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Western narratives on the DRC conflict could lead to an all-out war in the Great Lakes region

“Governing the DRC requires above all mobilizing energies to restore State authority instead of looking for scapegoats, inventing false plots and living in self-satisfaction.”
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As the security crisis in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evolves, the East African region appears united and determined to find a lasting solution to the crisis. However, Western commentaries on the crisis continue to play a destructive role by downplaying the responsibility of the DRC government in the resumption of armed conflict in the region, thus ensuring that Kinshasa keeps doubling down on its scorched-earth policy with regard to its relations with Rwanda on the one hand and the M23 rebellion on the other. Judith Verweijen and Christoph Vogel’s article “Why Congo M23’s crisis lingers on” is illustrative of how wrongly framing the issues at hand contributes to undermining African initiatives meant to resolve the conflict while inviting undue interference from Western powers whose actions so far have ensured that Congo remains a hotbed of instability.

Flawed analysis, speculations and questionable allegations

A cursory view of Verweijen and Vogel’s article on the reasons why the conflict between the DRC and the M23 rebellion has escalated would read as follows:

  1. “in late 2021, Rwanda felt that its influence in eastern DRC was waning due to a rapprochement between the DRC and Uganda” because “Kampala landed a number of deals with Kinshasa, including for infrastructure and gold concessions that led to direct competition with Rwanda”;
  2. “the DRC has rattled Kigali through a renewed partnership with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)” which “Rwanda perceives as a genuine security threat, even as it also stands accused of inflating this threat for reasons of political expediency”; and
  3. “squeezed between economic pressure and security concerns, Kigali resorted to the tried and tested strategy of gaining leverage by supporting insurgency.”

 

This seems like an easy-to-understand analysis, except for the many problematic points it presents to the reader.

First, Verweijen and Vogel present their speculation about Rwanda’s perception of its supposedly waning influence in reaction to the rapprochement between the DRC and Uganda as a fact. How the two authors came to that conclusion is a mystery, considering that such a viewpoint has never been expressed publicly by any Rwandan official.

The fact is: before the resumption of the conflict in late 2021, Rwanda and the DRC had signed several bilateral agreements, including a memorandum on gold mining cooperation. The signing took place on June 26, 2021, a month after the signing of another agreement of cooperation in the areas of trade, security and road infrastructure between Uganda and the DRC. There are no official records or reports that Kampala had landed gold concessions deals that could lead to “direct competition with Rwanda,” as Verweijen and Vogel claim, unless these were informal deals.

At any rate, if Congolese minerals are as abundant as widely purported, there are no grounds to speculate that Rwanda would be threatened if similar agreements were struck by Kampala. Unless one is determined to project the zero-sum logic underpinning Western superpowers’ behaviours onto African countries, there is enough gold in the DRC for all neighbours to partake in joint ventures for mining and share the benefits. In fact, if Verweijen and Vogel’s speculations had any basis, any action meant to reverse Uganda’s gains in these alleged deals, including supporting insurgency, would be met with hostility by Kampala. So far, Uganda, like all members of the East African Community, except the DRC, has maintained that it does not intend to fight the M23 rebels. This means that Kampala does not view the M23 as a threat and a proxy whose objective is to further Rwanda’s interests at the expense of Uganda’s.

It appears the initial speculation only serves to support the authors’ conclusion that “Kigali resorted to the tried and tested strategy of gaining leverage by supporting insurgency.” It is a case of confirmation bias, which only sustains old tropes around Congolese minerals and does not help in understanding the current DRC crisis.

Second, even when Verweijen and Vogel present a valid motive – namely the DRC alliance with the FDLR – that could prompt Rwanda to take measures such extreme as supporting the M23, they downplay the seriousness of that motive by invoking the kind of argument that has made it easy for the international community to tolerate a regional threat to the collective security of the Great Lakes region for the past 29 years: “[Rwanda] stands accused of inflating this [FDLR] threat for reasons of political expediency,” the two authors write. This is misleading.

Every informed commentator on the geo-political dynamics of the region knows that the FDLR is the single recurrent issue that has led to tensions between a) Rwanda and Tanzania, when former President Kikwete made the silly suggestion of peace talks between this genocidal outfit and the government of Rwanda; b) Rwanda and Uganda, as revelations about Uganda’s logistical support and collaboration with the FDLR commanders surfaced in 2006 and 2018; c) Rwanda and Burundi, when it became clear that Rusesabagina’s FLN elements, some of whom are former FDLR members, were attacking Rwanda from Burundi.

In all these instances, diplomacy was key in mending relations. Hence, any informed commentator who genuinely seeks to see an end to the DRC conflict ought to dismiss those invoking “political expediency” in the face of what Rwanda clearly considers an existential threat. On the contrary, the eastern DRC, being the hotbed of the FDLR and its splinter groups, requires decisive military actions to resolve this issue once and for all, a task that MONUSCO has failed to fulfill for the past two decades. This is why the East African chiefs of defence staff resolved to gather information on the whereabouts of the FDLR before the East African regional force could engage in military actions against it. Even those who think that the FDLR is a pretext for Rwanda to intervene in the DRC ought to agree that these military actions would remove the “pretext”.

Third, as Verweijen and Vogel try to substantiate the allegation that Rwanda is conducting a proxy war against the DRC, they do not take the report of a UN group of experts on the same with the necessary grain of salt. Yet, caution is warranted for a number of reasons. One, the evidence presented remains flimsy at best. In fact, except for Western powers that seem keen on adding fuel to the fire, no regional leader has made or even insinuated these allegations. Two, Verweijen and Vogel themselves acknowledge that “the lack of implementation of this [December 2013] agreement prompted the Uganda-based part of the [M23] group, led by Sultani Makenga, to return to the DRC”. Indeed, it is the Uganda-based group of the M23 that is fighting, while members of the group who fled to Rwanda in 2013 remain in cantonment.

Furthermore, the so-called rapprochement between the DRC and Uganda has not prompted Kampala to prevent the fall of Bunagana (a town bordering Uganda) into the hands of rebels who escaped its surveillance in 2017 – a move which would have been greatly appreciated by Kinshasa. Surely, if circumstantial evidence is given credence, then Uganda, not Rwanda, would be the prime suspect in any conversation about foreign support to the M23.

Even if one were to assume that the UN experts are right, it is difficult to envision that Rwanda would support a rebel group operating so close to Ugandan borders, without Uganda’s tacit support and/or active participation or endorsement. It is fair to assume that the only reason Kinshasa has not made equally wild allegations against Kampala is that it had hoped that recent tensions between Rwanda and Uganda could be leveraged to isolate Kigali. Today, Kinshasa is accusing the entire contingent of the East African Force (except Burundian troops) of conniving with the M23, and calling for the SADC to intervene. Interestingly, however, Verweijen and Vogel fail to note that Kinshasa’s behaviour, not Rwanda’s alleged proxy war, is the main reason why the crisis “lingers on.”

Holding Kinshasa to account in order to prevent an all-out war

As Verweijen and Vogel rightly pointed out, the “Congolese government had secretly hosted an M23 delegation in Kinshasa since mid-2020” and “the [M23] group largely went dormant and seemed satisfied with controlling a small area perched between eastern DRC’s volcanoes” since its return to the DRC in 2017. These facts indicate two things: one, the M23 gave a chance to have a peaceful settlement of the conflict; two, Kinshasa could have prevented the current bloodshed had any government official talked to M23 envoys and listened to their grievances. In other words, Kinshasa had a solution, started the process and then abandoned it. Today, the same group whose representatives were invited to Kinshasa is described by the DRC government as a terrorist group. Interestingly, Western commentators do not care to know the reasons behind this sudden change of heart or highlight these inconsistencies. Who said political expediency?

Moreover, none of M23’s declared demands (chiefly the implementation of the 2013 agreement, the protection of Rwandaphone communities and the repatriation of Congolese refugees scattered in the region) can be construed as furthering Rwanda’s interests. M23 members and the populations they claim to speak for were Congolese in 2013, and they remain Congolese to date. There is a regional consensus on this matter, to which Kinshasa and Western diplomatic representations remain tone-deaf. If Western powers wish to preserve the territorial integrity of the DRC, what they need to do is simple: they must make clear to Kinshasa that the country’s territorial integrity goes hand in hand with the recognition of the citizenship rights of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese communities.

Furthermore, it is misleading to claim “that Kinshasa and Kigali have taken an intransigent stance and display limited commitment to address their differences,” as Verweijen and Vogel do. In fact, since the beginning of the conflict in 2021, Rwanda has taken several measures to de-escalate the crisis. For instance, President Kagame agreed to assist former President Uhuru Kenyatta in urging the M23 to lay down arms and withdraw from captured territories. The M23 has since begun its withdrawal. According to Angola’s President and African Union mediator, Joao Laurenco, the M23 respects its commitments and he has no complaints whatsoever with regard to what he expects Rwanda to do for his mediation to succeed.

In contrast to the de-escalation measures from Kigali, Kinshasa has instead chosen to escalate the situation. For instance, Tshisekedi has publicly called for regime change in Rwanda and vowed support to forces hell-bent on destabilizing a neighbour, a statement that President Kagame calmly dismissed as a joke. Recently, Tshisekedi doubled down and received a representative of the Rwandan National Congress, a terrorist group responsible for grenade attacks in Kigali in 2010.  Kinshasa also refuses to engage in any talks with M23 rebels even as both the AU mediator and the EAC facilitator have met with their representatives. As a result, Angola’s Joao Laurenco has complained that the failure to start this political process has stalled the cantonment process.

It is worth reminding that the February 2023 Bujumbura Heads of State Summit decided that M23 withdrawal would be accompanied by a political process. But Kinshasa remains adamant that the M23 must be defeated and continues to pressure the East African force to engage in military operations against the rebels while threatening to replace EAC forces with SADC’s to do its war bidding. Meanwhile, public schools in the DRC are flooded with hate speech, with pupils taught that Rwanda is the enemy, a situation which fuels violence against Congolese Kinyarwanda speakers. In brief, there is only one party that continues to escalate and does not display any commitment at all to diffuse tensions, and it is the DRC government. A correct analysis of why the DRC crisis “lingers on” wouldn’t fail to note this.

It is high time Western powers, media, think tanks and analysts ceased to shield the Congolese government from accountability. Their commentaries on the crisis encourage Kinshasa’s dangerous posture, undermine the current regional consensus on how to resolve the crisis, and prepare the ground for an all-out war by framing internally generated issues as a confrontation between two countries. So, perhaps instead of subtly inviting Western interference by invoking the tried and failed strategy of sanctions which did not address the root causes of the conflict in 2012 or military actions which only postponed the resumption of conflict, Verweijen and Vogel could take a leaf from the Congolese opposition leader, Moise Katumbi, who, speaking following yet another massacre committed by one of Congo’s militias, said: “Governing the DRC requires above all mobilizing energies to restore State authority instead of looking for scapegoats, inventing false plots and living in self-satisfaction.”

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