Good neighbours? Rwanda’s strategies to defend its interests in Congo – By Kris Berwouts

Central Africa has been shaped by complex regional dynamics, through which local cleavages and national conflicts have spilled over national borders. Each country in the region has a complex internal situation and a violent recent history where local contradictions have become polarized and entangled with those of neighbouring countries.

Following the end of the Cold War and throughout the 1990s these regional dynamics developed into an avalanche of killing and destruction. During the two wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), (1996-1997 and 1998-2002) which followed the genocide in Rwanda, the Congo and particularly its eastern provinces became the battlefield of ‘Africa’s First World War’. The DRC’s natural resource wealth has been an important factor in fuelling conflict as warring factions competed for control of parallel networks for the illegal flow of resources onto international markets.

Conflict? Which conflict?

People often ask: what is the central point in the conflict in Central Africa? This question is extremely hard to answer. There is not one conflict. In eastern Congo, there are at last three layers of conflict that come together in a local context which is already by itself very complicated. The three layers overlap and mutually reinforce each other, but none of them can be reduced to one of the other ones.

First, there is the struggle for the power in Kinshasa after the dismantling of the Congolese state. Within weeks of independence in 1960, Congo fell into a constitutional and institutional crisis, the country became a pawn on the chess board of the Cold War – the state exhibiting such a degree of bad governance that we had to invent the word ‘kleptocracy’ for it. State institutions and public mandates were and to a large extent still are considered as tools for personal enrichment. The result is a crisis of legitimacy, a ruined state that needs to be rehabilitated from nearly zero and unable to protect its citizens because of the total absence of the normal instruments of a state to impose the rule of law. The rehabilitation of the Congolese state is a condition for sustainable peace in Central Africa.

The second layer is the Rwandan war and genocide which has been exported to Congo after the flight of two million Rwandan Hutu. Rwanda intervention was, together with Uganda, the basis of  Mobutu’s fall in 1996-1997, and started a new war in 1998 that officially lasted until 2002. The presence of Rwandan armed opposition on Congolese soil had a tremendous impact, not only on the conflict but also on the fate and the living conditions of the population of eastern Congo. Until today, the FDLR and the interahamwe are considered as a threat by Rwanda. The continued presence of Rwandan-supported armed groups lead by Congolese Tutsi in eastern Congo (RCD and CNDP in the past, M23 today) is to a huge extent justified by the Rwandans because of the FDLR’s presence on Congolese territory.

The struggle for the natural resources of Congo forms the third layer. Congo’s soil has often been considered a geographical scandal because of its extraordinary mineral richness, while the people who have lived and died on it have never been able to get control over its potential. Independence did not change this: the exploitation of the natural resources escaped the control of the state because the mining and the commercialisation were organised through parallel and illegal networks put in place by Mobutu. The nineties did not create illegal exploitation of natural resources but changed its direction: Kampala and Kigali became the initial delivery points for minerals coming from Congo and sold on the world market, often passing through East African harbours, Arab countries or the Indian subcontinent. The race for the control of this trade is not the one and only source of conflict in eastern Congo, but it certainly is a very important layer of it.

These three layers come on top of a complex local situation with complicated relationships between communities, a land problem and huge demographic pressure.

Rwanda’s interests in Congo: three phases

It is a terrible simplification to reduce the problem in eastern Congo to its Rwandan dimension. On the other hand, it is obvious that Rwanda has enormous interests in Congo. Very soon during the war, the illegal traffic in raw materials – which resulted from the disintegration of the Congolese state – became reoriented towards Kigali and Kampala. Rwanda has become dependent on the export of minerals which are not to be found within its own territory. It is not only its national budget but also the lifestyle of its political and military leaders which make it necessary for the trade in the wealth of the Congo to pass through Rwanda.

The availability of natural resources which can be exploited by manual labour, the existence of well-established commercial circuits and the international market’s demand for the minerals all continue to encourage political and military fragmentation in eastern Congo. With relatively few men and arms, anyone can gain and hold a position in the chain of exploitation, take part in politics, be involved in the peace process and gain influence in government or the army.

There are three phases to be distinguished in the way Rwanda has defended its interests in Congo.

Phase one (up to 2002)

At first, in the wars of 1996-1997 and 1998-2002, Rwanda defended its economic (and other) interests through a direct and open presence on Congolese territory. In this period, eastern Congo underwent two horrible processes: the culture of violence increased and developed into a state of permanent impunity, and the informal economy run through parallel networks making use of the state’s weakness developed into a totally militarized economy run by warlords through plunder. Congo became increasingly important for Rwanda.

Filip Reyntjens estimates in his book ‘The Great African War’ that in 2000 the Rwandan army generated between $50 and 100 million through the exploitation and trade of coltan. The official Rwandan budget for defense in that same year was $86 million. Cong’s natural resources not only provided the invisible part of Rwanda’s defense budget, they also bought the loyalty of the political, military and economic elite in favour of a regime that was never as monolithic or coherent as it wanted to be. A Congo Desk was created in Kigali to organize the direct exploitation of the Congolese natural resources as efficiently as possible. As part of a complex and fragile peace process, Rwanda officially withdrew its troops in September 2002. Its main ally, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), joined the transitional government and participated in the 2006 elections. Its soldiers were also integrated in to the FARDC.

Phase two (2002-2008)

At the start of the transitional period (2003-2006) a small part of the RCD’s military (under the command of Laurent Nkunda) did not join the newly integrated army. This was part of a ‘plan B’ to prevent the Congolese Tutsi community losing its political weight and military power in the event that transition, integration or elections did not favour them. This was the start of a second phase, where Rwanda did not have an open and visible presence in Congo, but where it gave military support to the rebel movement to protect its interests and to maintain its impact on Congolese politics.

At the end of 2008, both Kabila and Kagame were weakened.  Kagame’s regime was damaged by the arrest warrants for nearly the entire RPF leadership by the judges Bruguière (in France) and Andreu (in Spain). Rwanda had been criticized for its legislative elections in September and December of the same year, the UN experts’ report was published, with plenty of detail on Rwandan support for Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP. Joseph Kabila, powerless, and with his phantom army facing the CNDP backed by Rwanda, had requested military help. The African Union, Southern African Development Community (SADC), European Union and individual countries such as Angola had, among others, considered sending troops, but ultimately nobody came to his aid. Kabila and Rwanda were forced into an uneasy alliance which materialized in the military campaign Umoja Wetu (Our Unity), where the armies of both countries joined forces against the FDLR

Phase three (2009-2012)

Umoja Wetu wasn’t a marriage based on love and passion but rather on some well understood common interests and even more on the lack of other options for both parties. Kabila had become isolated in the face of a humiliating political and military situation, whilst Kagame had few other options as he was confronted with a change in attitude on the part of some of his most loyal international partners who had formerly supported him, almost unconditionally.

With this loveless marriage, the Rwandan policy to defend its interests in Congo entered a third phase, a phase of partnership. The rapprochement between Congo and Rwanda created an opportunity to strengthen regional frameworks and initiatives in the belief that the complementary nature of the countries in the region could be enhanced and shared interests could be developed and contribute to a common identity. But this cooperation was not between equal partners, with on the one hand Rwanda, a strong state and on the other the Congo, a state which is in ruins.

Aware of the weakness of the Congolese administration, the feeble steps taken against corruption and the porous nature of regional frontiers, Rwanda continued to make maximum profit from the exploitation of Congo’s natural resources. The decentralisation process – so far only in existence on paper – might help to consolidate Rwanda’s dominance in the strategic zones in which its allies – previously the CNDP, now M23 – were deployed.

Somehow it worked. The east became slightly more stable, even if insecurity did not entirely disappear. With elections in view, Kagame became Kabila’s most reliable ally. Kabila knew that his army would never be able to maintain the necessary stability in the east of Congo. Kagame needed this good relationship with Kabila in order to prevent military action against his regime taking shape on Congolese soil. That became particularly relevant in March 2010, when General Kayumba Nyamwasa fled via Uganda to South Africa.

Kayumba Nyamwasa belonged to the inner circle of Kagame’s regime, a ‘companion de route’ going back many years, and a key player on some of the most important dossiers, including the plundering of Congo.  Very soon after his defection, it became clear that Kayumba made contact with a number of armed groups in Congo to investigate if a broad anti-Kagame coalition could be set up. However, no operational military framework to fight Kagame ever materialized.

For Kabila there was a price to pay. A lot of the military people in Kivu had difficulty understanding why and how the CNDP, who for many years were their worst enemies, became their superiors in rank and had gained control over more soldiers, a much bigger area and more mineral resources than ever before. The civilian population had to face a CNDP which behaved very arrogantly and felt they were above the law. When Vital Kamerhe, former president of Parliament, left Kabila’s party in December 2010 and founded a new opposition party, it was immediately clear that a considerable part of the Kivutian electorate would follow him. Kabila won the elections in November 2011, but the western provinces and the capital had voted massively for Tshisekedi and he lost his monopoly in the east.

The year of M23

Kabila lost a lot of his credibility and legitimacy in the way he organized his re-election, but managed to stabilize the situation. He made a good move by appointing Matata Ponyo as Prime Minister. Considered as a financial technocrat and responsible for some of the macro-economic successes of the previous government, the new Prime Minister was accepted by an important part of Congolese and international public opinion. It gave people the feeling that the state was been taken care of.

But things have turned out differently. The development of the M23 rebellion, the fact that Rwanda has supported it in many ways and the fact that Goma has been taken with open military backing of the Rwandan army, threw the peace process back several years. The elections of 2006 and 2011 initiated a slow and gradual evolution where Congolese politics became an area for politicians rather than for soldiers, rebels and warlords. Diplomacy had replaced arms as the main tool to settle problems between countries. All this has been reversed by the recent events in North Kivu. And every day it takes effects the credibility of the president and the country’s institutions

There is absolutely no doubt that the mobilization of military force by M23 was diminished by the prompt action of the international community, which reacted faster and sharper than usual. When it became clear that Rwanda was very actively supporting M23, it was heavily criticized by some of its most loyal partners. In Washington, London, The Hague, Berlin and Stockholm, immediate measures were taken to cut or suspend parts of their bilateral support. It is a bit early to tell how efficient the reaction at different levels of the international community will prove, but it is clear that the eleven countries united in the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (Kenya, Congo and Congo’s 9 immediate neighbours) made a lot of effort to prevent the events in Northern Kivu developing into a new open war in Central Africa.

The year of M23 brought Congo to the edge of collapse for the second time in a year (the elections were the first instance) but it also weakened the Rwandan government which had overplayed its hand. The criticism and measures of the regime’s most loyal partners at the end of 2012 went way beyond its worst fears. Now, several months later, most of those partners came back on their earlier decisions and lifted the measures, but it is absolutely clear for the government of Rwanda that its future moves and actions will be looked upon with great suspicion.

What now?

The inside information we got from sources close to M23 and the regime in Kigali was that Rwanda wanted to remain very discrete and as invisible as possible in Congo for the coming months and maybe years, counting on the inability of the Congolese government to reinvent the state in Kivu. In Rwanda’s expectations, they will observe a rotting process which Kabila will not manage to reverse. The leaked mid-term report of the group of experts seems to confirm that. Rwanda is not on the scene, but is following from close by,  behind the curtains.

I think Rwanda –contrary to what the mid-term report suggests – has been very actively involved in the palace revolution inside M23 and Bosco’s removal from the field. It is maybe just a detail, but an interesting one that the Rwandan officer who was waiting for Bosco at the border and brought him to Kigali happens to be on the list of recent promotions in the Rwandan security forces. Apart from that particular moment, Rwanda tries to take care of its economic interests in the DRC without any direct intervention and giving only limited support to M23.

This article is an update of an article Kris wrote for the German bulletin Afrika Sûd: Der Krieg nährt seine Vater.

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