Since the resumption of armed hostilities between the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the M23 in late 2021, the United Nations experts and peacekeeping mission staff, who have been operating in the country for over two decades, have been keen on blaming their failure to show value for money on factors seemingly beyond their control. The June 2023 report of the Group of Experts on the DRC is in line with this aim of shifting blame for this failure on everyone else except their own contribution to the recurring violence; that is, their failure to identify and address the root causes of the conflict. More specifically, some of the report’s allegations, analyses, and conclusions expose the experts’ biases against Rwanda and the M23; the allegations also help to explain why after 70 UN peacekeeping operations since 1948 in the DRC there is still no sustainable solution to some of the least complicated aspects of Congo’s unending crises.
An upside-down reading of Congo’s crisis
One recurrent and problematic aspect of the UN group of experts’ report is that it presents an upside-down view of the causes and effects of the crisis – whether between Rwanda and the DRC on the one hand, or between the DRC government and the M23 on the other hand.
For instance, the UN experts write that “tensions [between Rwanda and the DRC] were heightened when, on 24 January 2023, RDF shot at a Sukhoi (SU-25) fighter jet belonging to FARDC over Goma.” This misleading presentation plays into Kinshasa’s narrative purporting that the DRC is facing aggression from Rwanda, which is demonstrably false.
In fact, tensions between the two countries rose way back in May 2022, when, in violation of Rwanda’s territorial integrity, the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) shelled Rwandan territory in Kinigi and Nyange Sectors in Musanze District, injuring several civilians – a clear act of terror for which the Rwandan government immediately requested an investigation by the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM). A few weeks later, the Rwandan Ministry of Defence reported that the FARDC had “fired rockets into Rwanda from the Bunagana area, striking along the common border in Nyabigoma Cell, Kinigi Sector, Musanze District on 10 June 2022”. Both incidents of aggression, which are nowhere to be found in the experts’ report, were perceived in Rwanda as attempts to disrupt the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which, at the time, was to take place a few days later from 20-25 June 2022 in Kigali.
It’s, however, revealing that the UN experts reported the shooting of Congo’s Sukhoi (SU-25) by Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) in January 2023; they did so without providing the context that led to Kigali’s reaction: the fact that Congolese fighter jets had violated Rwanda’s airspace on two prior occasions, first in November 2022 and subsequently in December 2022, with the Congolese government pleading guilty for at least one of these violations. The report deliberately omits these incidents involving aggression against Rwanda as well as Kinshasa’s admission of wrongdoing, thus making it impossible for the uninformed reader to assess whether Rwanda’s actions are the causes of, or responses to, Kinshasa’s hostile attitude.
Shielding Kinshasa from scrutiny
The UN experts’ omissions, which are too many to mention, beg the question: How are Africans, and others of goodwill for that matter, supposed to trust UN reports that discard facts that are inconvenient to Kinshasa’s narrative while shielding from accountability a government that has repeatedly threatened to expel the UN mission? Are UN experts seeking the truth or are they protecting their livelihoods?
One could argue that the fact that these experts also accuse the FARDC of collaborating with the FRDL is evidence that they are not biased. But one would be wrong, and here is why.
First, the UN experts are careful to highlight the fact that “in May 2022, President, Tshisekedi, called upon the military hierarchy to refrain from using proxies in the fight against M23.” However, they are quick to qualify their accusation that “the engagement of armed groups –crucial for constraining M23 advances – was organized, coordinated and supported by senior FARDC officers.” In other words, where context is removed from accusations against Kigali, those against Kinshasa are unduly qualified. In so doing, the UN experts ensure two things.
One, whatever FADRC officers are doing cannot be blamed on the commander-in-chief. These are supposedly ‘rogue’ actors acting against Tshisekedi’s orders. This effort to shift accountability is ridiculous considering that President Tshisekedi has also called for regime change in Rwanda and vowed to support forces hell-bent on destabilizing Congo’s neighbour, a fact which appears nowhere in the experts’ report.
Two, the actions of these ‘rogue’ FARDC officers are justified since, as the experts state, “the engagement of armed groups,” which includes FRDL, was “crucial for constraining M23 advances.” Clearly, for the UN experts, the M23 is a greater threat to peace in the Great Lakes region than the FDLR since FARDC officers had no other choice but to use a genocidal outfit to counter the M23. In fact, the UN experts go to great lengths to sanitize FDLR as a self-defence militia by giving credence to FDLR claims that “they had fought alongside FARDC and local armed groups to defend their positions and dependents from M23 attacks”. Indeed, the experts suggest that the FDLR defends the population against Rwandan troops and the M23 rebels by affirming that “FDLR withdrew from several positions, exposing the population to reprisal attacks”.
Responsibility for hate speech
Secondly, and relatedly, the UN experts double down on their upside-down view of the causes and effects of the crisis in the DRC by blaming the current hate speech and xenophobia (targeting Rwandophone Congolese at large and the Congolese Tutsi communities in particular) on M23’s territorial expansion. In efforts to blame the victims, the experts are seemingly on a goose chase to demonstrate this: “Incidents of violence, including the killing of Tutsi civilians, had coincided with the resurgence of M23.” Crucially, by presenting those who now promote hate speech in DRC – namely government officials, politicians, and civil society actors – as brainless chickens incapable of foreseeing the consequences of their actions and merely reacting to M23’s expansion, the experts shamelessly validate the same rhetoric that justified the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda; that it was a consequence of the RPF military campaign.
For one thing, the hate speech that depicts Rwandaphone Congolese as aliens in the DRC and the related killings targeting these communities date at least as far back as 1965, as evidenced by confidential notes of the US State Department on the matter. Both former Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere and former South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki have on different occasions identified these attempts to ethnically cleanse or exterminate Rwandophone communities as one of the root causes of violence and instability in the eastern DRC. In other words, this is not something invented by the Rwandan government or the M23, as the UN experts claim when they accuse the two of “instrumentalizing [the] genocide narrative.” The ethnic rhetoric is as old as Congo itself!
For another, if the international community is genuine in its declared intention to assist the East African region to bring peace to the DRC, it is paramount that it rejects the UN experts’ submission that the hate speech and killings targeting these communities are a consequence of M23’s expansion rather than the result of a deliberate government policy. There is no justifiable reason for the reluctance of the UN experts to apportion blame where it rightly belongs.
Furthermore, unless one defends the idea that denouncing and fighting racism is the cause of racist attacks, we all ought to reject the UN experts’ silly suggestion that denouncing genocidal rhetoric and violence in DRC, as the Rwandan government and the M23 consistently do, has “created a dangerously fertile ground for the fearmongering, hateful discourse and violent reprisals, including killings, against the [Congolese Tutsi communities] by those who opposed M23.” In fact, if the UN experts were coherent, they would have equally denounced Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, who in November 2022 dared to raise an alarm on the condition of Banyamulenge communities, stating that “The current violence [in the DRC] is a warning sign of societal fragility and proof of the enduring presence of the conditions that allowed large-scale hatred and violence to erupt into a genocide in the past.” Going by the experts’ reasoning, by denouncing what everyone sees clearly, Alice Wairimu has also created “a fertile ground” for genocidal violence!
Vilifying Rwanda and the M23
Even as they absolve the Congolese government of all responsibility for the current crisis and sanitize FDLR on the one hand, the UN experts appear determined to vilify the Rwandan government and the M23 on the other. They do this in various ways.
One, they suggest that one of the objectives of Rwanda is to “use [M23] to secure control over mine sites”. Interestingly, they are quick to admit that Rwanda has not achieved this objective. Instead, the experts note that “Mining police in Rubaya town were tolerant of [pro-government militias] incursions into the mining sites, as they considered them to be FARDC allies in the fight against M23” and that “in recent months, those [militias] had consolidated control over Rubaya mine sites and their relationships with the smuggling networks.” The plot thickens when the UN experts allege further that “several sources reported that the minerals were being smuggled towards Rwanda.” In other words, according to UN experts, pro-Kinshasa militias who control Congolese mines in Rubaya are smuggling their loot through Rwanda, thereby fulfilling the objective allegedly pursued by the RDF-M23 alliance. How preposterous is this?
Two, the experts also accuse M23 of conducting “ceremonial withdrawals” and “symbolic handover” of territories in contravention of the East African Community timetable. These so called experts act as if the same community had not determined that this withdrawal would be accompanied by a political process as part of the recommendations of the emergency summit of EAC heads of state held in Bujumbura in February 2023. The experts stubbornly refrain from blaming Kinshasa for its refusal to commit to peace talks so that the cantonment of M23 can be expedited, a posture at odds with the AU mediator and the Angolan President’s assessment that M23 complies with the region’s recommendations and that the Congolese government has to play its part.
What to make of this report?
However misleading, the UN group of experts report is not completely useless. It provides useful indications once one is able to separate the wheat from the chaff. On the issue of Rwanda and the DRC, for instance, a careful reading of the report with regard to the alleged military operations conducted by the RDF indicates that Rwandan troops have not sought direct confrontation with the FARDC, but instead have stubbornly focused on FDLR strongholds and positions. This means that even if one were to take the UN experts’ allegations on Rwanda’s direct military interventions at face value, it is clear that Rwanda does not seek military confrontation with the DRC but rather addresses a legitimate security threat.
Moreover, if the UN experts were not as determined to further Kinshasa’s narrative and to justify their continued presence in Congo, they would have extended their understanding of the legitimacy of Uganda’s interventions against ADF – which they praise as having “led to a relative lull in ADF activities” – to Rwanda’s alleged interventions against the FDLR, which poses an even greater threat to a society against which it has previously committed genocide.
At any rate, the East African Heads of State must heed their defence chiefs’ call to conduct military actions against the FDLR as a means of diffusing tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali. This is a straightforward recommendation that the UN experts would make if they didn’t conduct investigations with a pre-determined conclusion in mind.
The M23 issue is also straightforward. As President Ruto rightly pointed out recently, the East African regional force has achieved in a few months what the UN has failed to do in almost three decades. Current attempts by UN staff to downplay its achievements are only desperate moves to preserve Monusco’s relevance by sabotaging regional efforts and preempting important summits even as UN officials refuse to be held accountable for their repeated failures in the DRC – the last kicks of a dying horse, if you will.
For the region’s efforts to be successful, however, the EAC leaders will have to take a radically different approach and urge Kinshasa to engage in a political process that will address M23 grievances without further delay. This is the surest and least bloody path to peace which will compel M23 rebels into completing their withdrawal. Failure to do this will undoubtedly play into Kinshasa’s cynical political calculus in the context of upcoming elections, derail the ongoing process and reverse the gains achieved so far.
Indeed, African leaders ought to resist these foreign attempts to shape narratives around – and prescribe failed solutions for – our problems. Moreover, they ought to keep in mind that “part of the problem facing Africa is that the agency to articulate the trials and tribulations of Africans has for long been usurped by foreigners. Until Africans, who are primarily faced with the consequences of the thinking around governance, take control and relegate foreigners to subordinate roles, the clarity we seek to confront our challenges will continue to elude us.”
Otherwise, it is as clear as day that the UN experts’ report is yet another tool in the arsenal for controlling Africans, especially those engaged in the stubborn pursuit of their dignity.