DR Congo mutineers and the role of Rwanda

Fighting in N & S Kivu has led to massive displacement UNHCR/G. Ramazani

 As the UN Security Council prepares to release yet another report that demonstrates high-level Rwandan support  for violence in the DR Congo, is it time for Western governments to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths?

It’s a recurring theme in the Democratic Republic of Congo: military clashes, violent militias and people fleeing their homes in their thousands. The only variation is one of scale although the protagonists, with minor exceptions, remain the same.  Now former CNDP troops, ‘integrated’ into Congo’s army, FARDC, in 2009, after major confrontations led by Laurent Nkunda, have rebelled and are fighting the army that sheltered them. This rebellion has been reported in the press as a mutiny led by Nkunda’s replacement Bosco Ntaganda, or a mutiny led by Sultani Makenga with a CNDP break-away group called M23 seeking to enforce the terms of a previous political agreement.  It could of course, be one and the same, although the former CNDP is certainly not as unified as some reports suggest. Now the UN is holding evidence that accuses Rwanda of being directly involved in supporting the rebels, and names, amongst others, Rwandan Defence Minister, James Kaberebe. This too is a recurring theme.

CNDP origins

Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, fought with Paul Kagame’s RPF during the genocide in Rwanda. He went on to be part of the forces that toppled Mobutu and put Laurent Kabila in power. At the same time a Rwandan, General James Kaberebe, was installed as chief of the Congolese armed forces. However, when Kabila fell out with Rwanda, Nkunda went on to lead the Rwandan-backed RDC-Goma ‘Banyamulenge uprising’ that claimed to be protecting Congolese Tutsis (‘Banyamulenge’), although Banyamulenge were themselves attacked by Rwanda in 2002.

When the war ended in 2003 Nkunda was offered a command in the Congolese army but he refused out of fear of imminent war crimes charges and after encouragement by Rwanda. Instead, he retreated to the Masisi forests with troops from the RDC-G. He then began to fight again and with the RDC-G’s Colonel Jules Mutebutsi seized the town of Bukavu in 2004. A 2004 UN Group of Experts report demonstrated direct and indirect support by Rwanda for both Nkunda and Colonel Mutebutsi.

The last round of CNDP fighting ended when Congo, under pressure from the United States, allowed the entry of the Rwandan army to pursue the FDLR in exchange for arresting Laurent Nkunda. Sweden joined the Netherlands in suspending aid to Rwanda in protest at Rwanda’s manipulations in the Kivus. Nkunda was replaced by Bosco Ntaganda who had been made a general in the FARDC when the CNDP was integrated. The integration resulted in the refusal of former CNDP troops to relocate to other parts of the Congo and the forming of parallel chains of command. Thus the problem of Rwandan-backed soldiers serving in the eastern Congo was superficially masked but not resolved.

The current rebellion arrived just a few months after presidential elections that were followed by a period of uncertainty and murmurings of power struggles in the shadows. A report by the UN Group of Experts published in December 2011 suggested that militia groups integrated into the FARDC were still pursuing their own political and financial interests. The report claimed that ex-CNDP members were promised high-ranking positions in return for supporting Joseph Kabila during the elections. CNDP ‘support’ included the intimidation of other candidates and forcing people to vote for Joseph Kabila. However, the CNDP were not the only militias who sought to influence political outcomes for their own ends and with Mayi Mayi groups also seeking to influence voting by intimidation, it wasn’t all about votes for Joseph Kabila.

The M23 defectors give the appearance of seeking political solutions -their name refers to the March 23 agreement that they say has never been honoured.  The Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) decision to confirm the annulment of the November 28 legislative elections in the Masisi territory, a CNDP stronghold and a member of the Presidential Majority means that without a deputy, they have been unable to take a seat. They also claim dissatisfaction with conditions in the national army, FARDC, although the latest interim report by the UN Group of Experts suggests that M23 leaders deliberately provoked the unrest by withholding wages destined for the troops and using them to fund the current rebellion. Finance was also gained by armed robberies including $1,000,000 from the Banque internationale pour l’Afrique au Congo (BIAC) in December 2011, and further $50,000 from BIAC in March.

The report offers an interesting illustration of how and why the former CNDP are reluctant to give up their location in the Eastern DRC. For instance, they have been running a parallel police of 1,000 men who report to them in Masisi and collect taxes. Lt Col. Ngabo had been the driving force in the theft of more than 5 kg of gold from a foreign businessman based in Uvira in early March 2012. This ‘tax-collecting’ increased with the mutineers collecting taxes on road blocks, households and shops plus extortions and systematic lootings of civilians. Meanwhile, reflecting the distress of local people, the numbers of internally displaced have now reached more than 2 million which is the first time it has passed that mark since 2009. Those that remain in their homes and villages get caught in the cross-fire between the mutineers and FARDC.

Ethnicity and Locality

Against this backdrop are the complex manipulations and representations of ethnicity and locality. While the CNDP justifies itself as the protector of ‘Banyamulenge’ – Congolese Tutsis in the Kivus – and Rwanda justifies its interests as seeking the end of the Hutu FDLR, the realities are far more contingent on politics and economics. A useful place to start is with the anthropological understanding that ethnicity is fluid and not a biological ‘fact’. That is not to deny the relationship between ethnic identity and land that has been the key component of conflict in the Kivus for decades, but is intended to draw attention to how these land and identity conflicts are fired-up by political expediency. Indeed, land can be as much a marker of identity as ethnicity. One example of this is the clash between pastoral and agrarian societies where the former seeks land for grazing and the later seeks land for growing.

There have been Kinyarwanda speakers in the Kivus for generations but serious problems only began to develop when first the Belgians brought in both Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans and simultaneously weakened the power of local chiefs and later on Mobutu used these tensions for his own ends. In recent years however, the numbers have been vastly inflated, first by various Tutsi refugees in the 60’s, then by the influx of refugees after the Burundi and Rwandan genocides and finally with attempts by ‘infiltrators’ to gain Congolese citizenship, particularly via voting cards.  Scholars trace the roots of politicisation and major violence to an uprising in 1960s known locally as the Simba rebellion.  Banyamulenge became a label politicised around a Tutsi ethnicity whereas the more general term Banyarwanda includes Tutsi, Hutu and Twa.

However, these identities are not only fired up by political leaders but also become hardened as a means of defence against exclusion and perceived injustice. History then becomes something to fight over and its interpretation becomes obscured by clouds of rhetoric. In tandem with this it is important to understand that people shift their alliances for a variety of reasons and groups are often internally contentious too.  Land and identity become a focus for material gain and access to political power.  On top of this potent brew of identity and land is the added dimension of Congo’s mineral wealth, a state that barely functions as such and a fledgling national army that is over-inflated and populated with former rebels of a variety of persuasions. While this void in administration is filled by other non-state actors including the Church and civil society organisations, the ‘state’ in all the accepted senses of the word becomes replaced by the power of the gun and alliances formed with that power. In a situation where the possibility of employment is severely limited, being part of a militia becomes a rational economic option.  These are just some of the issues that feed into the politics of the eastern Congo and are exploited externally.

 The Rwanda Factor

It is often reported that the war in Congo began with Rwanda pursuing interhamwe killers who crossed into the Congo with the floods of refugees who were escaping the fallout from the 1994 genocide. Yet in 1991 a group of Banyamulenge youth had already joined the Rwandan RPF as it made its moves from Uganda to Rwanda. Against the wishes of Banyamulenge elders, these initial recruits later became the intermediaries for a further recruitment and training drive of Congolese Tutsis by Rwanda that gained momentum after the genocide. One of the recruits was a young Laurent Nkunda who was given training at the Gabiro military camp in Rwanda.  Their incursions into Congo and clashes with the Zairean army eventually became the start of the ADFL campaign that exchanged Mobutu with Laurent Kabila. One of their inducements was a promise by Kabila of Congolese citizenship that never materialised. Sadly, the ultimate effect of all this was to increase Congolese mistrust and make the Banyamulenge position even more fragile while at the same time many Banyamulenge could see the writing on the wall and were distrustful of Rwanda.

The rise of the CNDP has been described by Jason Stearns as Rwanda’s ‘Plan B’ after the loss of power of the RCD-G. When Nkunda compromised by permitting the integration of his troops into the Congolese army, FARDC, he insisted there would be no retraining or relocation outside the Kivu provinces. Former CNDP troops controlled border areas allowing the infiltration of Rwandan recruits into the Congo and the passage of minerals and other plundered goods across the border to Rwanda. This also enabled the CNDP to collect border ‘taxes’ and arrange the passage of ‘undeclared’ goods for a pay-off.

Congolese academic, Patience Kabamba, has argued that during the Congo war, although Uganda was also plundering Congo, Rwanda had a far greater stake which is demonstrated by the difference between declared and undeclared exports of minerals. This is corroborated by the 2001 UN report that states that the Rwandan Patriotic Army made at least $250 million from Coltan sales alone during an 18 month period. Indeed the smuggling of diverse commodities has enabled Rwanda to buy arms without staining incoming foreign aid budgets and has enriched the private coffers of high-ranking Rwandans.

It’s worth quoting the UN’s 2001 report on the matter in full:

“Rwanda’s military appears to be benefiting directly from the conflict. Indeed, the Panel has noted a great integration between the military apparatus, the State (civil) bureaucracy and the business community. RPA finances its war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in five ways: (a) direct commercial activities; (b) profit from shares it holds in some companies; (c) direct payments from RCD-Goma; (d) taxes collected by the “Congo desk” and other payments made by individuals for the protection RPA provides for their businesses; and (e) direct uptake by the soldiers from the land.”

Now, once again, the Eastern DR Congo faces yet another surge in conflict as the M23 rebels battle it out with FARDC troops. The roots of the rebellion are unclear as are the allegiances within the former CNDP. What has been identified by the latest GoE interim reports is that the planning began almost immediately after the elections at the end of 2011. Also mentioned in the report is the admission by captured mutineers that Laurent Nkunda, supposedly under ‘house arrest’ in Rwanda, has been in telephone contact with the M23 rebels.  As the fighting intensified, claims that Rwanda is backing the mutiny gained momentum after a BBC report contained comments by the UN’s Hiroute Guebre-Sellassie, that MONUSCO had evidence of Rwandan support for the rebellion.  This was followed by Human Rights Watch research implicating Rwandan military officials in arming and supporting the mutiny in eastern DRC and thus backing a war-crimes suspect,General Bosco Ntaganda.

There is clearly alarm at international levels as both the EU and the US State Department released statements.  This was followed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also issuing a statement that identified 5 leaders of the Congo mutiny, saying they may be among the “worst perpetrators of human rights abuses in the world.”

Finally, as the annual interim report from the UN’s Group of Experts was due, Reuters broke the story that it contained an addendum that identified Rwandan Defence Minister James Kaberebe, chief of defence staff Charles Kayonga; and General Jacques Nziza, a military adviser to Kagame. Kaberebe, they said, was “in constant contact with M23”. This addendum is being held back by the US “to allow Rwanda to respond to accusations likely to test ties between the ex-foes.”

Rwanda has already been responding both diplomatically, with repeated high-level meetings with Congolese politicians and generals, and publicly, through a variety of media. This included an extraordinary press meeting held in Village Urugwiro on June 19th, in which a noticeably irritated Paul Kagame told journalists, that members of the ‘international community’ had suggested prior to the DR Congo elections, that Kabila should be “removed by elections or other means.” He criticised MONUSCO saying they were very expensive but “you don’t see any results.” He also argued that Rwanda had been a good neighbour by shouldering the burden of holding Nkunda yet he claimed that the issue of Rwandaphones in Congo was a Congolese problem and: “Rwanda has no responsibility over this.”

RDF routes Congo UN 2012

The Famous Addendum

The addendum, due for release any day now, (Digitaldjeli has a copy) outlines in detail and with powerful cross-cutting evidence, not only of how Rwanda has broken arms sanctions, but also how claims of ‘shouldering the burden’ of Laurent Nkunda are obscuring the role Nkunda continues to play in Rwandan aspirations for the DR Congo. The addendum states that Nkunda “has also been a key mobilizer of M23 and has been calling ex-CNDP officers to convince them to join the new rebellion.” A furious President Kagame has even threatened to ‘release’ Nkunda saying: “if this nonsense continues, Rwanda would have no option but to withdraw from all efforts aimed at returning peace to eastern Congo, and if necessary release General Laurent Nkunda.”

The addendum shows in great detail how Rwandan weapons, soldiers and logistical support have been fundamental to the mutiny. Showing comparative photographic evidence of weapons, the addendum states: “The RDF has been providing military equipment, weapons, ammunition, and general supplies to M23 rebels.” Further damning evidence suggests that Rwanda is involved not just with M23 mutineers, but a in a series of alliances with militia groups across the North and East of the DR Congo. These include a splinter-group of the Hutu FDLR; Nduma Defence of Congo – NDC; Forces pour la Défense du Congo – FDC; various local defence militias in Ituri as well as the Kivus; and Union de congolais pour la défense de la démocratie – UCDD whose head is Xavier Chiribanya, the former governor of South Kivu and a noted ‘secessionist’.

The FDLR and Rwanda’s demand for impunity for Bosco Ntganda

One of the key arguments that Rwanda puts forward as a reason for maintaining its forces in the DR Congo, is the continuing presence of the Hutu FDLR which Rwanda views as a threat to its stability. The original FDLR were the forces involved in the Rwandan genocide, although very few of the original troops remain. While there is no doubt of the disruption and violence committed by the FDLR in the Kivus, the addendum shows how Rwanda is using demobilised FDLR troops to fight its battles in the DR Congo. During discussions between Rwanda and the DRC aimed at resolving the current crisis, “Rwandan officials have insisted on impunity for their armed group and mutineer allies, including ex-CNDP General Bosco Ntaganda, and the deployment of additional RDF units to the Kivus to conduct large-scale joint operations against the FDLR. The latter request has been repeatedly made despite the fact that: a) the RDF halted its unilateral initiatives to weaken the FDLR in late February;4 b) RDF Special Forces have already been deployed officially in Rutshuru territory for over a year; c) RDF operational units are periodically reinforcing the M23 on the battlefield against the Congolese army; d) M23 is directly and indirectly allied with several FDLR splinter groups; and e) the RDF is re-mobilizing previously repatriated FDLR to boost the ranks of M23.” [direct quote from the addendum].  As counter to this Rwanda accuses the DR Congo of colluding with the FDLR.

Rwanda the ‘western darling’ in Africa

Rwanda receives major support from western governments and is frequently put forward as an ‘African success story’. The UK is one of the largest bi-lateral supporters and has increased annual spending from around £70 million in 2010-11 to an expected £90 million in 2014-15. Supporters argue that any repression in the country is a form of ‘collateral damage’ for that success. Yet since the beginning of the UN’s research into armed groups in the DR Congo, Rwanda is cited as being involved in the violence. Numerous academics have also echoed this research and based on solid fieldwork in Rwanda and the Congo have demonstrated how this view of Rwanda is at odds with the reality. Indeed, many have argued that by ignoring Rwanda’s internal repression, the west is colluding in the potential for a repeat of the 1994 genocide.  Criticism of this approach is now increasing with calls for the UK and other funders to review these policies. In the UK a group of MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion that is slowly gaining momentum.  Global Witness also called for a review of donor’s policies saying donors must hold the Rwandan government to account for supporting new rebellion in eastern Congo. ”The UK and US governments are the two largest bilateral donors to Rwanda, committing over US$350 million of tax-payers’ money to the country in 2011. This gives them significant influence and in cases like this they have a responsibility to use it.”

In the US, Section 105 of Public Law 109-456 sponsored by Obama and co-sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton in 2006 says: “The Secretary of State is authorized to withhold assistance made available under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, other than humanitarian, peacekeeping, and counter terrorism assistance, for a foreign country if the Secretary determines that the government of the foreign country is taking actions to destabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Rwanda lashes out and blames the UN for fomenting the violence and even accuses it of collaborating with the FDLR. They suggest that refugees blame MONUSCO for raping women and persecution.   Meanwhile, Rwanda is aiming for a seat at the UN Security Council which is likely to be debated at the African Union Summit in July.  Rwanda claims that its experience in “managing very difficult situations will bring in­formed and sober views to the Council.”  Yet Rwanda continually refuses to address the accusations that have mounted consistently for many years and instead suggests many in the international community, attempt to throw a wedge between the two countries. Rwanda claims the UN report “rehashes old rumours and innuendo, is an example of the kind of rhetoric that is making the rounds in the international arena.”  Although Rwanda isn’t the only source of the violence in the DR Congo it is certainly a major source and ending that would go a long way towards stabilisation efforts.  Alongside this the DR Congo needs to find a solution to the Banyarwanda citizenship issues that play a part in that violence. This latter problem will be helped when the 2014 census is finally carried out.

According to the Addendum to the UN Group of Experts Interim Report, the arms embargo and sanctions regimes violations include the following:

  •  Direct assistance in the creation of M23 through the transport of weapons and soldiers through Rwandan territory;
  •  Recruitment of Rwandan youth and demobilized ex-combatants as well as Congolese refugees for M23;
  •  Provision of weapons and ammunition to M23;
  •  Mobilization and lobbying of Congolese political and financial leaders for the benefit of M23;
  •  Direct Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) interventions into Congolese territory to reinforce M23;
  •  Support to several other armed groups as well as FARDC mutinies in the eastern Congo;
  •  Violation of the assets freeze and travel ban through supporting sanctioned individuals.



Here is the ‘unofficial’ version in French


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.