Kikwete in trouble over FDLR, but does he really understand who they are? – By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi
Just over a fortnight ago, Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania, kicked off a firestorm of controversy with what many in Rwanda and outside of it saw as a terrible faux pas. It started with what would have struck followers of events in the Great Lakes region, as a common-sense proposal by the head of state of a significant regional power.
On that day, the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, convened the first meeting of the recently signed agreement, the Regional Oversight Mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region. The framework which Mary Robinson, UNSG Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region, dubbed the “Framework of Hope”, seeks to tackle instability in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The framework’s objective is to get the signatory countries to work together to end the political impasse generating cycles of violence and, in the words of the UN Secretary-General, “generate new momentum towards human security and economic development”. The eagerness to move beyond violent conflict is encapsulated in the offer by the World Bank of 1 billion US dollars “to support social safety nets, cross-border trade, energy and essential infrastructure”.
It was against this background that President Kikwete urged his Rwandan and Ugandan counterparts to consider holding direct talks with the “negative forces” operating in eastern Congo. In Rwanda’s case he was referring to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and for Uganda, the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU).
Kikwete volunteered the advice in the light of the on and off talks that have been going on in Uganda over several months, between the Kabila government and one of the forces fighting it, the March 23 Movement (M23), allegedly supported by Rwanda. In the light of the Kampala talks, it must have seemed logical to the Tanzanian President that Uganda and Rwanda with their own insurgents in the DRC, should talk to them too, rather than seek to defeat them on the battlefield. President Kagame of Rwanda was in attendance. His Ugandan counterpart is reported to have given the vague undertaking to “talk to those who are willing”. For the government of Rwanda, the talking was left to Louise Mushikiwabo, the country’s Foreign Minister.
Ms Mushikiwabo is not known to throw words around carelessly. And so when she spoke to Radio France International, keen observers would have been left in no doubt that the message was well considered and well aimed. It was “aberrant” and “shocking”, she said, for any leader to suggest that the government of Rwanda hold talks with the FDLR. “Those who think that Rwanda should sit down at the negotiating table with FDLR simply don’t know what they are talking about,” she added, characterising the FDLR as “terrorists.”
Kikwete’s suggestion would be justified if the FDLR, which he implicitly equates with the ADF-NALU and the M23, were merely another rebel group fighting for rights they have been denied, or for a share of power or a role in public life from which they have been excluded without justifiable reason. There are many grounds on which elements of M23 can make those claims, just as was the case with the former insurgents now in power in Uganda and Rwanda. It remains uncertain what the ADF-NALU are fighting for and what exactly negotiations with the Museveni government would be about. But what of the FDLR that Kikwete wants the government of Rwanda to engage in talks?
The FDLR is the armed wing of what remains of the Hutu Power movement whose leaders are driven by the conviction that ethnicity must determine who rules Rwanda, and that the majority Hutu, the supposed natives, must by right be the rulers. Their role in fomenting hatred and persecution of their Tutsi compatriots over the last 4 decades is well documented. It is both their determination to structure Rwanda’s politics along what they see as a “permanent fracture” between Hutu and Tutsi and their desire to wipe out the Tutsi to assert what they see as the rights of the Hutu, that have set the post-genocide government against engaging them in talks.
At the core of the post-genocide government’s rejection of talks with the FDLR lie two considerations. One is that many of the people it would have to negotiate with have indictments hanging over their heads for participation in planning and executing the 1994 genocide and have remained unrepentant. The question, at least for their would-be interlocutors in Kigali, is what to discuss with convicted criminals who feel no contrition for past crimes and who would repeat the same crimes given a chance to do so?
Second, politics in post-genocide Rwanda today entails the sharing of power and responsibility between the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) and political forces and organisations that reject ethnicity as a political tool, and the exclusion of those, such as the FDLR, that do not. Negotiations with the FDLR would amount to opening the way for a political ideology to which the country owes past upheaval and associated mass murder. Clearly, the FDLR’s values and political programme are a direct affront to the foundation on which Rwanda’s post-genocide leadership wish to build the “˜new Rwanda’ of their aspirations.
Significantly, since the genocide the FDLR and its political wing and allies have received and continue to receive moral, financial and even material support from governments, non-state actors, and individuals in Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. Their direct and indirect supporters include religious organisations, political parties, human rights groups and activists, journalists, and academics in universities. While some could be easily dismissed as detached from the realities of the Great Lakes region and others as pursuers of sinister political agendas, neither label seems to fit the Tanzanian President.
President Kikwete is no stranger to Rwanda’s recent or contemporary history and certainly knows a great deal about the genocide and its perpetrators, given the prominent role he was already playing in Tanzania’s public life during the early 1990s, and his country’s own role in trying to broker a political settlement between the former ruling party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND) and its political opponents, among them the Rwanda Patriotic Front. How much, though, does he really know about the FDLR and the wider political movement behind it?
Has Kikwete been seduced by views that portray the FDLR as a benign organisation? According to a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch, for example, “The FDLR are an armed group that uses military force to seek political change and greater representation for Hutu in Rwanda”. Research shows that groups and individuals who display varying degrees of sympathy for the FDLR are wont to argue that the FDLR’s combatants are increasingly young and played no direct role in the genocide against the Tutsi, and that they should not therefore be labelled as “˜genocidaires’. That, as we have seen, however, is only one aspect of the FDLR story.
Two issues merit attention. First, the group’s leadership is not made up of these young combatants, but of older individuals driven by a hate ideology that accounts for the genocide crimes for which they are sought by governments and organisations committed to combating impunity. The young people they recruit, some of them by force, are indoctrinated with the same hate ideology that would see them return to Rwanda by force of arms, if at all possible, to carry on with the genocidal project their elders failed to complete. It is this ideology and the tenacity with which its proponents in the FDLR hold on to it that accounts for the vehemence with which Ms Mushikiwabo spoke and the shock she expressed while commenting on President Kikwete’s remarks. Second, the Rwanda government’s steadfast rejection of talks with the FDLR is not the end of the story.
According to official Rwandan and UN sources, anywhere up to 47,000 ex-FDLR and thousands of other ex-combatants belonging to different groups, together with their families, have returned to Rwanda since 1998. With the assistance of UN agencies, the World Bank and members of the donor community, those without crimes to answer for have been successfully resettled back into their communities of origin. Those who chose to serve in the military have been re-integrated into the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), at ranks commensurate with their qualifications and abilities.
I have had the occasion to interact with some of the returnees, among them officers in the high echelons of the RDF, and discovered that what unites those who gave up life in the bush is their public rejection of the FDLR’s supremacist ideology and embrace of the non-sectarian values the post-genocide government is striving to promote. Those who remain in the DRC are those, it seems, who refuse to climb down from their genocidal ambitions, those who fear prosecution for past genocide crimes, and captives who won’t leave the jungle because they have been told they will be killed if they return to Rwanda, or those that are yet to figure out how to escape. It is not obvious from Kikwete’s would-be commonsense proposal which category the government of Rwanda should engage in talks, and what about.
So where to from here? It seems unlikely Kigali will budge from its position. Will Kikwete climb down from the position he has staked out? There are strong indications that he will not. To demands from Rwanda that he should apologise for his remarks, Tanzania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Membe has responded emphatically: “President Kikwete will not apologise because his statement was based on facts. We ask Rwanda to take this advice. Our president cannot apologise for the truth”.
It is unclear what this might mean for Tanzania’s overall role and that of the UN intervention brigade in the DRC, to which it is an eager contributor. The brigade’s mission consists of eliminating insurgents contributing to the DRC’s destabilisation, among them the FDLR. Given Kikwete’s remarks and Membe’s response to complaints from Rwanda, questions arise as to whether the Tanzanian contingent of the intervention brigade will be prepared to engage the FDLR militarily with a view to eliminating the group. If not, the whole mission of the intervention brigade could be thrown into serious jeopardy.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala and Kigali-based independent researcher and writer on politics and public affairs.