemon.
Precisely because of how Africa's borders were drawn, it has left many groups persecuting minorities in several countries around the continent. I think their kin in neighbouring countries — where they are a significant majority or have political power — have a responsibility to protect them.
Take the case of East Africa's Teso people. Most of them are in Uganda, and a minority, split by the colonial border, live in Kenya. The cultural leader of the Teso is called the Emorimor. The Kenyan Teso, who seem to have more money than their Uganda relatives, also treat the Emorimor as their leader. When he comes to Kenya, he is pampered in ways his Ugandan subjects can't match.
If there were a Ugandan Teso president, he would have some responsibility to aid the Kenyan Teso if they were being mistreated.
The Maasai live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. In Tanzania, the Maasai have been protesting against government actions to force them off their ancestral land to promote tourism. If a Maasai were president in Kenya today, she would have a duty, at the minimum, to put in a call to President Samia Suluhu Hassan and implore that they are treated fairly.
All post-independence Ugandan governments have had the policy to support the people of what is today South Sudan. When Milton Obote and military dictator Idi Amin were presidents, even as they maintained ties with Khartoum, they supported the South Sudanese right not to be treated the way the Banyamulenge are in DRC. Part of it was because both leaders were culturally related to the South Sudanese as fellow Nilotes.
They were light-footed, though, and it took President Yoweri Museveni, who is not a Nilote and therefore wasn't constrained by sentimentality, to blow support for the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement into a bigger national security issue. It ended in South Sudan's independence.
The present world order is built on the idea of a patron state or strategic ally who helps governments work with their enemies. If you want to get through to the Israelis, you call the Americans. When the Americans want to work out arrangements with Islamist militant or terrorist groups — as they did with the Taliban before they got out of Afghanistan in 2021 — they call the Saudis, Emiratis, or Qataris.
The world needs someone to whom M23 can listen. If it can't be Rwanda or Uganda, then let it be Tanzania. They can't be out there without a back channel to reach them and cut deals. And the only way you get to be an influential contact is by putting something in the mouth of the rebel group or political movement.
The only question should be what kind of business Rwanda does with M23. It can't be that it must have nothing to do with it.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans» [email protected]