Rwanda ponders own security while FDLR remains a strategic threat – By Jonathan Beloff
In April 2014, the world began its 20th commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The Rwandan government has billed this year’s event as one of Kwibuka (Kinyarwandan for “˜remembrance’). This ought to be a time for Rwandans to reflect on their past while nurturing hope for a better future for their children. However, the commemoration has been marred by continuing fears of terrorist attacks by former genocidaires amidst a sceptical international environment
Within the walls of Rwandan government buildings, those who once liberated the country – believe that at any time Rwanda may be struck down by forces moving in from across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), bent on establishing a political and social agenda for a “˜Tutsi-free Rwanda’.
Since Rwanda’s “˜liberation’ by the RPF, the fortunes of the former genocidaires have been in decline, while those of post-genocide Rwanda have greatly increased in the areas of economic development, access to healthcare services and education. These accomplishments have convinced thousands of former genocidaires to return to Rwanda, attracted by this new ear of growth and stability. In recent years, however, one incarnation of the genocidaires, known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), has coalesced into a potent terrorist force, subjugating Rwandans to grenade attacks at village and city markets, kidnappings and cross border strikes. The Rwandan government, working in collaboration with the Congolese military in 2009 under a joint military operation named “˜Umoja Wetu,’ (“˜Our Unity’ in Swahili) attempted to destroy FDLR strongholds – an opportunity that was only partially successful.
Parts of the international community, specifically the United Nations, have recently recognised the genocidal tendencies of the FLDR and have assumed greater responsibility for flushing out the terrorist group. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) peacekeeping mission works with the DRC, admittedly belatedly, on this objective. But there remains some residue of uncertainty about the precise threat the FDLR poses. This is in large part due to the influence of some regional observers and researchers, such as Jason Stearns who recently dismissed the military threat that the organization poses to Rwanda. He and others view the FDLR as merely a fragmented group of no more than 1500-2500 fighters scattered across eastern DRC, and which therefore poses more of a threat to the Congolese than the Rwandans across the border.
Many within the Rwandan government believe the FDLR to number an estimated 4000 fighters and remain a significant terrorist threat that can create widespread public panic through violent acts. No matter the troop numbers, the FLDR has proved its ability to do this despite not posing a threat to the overall stability of the country.
Where the Rwandan government prioritises the country and its people’s security, there are those who would rather undermine the very real threat from the FDLR. The latter perspective gives the FDLR the capacity to secure soft-political power among other forces in East Africa, including Tanzania. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has always had an unsteady relationship with his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame. In May 2013, he publicly called on Rwanda to enter into dialogue with the FDLR without any preconditions. In response, Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo dismissed President Kikwete’s attempt to be a moderator of the dispute and openly condemned Tanzania for trying to force Rwanda to negotiate without preconditions with the FDLR.
There are emotional as well as political reasons for Rwanda’s refusal to be drawn into dialogue with the new manifestation of the genocidal forces that maimed a country and its people. At an individual level, Tanzania’s call was a personal insult to the genocide survivors. At a political level, the two countries are locked in an implicit battle for hegemony in the African Great Lakes region; and the apparent call for reconciliation hides the uglier truth that Tanzania is bringing together anti-Rwandan government allies such as the Rwanda National Congress with anti-Kagame exiled political leaders such as Kayumba Nyamwasa and the late Patrick Karegeya to further destabilise the country.
The quandary that Rwanda finds itself in is by no means simple: it is to international eyes, at least, being offered an opportunity to engage with a peace process. Participating instead with military operations against the FDLR and related genocidal forces via the military programme of Umoja Wetu will be negatively received.
In the FDLR, the Rwandan government recognises a force that will always try to find the right time to reassert itself. As the FDLR unites with other anti-Rwandan groups and continues to gain soft power political support from President Kikwete, it is forming a political weapon that is to be combined with its terrorism, which will be more effective in creating instability in Rwanda. Consequently, Rwanda is right to be vigilant, even as the commemoration of 20 years since the genocide reminds us of the country’s lost generation.
Jonathan Beloff is studying for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. @JewswithRwanda