Diplomatic missions are masking military build-ups in the DR Congo

Like a child’s game of peekaboo, the current view of the conflict percolating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo seems to be ‘if it is not in the international press it isn’t happening’.

Kanyarucina IDP camp Sept 2012 Sylvain Lietchti MONUSCO

The UK’s former Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, cited a ceasefire by M23 insurgents as one of his principle reasons for restoring previously suspended aid to Rwanda. The aid payment had been suspended after a UN report provided compelling evidence that Rwanda was backing the insurgency in Congo. His second reason was the constructive engagement of Rwanda: “with the peace process initiated through the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.” As a parting shot for his last day in office after a Cabinet reshuffle, it smacked of incoherence if not petulance. None of the other donors who have suspended aid, including Germany, Holland, Sweden, Pais Basco, the US and the African Development Bank, have resumed their funding. Indeed, the latter has announced a renewal of the suspension. 

Meanwhile, the PR war has gained momentum on all sides. Both DR Congo and Rwanda made further submissions to the UN through visits to the Security Council by their respective foreign ministers. Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, seemed intent on undermining the damning UN Group of Experts report by attacks on one of its authors, Steven Hege. In her presentation to the Security Council Ms Mushikiwabo stated: “we are confident that you will agree they place his views of Rwanda, post-genocide politics and the FDLR on the extreme fringe.”   In Rwandan discourse he has now joined the ranks of ‘genocide deniers’ and ‘FDLR apologists’ that are the standard weapons in their PR arsenal. These labels are routinely applied to absolutely anyone who may be critical of the Kigali regime. Hege’s ‘crime’ was to write a 2009 paper that called for a re-think of approaches to disarming and demobilising FDLR militias in the DR Congo. Conveniently overlooked in this rendering of Hege the villain, was the detailed research and evidence of FDLR crimes in previous UN reports supervised by Hege.

While attacks on Hege may win points among Kigali government supporters, they are unlikely to be taken seriously by diplomats or international policy makers when the ‘IRA model’ is now recognised as a highly successful method to demilitarise rebellion. Alongside this, there is a certain irony in attacking Hege’s suggestions while simultaneously advocating political solutions for the M23 insurgency in DR Congo.

DR Congo meanwhile, made representations via Foreign Affairs Minister, Raymond Tshibanda, who called for sanctions against Rwanda and ‘foreigners’ in DR Congo. He also called for a new mandate for the country’s overstretched U.N. peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. Mr Tshibanda was accompanied by Congolese religious leaders who presented a petition decrying any attempts at the ‘Balkanisation’ of the nation. The latter is representative of a popular Congolese view that the insurgency is aimed at controlling and ultimately annexing the east of the country, a view that is not entirely unreasonable.

Infiltration Exfiltration

After this both countries made a flurry of diplomatic visits around various western countries, drumming up support for their causes. Simultaneously, Rwanda scored a PR hit by releasing a video of departing Rwandan troops who had been working alongside Congo’s FARDC. The entire enterprise was stage-managed to perfection with a Rwandan film crew in tow and US miltary Attache’s present. While Rwanda claimed the American presence was for ‘witnessing’ purposes there is no doubt that the subliminal message conveyed was one of nodding approval by the big white funding deities and an attempt to humiliate Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila. DR Congo seemed to be caught on the back foot by the enterprise with their spokesman Communications Minister, Lambert Mende appearing to be unaware of the Rwandan troop numbers:

“We think that it is a trick, because we received here less than 100 intelligence officers. It’s what we agreed with our neighbours – to set up a team of 100 from Congo and 100 from Rwanda to set up a mechanism to monitor the border…”

While around more than 300 Rwandan soldiers exited Kiseguru on September 1st 2012, the 2011 UN Group of Experts report notes:

The special unit was composed of about 120 FARDC elements and 150 RDF elements and was established in the FARDC position at Kiseguru, north of Kiwanja.

This unit was set up, according to the GoE report as the consequence of a summit of the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries held in Kigali on 21 January 2011. At this summit Rwanda claimed the FDLR were in an alliance with other armed groups supported by dissident Rwandans, General Kayumba Nyamwasa and Colonel Patrick Karegeya..

Thus Mende’s claim that Rwanda inflated the ranks of the troops may be more plausible than his clumsy delivery suggested. Although quite how they got there in the first place has not been clearly explained to the Congolese public. Herein lies one of President Kagame’s strengths. He is an intelligent, wily and expert communicator as is his right hand man, Minister of Defense, James Kabarebe. Like a virtuoso musician, he can slide registers from the pan-Africanism that resonates so clearly with an increasingly confident youth at home, to the development policy wonk language of donors and all the way up the scale to the reassuring refrains so beloved by international business investors. Kagame plays to multiple audiences and is perfectly aware he can undermine Kabila’s legitimacy within the DR Congo. Kabila had already weakened his own legitimacy with the distortions of the 2011 elections, although the DR Congo is relatively united behind their president during the current crisis. Kagame was rewarded by Mende’s buffoonery and the predictable opportunism of opposition politicians such as Etienne Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe who immediately cried treason. With compatriots like these in a war game of words who needs enemies?

War Efforts

Meanwhile, back in Rwanda, the Rwandan government immediately launched a campaign, aimed at its citizens to raise money for the Agaciro Development Fund. This fund, aimed at plugging the shortfall in development aid, raised $12m from public sector workers and independent domestic and diaspora donations in its first two weeks.  As M23 launched its own mobile PR initiative by sending a representative to tour European capitals including Paris, London, Brussels and Germany, the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon said he was “deeply concerned at the continuing reports of external support to the M23, and called for an end to all such support without delay.”   This was echoed in an almost un-noticed comment by HRW that they had evidence that Rwanda was continuing its support for M23 throughout the summer. Clearly Andrew Mitchell’s only reading material is the Rwandan government newspaper, New Times, that decorated his office walls (click on the photo for a closer look).

The Congolese government launched a major recruitment drive for its army FARDC, calling on youths aged between 18 to 25 to attend centres in North Kivu to sign up. In a parallel move, the president of the National Assembly, Aubin Minaku, said the September budget meeting would be favourable to the army. Rumours abound meanwhile, that FARDC is also attempting a high-speed ‘integration’ of various mai mai groups.  Padding out an already chaotic army with hurried recruitments, while understandable in the light of the lack of real support for DR Congo, does not bode well for the war weary citizens who have already suffered too much. The rainy season is advancing and not only does this increase the misery for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, many of whom lack shelter, it also makes negotiating the rough terrain of the eastern DR Congo almost impossible without serious equipment.  Thus the potential for major abuses of civilians by militias already famous for rape, pillage and murder, is huge.  On top of this, the possible allegiance of many mai mai groups to national interests, even those that appear to be so-called autochtones, is highly dubious. Meanwhile, one of the greatest myths circulating about the M23 insurgents is that they are Tutsis fighting to protect their kinfolk.

The idea that M23 have been sitting in their newly acquired enclave in Rutshuru quietly practising their civic responsibility skills while the big boys make up their minds about what to do is clearly absurd. Never mind that they rapidly gained new territory in Kiseguru when the RDF forces made their televised exit, they have continued to have military face-offs with FARDC that have mostly gone unreported.   After flocking to the Congo when an obvious drama was in the offing, with a few valiant exceptions, the international media have mostly moved on to other things. Even when there was a bigger media presence in the Kivus it was predominantly centred in Goma and largely took the easy route of M23’s Nkundu-style press gatherings.

The much vaunted ICGLR talks heralded by Andrew Mitchell (see here for the latest declaration) and others as a viable solution are riddled with holes. Not least the anger expressed by North Kivu civil society groups that Uganda’s president Museveni has been charged with being a conduit. They say that Uganda, along with Rwanda, is part of the problem. However,  M23 defectors and local residents told Human Rights Watch that Rwandan soldiers used Ugandan territory and Ugandan vehicles to enter Congo.

I reported last week that Rwandan officers were arrested in Uganda  in the border town of Kihihi.

Area controlled directly by M23 © 2012 John Emerson/Human Rights Watch

While Uganda, along with other ICGLR nations, was busy making $1000,000 pledges for humanitarian aid in the DRC, it was quietly ignoring that it already owes the Congo millions in reparations ordered by the ICC after the last war.  Nickson Kasola, director of the Kinshasa-based Centre pour la Gouvernance, has cogently argued that in the ICGLR meetings: “the public muscle flexing has merely allowed these nations to avoid the political heavy lifting they must do.” This he argues is: “..an urgent end to Rwandan support to the M23. The illegal backing that Rwanda has already given the rebel group, including arms and ammunition, has bolstered the group immensely and turned it into a real threat to the DRC government’s control of a part of North Kivu province.” I would argue that Kasola under-estimates the situation because the threat, according to my investigations, is extended to the whole of North Kivu along the borders if not beyond.

Thus out of sight, and reported only by Congolese, major M23 re-arming, re-training and recruitment continues.  I have spent my summer conducting interviews and cross-checking evidence and the picture I have put together, with support from noted experts, is a picture of a build-up to major instability unless something fairly strong is done to avert it. [The fruits of this labour will be published elsewhere.]  The common view that opportunistic militias and random bandit chaos has filled the vacuum left by an overstretched national army belies the information already presented in the Addendum to the June issue of the Group of Experts report that cited alliances being formed between M23 and various other militia groups. There are now also reports that M23 seems to be forging alliances with armed groups such as Raia Mutomboki.  While not denying the activities of groups entirely separate or opposed to the M23 insurgents, or indeed old fashioned banditry, there is evidence that M23 and their external backers (note the plural) have been highly active all summer. This evidence includes intercepted weapons shipments across the Congolese border into the Kivus.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch claim in a statement released Monday that: “the M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities in eastern Congo,”  Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher said: “M23 commanders should be held accountable for these crimes, and the Rwandan officials supporting these abusive commanders could face justice for aiding and abetting the crimes.” The rights organisation also claim they have evidence that “600 young men and boys have been forcibly or otherwise unlawfully recruited in Rwanda to join the M23, and possibly many more.” Rwanda denies they are supporting the rebels and say the problem is an internal Congolese matter. The HRW statement identifies evidence of forced recruitment in the DR Congo: “M23 commanders held meetings in villages and towns under their military control to convince the population to support their activities by providing recruits and food rations. When few joined voluntarily, M23 combatants quickly began to take young men and boys by force.”

If international aid money, which at the end of the day is public money paid out of everyone’s taxes, can be expended so frivolously that it both funds the cause of the problem while simultaneously funding attempts at solutions, there is something seriously wrong in the entire system. The M23 insurgency isn’t something new and unexpected, quite the opposite, for there was clear evidence from a long way off that it was in the pipeline.  For sure a major part of the problem is a Congolese state that continues to be weak thus enabling predatory neighbours and assorted criminal elements to take advantage. Indeed, some of those criminal elements find their way into the state because politics can be a lucrative business.

However, alongside this has been an almost willful denial by western donors not only of the long term culpability of Rwanda in the turmoil in the east but also the failure of a one-size-fits-all approach to state reconstruction that has the seeds of its own downfall implicit in its very design. Rwanda, meanwhile has internal power struggles of its own and is not as unified as the strong face it offers to the world.  Uganda likewise has multiple factions that operate from within the UPDF and cannot be viewed in monolithic terms.  What is clear, in both countries, is the existence of powerful elites who have benefited massively from insecurity in the DR Congo.  Until a concerted effort is made to put a stop to these cross-border networks, the possibility of peace in the eastern DRC is nothing more than a distant imagining.


  • So here’s a serious question: What is Rwanda’s motive for supporting M23? Is it personal relationships with M23 leaders? Easy access to N. Kivu minerals? (And if so, is that a pressure point?) Historical claim to the land? Desire to protect co-ethnics?
    I haven’t seen any good analysis of this.

  • digitaldjeli says:

    Good question! And something that cannot be answered in a quick reply but for sure the ‘co-ethnics’ angle falls down flat….. Have a look at my post DR Congo mutineers and the role of Rwanda for some more on that but really the Kivus tick many Rwandan boxes…….. I’ve more to say on this in the future

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