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From Mobutu to Tshisekedi – Only a leader prepared to pay the political cost of cooperating with Kigali will bring peace to the region

For longtime observers of the great lakes region’s tribulations, there is a sense of déjà vu. Some would argue that Mobutu Sese Seko has been reincarnated as Felix Tshisekedi.

To understand the decisions that Rwanda takes to preserve its hard-earned peace, one must go back to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. With that knowledge, even those who disagree with any of those decisions do so from an informed point of view. Consequently, fair minded observers are likely to sympathize and understand the context and rationale of such decisions given the competing imperatives facing the country, or any other country that would find itself in similar circumstances. This is what happened in 1996 when Rwanda decided to intervene in the then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo, in pursuit of the planners and executors of the genocide who had sought sanctuary there.

The reincarnation of Mobutu

Those who disagree with Rwanda’s invasion of Zaire on the grounds of respect for territorial integrity or other principles which they believe must hold even in the face of an existential threat, acknowledge that Mobutu was wrong to welcome people who had just massacred more than a million Africans. He had done so as a goodwill gesture on behalf of his departed friend and protégé, Juvenal Habyarimana. They agree that he had gone too far by supporting the reorganization and rearming of the defeated genocidal regime as it sought to retake power in Kigali and complete the “unfinished job” of annihilating the survivors of the genocide.

As the Washington Post reported in 1997, the genocidal forces that had found sanctuary in Zaire “had become Mobutu’s first line of defense” in the war “against Kabila’s rebels”, then backed by Rwanda. However, rather than defending Zaire, the alliance with genocidal forces “led directly to the fall of Mobutu”. This alliance had prompted Kigali to go all in, in support of Kabila. Rwanda’s leaders “thought [that] doing it halfway would be very dangerous,” as the then Vice President Paul Kagame said, adding: “We found the best way was to take it to the end.”

Given the circumstances at the time, most observers agree that a preemptive strike was the right response, since it would have been irresponsible, even suicidal, for Rwanda to wait for the killers, at the time also supported militarily and diplomatically by France, to attack.

Interestingly, many are now reluctant to extend the same reasoning to the events currently taking place in the DRC, most of which are similar to those that took place prior to Rwanda’s invasion in 1996.

Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese (Rwandopones) are facing a threat of genocide, with incitement from different officials.  President Tshisekedi has also dabbled in incitement when he called upon vigilante groups to support the army in defeat of the “enemy and denounce potential traitors in the civilian population who serve the enemy’s interests.” Those who are familiar with the politics of the Great Lakes Region understand that this is often coded language to eliminate people who are accused of “betraying” their country through their alleged “sympathy” with the enemy. It is worth underscoring that the only basis of these accusations is the cultural ties that the victims share with the Banyarwanda of Rwanda. In short, it is their identity and not anything they have done, that renders them targets of violence. As a result, in the streets across different cities of North Kivu, they have been burnt alive, some even cannibalized, and their properties destroyed. The message they are receiving from their Congolese compatriots is go back to your country.”

Similar events took place in the Kivus in the early 1990s as Mobutu was facing pressure for democratization, This is the context that gave rise to the formation by Rwandophone Congolese of the nucleus around which Kabila’s rebellion was built, culminating in his rise to power.

Then and now, the citizenship of Rwandophone Congolese is contested by Congolese leaders on the very same basis – their cultural ties with Rwanda.  Prior to Rwanda’s intervention, Mobutu went as far as revoking their citizenship. And once again, genocidal forces – at the time the FAR which was later renamed FDLR – are the DRC’s “first line of defense” against the enemy. Therefore, for longtime observers of the great lakes region’s tribulations, there is a sense of déjà vu. Some would argue that Mobutu Sese Seko has been reincarnated as Felix Tshisekedi.

The contradiction

In 1996, those who supported or sympathized with Rwanda’s actions against Mobutu because they amounted to self-defense in the face of an existential threat understood the decision to reach out to Rwandophone Congolese to help them organize around a shared cause against a common source of hostility and insecurity. Today the same people find it problematic, even unacceptable, that a similar alliance around a shared existential threat, given the ideology of the FDLR, could emerge between Rwanda and the M23 rebellion.

This contradiction persists for two reasons. One, Tshisekedi is useful for the West in a different but similar way that Mobutu was during his time. Mobutu’s closeness with western powers at the time was deemed necessary to counter the spread of communism in Africa and maintain parts of the continent in the Western sphere of influence. The war to remove Mobutu happened less than a decade after the end of the Cold War, when his usefulness to the US in particular and the West in general, had run its course. They had no reason to preserve him.

As they often do, the powerful western media which often align very strongly, albeit with great subtlety  with the foreign policies of their countries, drummed up support for Mobutu’s removal. They articulated its moral basis by condemning his alliance with genocidal killers. They rightly pointed out that it was that support that explained Rwanda’s alliance with Rwandophone Congolese who formed the nucleus of the rebellion before elements around Laurent Desire Kabila emerged on the scene and took over leadership, in order to nurture a “liberation” movement with the capacity to rally broad support among the Congolese people.

Today the geostrategic environment has shifted, even if the shift may be only in form, the substance remaining intact. Today, dysfunctional governments in Congo, including Tshisekedi’s, provide the necessary environment for western corporations to exploit the country’s vast mineral resources.

Accordingly, hypocrisy notwithstanding, the very media houses that supported the removal of Mobutu, are hostile to the emergence of a similar movement despite the facts on the ground being nothing short of history repeating itself.

Imperialist activism

More bizarrely, anti-imperialism activists on the African continent have turned the moral cause upside down. They have accepted, without critical examination, the western media’s depiction of Rwanda as the aggressor and have done so despite their usual skepticism about these media sources. In other words, in their minds, when it comes to Rwanda western media suddenly cease to be an arm of imperial propaganda.

Ordinarily, rights activism takes the side of victims. And in this search for the victim is where they have fallen prey to western propaganda. Two perspectives prevail on understanding who the victim in this conflict is. On the one hand is M-23 whose claims to defend Rwandophone Congolese from the threat of genocide are validated by the incitement to kill on the part of the authorities of that country.  On the other, is the weakness of the Congolese state that elicits and receives the support of various rights activists, especially those like (the Cameroonian-Swiss) Nathalie Yamb and many others who claim to fight imperialism. What they fail to appreciate, however, is that neither the weakness of the Congolese state nor its morally deficient cause deserve such support. I used to be an activist and I know that weakness is not a sufficient basis for support; one has to be weak and right to deserve the solidarity of rights activists.

In this conflict, this activist community finds itself in a moral quagmire: anti-imperialist activists siding with the empire to denounce Rwanda and M-23. They have allied with media houses that are owned and run by agents of the empire to rehearse claims that the objective of the alleged M-23/Rwanda alliance is to exploit Congolese minerals. Ironically, this is an imperialist narrative whose aim is to conceal the actual forces of pillage of the Congolese natural resources: American and Canadian mineral interests that have the financial resources to invest in the heavy machinery needed to extract those minerals and the political influence necessary to send cargo planes operating on make-shift runways inside Congolese jungles under the protection of MONUSCO. The spokesperson of the Ugandan army, the UPDF, Gen Felix Kulayigye underscored this point: “Congo has imperialists trying to take advantage of its vast resources. There are places in Congo where a black person cannot go.” In other words, the discourse that ties Rwanda and M-23 to minerals is a clever imperialist diversion. And now it has been taken up by African anti-imperialist activists!

These activists have been in confrontation with Rwandans on social media claiming that the latter’s passionate defense of M-23 is confirmation that Rwandan troops are supporting the rebels. I personally think that if intervening in the DRC was the right thing to do in 1996 when genocidal forces were “Mobutu’s first line of defense,” then it remains the right thing to do now that FDLR is Tshisekedi’s first line of defense. This alliance has been confirmed by the United Nations.

Also, I think that the passionate defense of M-23 by Rwandans on social media has to do with their sensitivity regarding genocide. In fact, whenever the incitement against Rwandophone Congolese reaches fever pitch, there is a feeling inside Rwanda that the leadership is being “indifferent” to their suffering. I am convinced, therefore, that if the question of whether to intervene in the DRC to protect the lives of Rwandophone Congolese arose, the overwhelming majority of Rwandans would vote in favour. In other words, Rwandans are more likely to cheer their government’s intervention than merely to show support to M-23.

On the other hand, activism in favour of an armed intervention whose primary aim would be to defeat the M-23 unwittingly makes the case for the preservation of the FDLR and is, therefore, a morally deficient activism.

The high cost of cooperation

Then, and now, cooperation is what was needed to uproot the genocidaires. However, Mobutu chose to treat them as victims and to forge a common front against Kigali. Since then, politics in Kinshasa has been hostile to cooperation, the route Kigali prefers. As a result, Tshisekedi is caught between a rock and a hard place. Since anti-Rwanda hostility is a political boon in Kinshasa, cooperation would have to be predicated on one key factor: a leader willing to initiate and sustain such cooperation. They would have to preside over a state that has the capacity to deliver public services effectively. In that way, it would provide the necessary shield against elite pressure and constitute a strong basis for seeking reelection. It would neutralize the myths peddled by the Kinshasa elite that such cooperation is aimed at naturalizing people of “doubtful nationality” (Rwandophone Congolese) and balkanizing the country by surrendering part of its territory to Rwanda and, perhaps Uganda.

It is foolhardy to pursue cooperation, fail to deliver public services, and then seek re-election in the DRC. Failure to deliver public services invariably leads to the need to scapegoat neighbours for internal governance failures. It focuses the political calculus of DRC leaders on non-cooperation with Rwanda and hostility towards Rwandophones.

Remarkably, for a brief period at the start of this round of conflict, Tshisekedi’s main political competitor, Martin Fayulu, pointed out that the provocation of war in the Kivu was a diversionary tactic by the president. Fayulu asserted, rightly, that the actual problems of the DRC were those of governance. But this moment of clarity by Fayulu did not last. He too realized that such an argument, as valid as it is, was a political non-starter in the DRC. He quickly pivoted back to his, and Mukwege’s, bread and butter issues: “balkanization et nationalite douteuse”.

So far Kinshasa’s belligerent attitude has been met with restraint on the part of Kigali. Rwanda has no appetite for regime change in Kinshasa. It learned the hard lesson that removing a hostile regime does not ensure long term security. Neither does it guarantee that the one that replaces it will not pose a worse threat. Sadly, Rwanda’s restraint has encouraged the elites in DRC to engage in unending provocations whose intended result, a full-blown inter-state war, would most likely end up confirming their accusations that Rwanda supports the M23, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Similarly, Rwanda’s reluctance to respond robustly to the provocation “to the end” means that Tshisekedi has little incentive to cooperate in pursuit of a political solution that brings lasting peace between the two countries and the region. This explains why he has turned his back against the Luanda and Nairobi mechanisms.

Ultimately, rather than live by the lesson that he ought to have learned from Mobutu, Tshisekedi has chosen to rely on Rwanda’s reluctance to repeat its own. He has chosen to live dangerously while claiming on television that he is prepared to pay the ultimate price in defense of the DRC.

But only a leader who is ready to pay the high political cost of cooperation with Kigali will bring peace to the DRC and the region. Tshisekedi is not that leader.


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