‘The stakes are high’ amid renewed tensions between Rwanda and DR Congo over rebel fighters

Fresh clashes erupted on Thursday between the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and the M23 rebel group, a day after DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame met in Angola and agreed to defuse tensions in a context of renewed fighting, which risks “an involuntary escalation”. FRANCE 24 spoke with Ben Shepherd of Chatham House to understand the origin of these tensions, which date back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

The resumption of fighting in recent months between the DRC army and the M23 in North Kivu (eastern DR Congo) has led to an upsurge in tensions between the DRC and Rwanda. The M23 is a rebel military group based in eastern DR Congo and operating mainly in the province of North Kivu. The rebels are named after a peace accord they signed with the Congolese government on March 23, 2009, are part of the minority Tutsi ethnic group and are closely linked to the Tutsi in Rwanda. DR Congo has accused Rwanda of using the rebel group, which seized the key border town of Bunagana last month, as a proxy. Rwanda has denied these accusations.

After weeks of escalating tensions, the DRC and Rwanda on Wednesday agreed to a “de-escalation process” after high-profile talks. The mediator, Angolan President Joao Lourenço, went further, declaring the agreement a “ceasefire”. That deal was short-lived, however, as fresh clashes erupted on Thursday between the Congolese army and the M23 rebel group, who said they were not bound by the ceasefire agreement.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Ben Shepherd, a leading specialist on the DR Congo and the Great Lakes region of London-based Chatham House, about the origins of the continuing tensions between DR Congo and Rwanda, which mean that DR Congo is still home to one of the most neglected refugee crises in the world. We also asked him if this renewed fighting meant that war was on the horizon.

FRANCE 24: Can you explain why tensions have been simmering between DR Congo and Rwanda since Rwandan Hutus accused of having massacred Tutsis during the 1994 genocide arrived en masse in DR Congo?

Ben Berger:A large force of genocidaires[Rwandans who were responsible for and carried out mass killings during the 1994 Rwandan genocide] crossed into what was then Zaire mingled with hundreds of thousands of refugees. They were able to reorganize and resupply with the complicity of President Mobutu and launch attacks in a fragile post-genocide Rwanda, while posing a serious threat to marginalized Zairian Tutsi communities. This led to Rwanda’s new RPF government invading Zaire two years later, forcing most of the refugees back to Rwanda, pursuing the genocidaires through Zaire’s vast forests – amid widespread allegations of war crimes – and overthrowing Mobutu in 1997, alongside Ugandan forces and Congolese proxies.

Rwanda was the power behind the throne of DR Congo’s new president, Laurent Désiré Kabila. However, he did not tolerate outside clientelism for long – he rejected Rwandan control in 1998, turning as he did against Congolese Tutsi communities perceived as close to the Rwandan government, and allying himself with remnants of the genocidaires, now organized into an armed group. known as FDLR. The result was the Second Congo War (1998-2002), which at its peak involved African armies from Angola to Zimbabwe in a fiercely complex conflict that ended in stalemate – and the eventual negotiated withdrawal of the Rwandan forces.

However, Rwanda never completely let go. They left behind a politico-military group, the RCD-G, which still controlled a third of DR Congo – with significant Rwandan aid. The RCD-G fared extremely poorly in the landmark post-conflict elections of 2006, but was followed almost immediately by another rebel group, this time called the CNDP, which controlled a smaller area but was composed many units that had fought for the RCD-G, always with Rwandan support. The CNDP disbanded in 2009, but a core group of former CNDP fighters were then central to the creation of the M23 in 2012, which took major Congolese towns before being defeated a year later. Tensions persisted because the interrelated crises of the post-genocide period were never fully resolved.

What is the responsibility of the rebel group M23 in the resurgence of tensions between DR Congo and Rwanda? There are at least 122 rebel groups active in eastern DR Congo, why is this one in particular making headlines and being blamed for escalating tensions?

The return of M23 after nearly a decade of inactivity is qualitatively different from the large number of other armed groups active in eastern DR Congo. For many Congolese, it brings back memories of the abuses they suffered under successive armed groups they see as proxies for Rwanda – there is a direct continuity between today’s M23 and the RCD-G founded in 1998 – and raises the specter of a return to decades of regional conflict. The tensions are as much a product of the Great Lakes region’s turbulent history and the perception of M23 as a vehicle for Rwandan interests as they are of the group’s own military capacity or political clout.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has said that DR Congo is home to the most neglected refugee crisis in the world, how has this conflict affected citizens of DR Congo/Rwanda?

It is still the ordinary citizens of the region who suffer the most. Congolese communities in the east of the country have been displaced several times over the decades – UNHCR estimated that DR Congo was home to more than 5 million displaced people at the end of 2021, although there could well be more not anymore. The delivery of humanitarian aid has always been difficult in eastern DR Congo, with mountainous terrain, degraded infrastructure and threats of violence and crime – this new crisis has reignited inter-communal tensions, closed important border crossing points and can only make this urgent work even more difficult.

Why has Rwanda been blamed for the actions of these rebel groups (especially the M23)? What does she have to gain by supporting them?

The M23 is the latest in a long line of armed groups in DR Congo. There have been compelling claims of significant Rwandan support for each iteration, many of which have subsequently been substantiated. Obviously, this does not mean that the current incarnation of the M23 is actually receiving aid from Rwanda – which Kigali vehemently denies – but it does explain why allegations have been made. And the ability of the M23 to reconstitute itself so quickly, armed and organized enough to take Congolese territory and confront the Congolese army and the UN, suggests that it is getting outside help from somewhere.

What Rwanda might gain from supporting them is much harder to answer, having suffered aid suspensions and damage to its international reputation due to a previous association with violence in DR Congo. Rwandan leaders pointed to the continued marginalization of Congolese Tutsi communities and demanded Congolese government action against the FDLR. But although the FDLR still persists in DR Congo after nearly three decades, their capabilities are significantly reduced. And while there is anti-Tutsi sentiment in DR Congo, it will only get worse with another iteration of armed community mobilization – and the majority of Congolese Tutsi are tired of being instrumentalized in cross-border geopolitical struggles that have little to do with them. Rwanda’s current role and motivation are difficult to determine with certainty.

Is it possible that these tensions lead to an outright war? Given that DR Congo requested US support to deal with Rwanda and the M23 rebels two weeks ago?

The crisis is unlikely to lead to open war between Rwanda and DR Congo, at least in the short term. But the stakes are high. Beyond the tragic consequences for people in eastern DR Congo, which should never be underestimated, there are real possibilities for unintended escalation. Latest round of violence between M23 and DR Congo ended in SADC [Southern African Development Community]-directed intervention; this time the EAC[East African Community]proposes an intervention force, although Rwanda is itself an EAC member state, and southern African heavyweights, notably Angola and South Africa, still have significant stakes in the game. It is imperative that DR Congo does not once again become a battleground for competing geopolitical aspirations, but that will require careful diplomacy.

This interview was conducted on July 4, 2022.

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