The complexity of Kigali’s relationship with Kinshasa and the possible way tensions between the two countries could be reduced
As fighting recently flared up between Tutsi rebels and government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Rwanda government has found itself, once again at the centre of yet another international controversy. Kinshasa has been joined by poorly informed, often prejudiced international observers and `experts’, and local and international human rights groups in a blanket condemnation of Kigali as the mastermind of the rebellion. In the mad rush to point fingers and apportion blame, the complexity of the problem in eastern DRC has been lost, making a solution much more difficult to craft.
To extend its administrative reach and pretend to be institutionally present in most of Eastern Congo, the central government in Kinshasa has often signed agreements recognising these militias and their control of those specific areas. Warlords become governors and military commanders. But it also means that the government in Kinshasa has little effective control over its appointees. The state in Congo is therefore a mosaic of ethnic chieftains led by belligerent overlords. President Joseph Kabila is more of a “warlord-in-chief” than a commander-in-chief. Hence, Kinshasa can issue orders and threats; but local commanders are at liberty to disregard or accept them – making the governance of DRC even more difficult.
And this is how the recent flare up in Eastern DRC began. Kinshasa accused the National Congress for the defence of the People (CNDP), the Tutsi militia, commanders of refusing to deploy troops as it has instructed them to. This is unusual since commanders should obey, not question orders. Refusal is tantamount to mutiny. CNDP argues that they are not sure of their security if deployed in other areas. They claim that 50 of their soldiers who were deployed out of the eastern region were killed in cold blood. Kinshasa has promised a commission of inquiry to establish what actually happened but nothing has come of it – yet.
Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese Tutsi and leader of the CNDP (now M23), is an indicted war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC). In its naivety, and ignorance, the international community has been putting pressure on an impotent Kabila to arrest him. Perhaps it is in response to this pressure that Kabila issued orders transferring commanders hoping to separate Ntaganda from his troops, orders M23 rejected. Technically, that amounted to a mutiny and Kinshasa responded by launching an offensive against M23.
Although Tutsi militias are the main focus of news and international diplomatic activity, they are not the only ones. There are other commanders and warlords in eastern Congo who are in rebellion against Kinshasa. They claim to defend their communities against hostile neighbours. In fact, in a strange twist of fate, some of the Tutsi militias in Congo have allied with Hutu militias to fight the Kinshasa government. This is because for these local communities in eastern DRC, there is no distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. They see both of them as Banyarwanda because they share a common language and culture and came from “the same place”.
This brings us to Rwanda’s regional dilemma. In part of eastern DRC is the FDLR, an extremist Hutu rebel group that has anything between 4,000 and 6,000 troops under its command. One of its missions is to overthrow the Kigali government; the other to exterminate all Tutsi. It has allied with some local communities in DRC to fight the “Tutsi scourge,” a factor that gives FDLR daunting political weight. FDLR does not distinguish the Tutsi of Congo from those from Rwanda. This has created an automatic alliance between FDLR and other eastern Congolese communities hostile to the Tutsi. By extension, these dynamics have created a shared threat between the leaders of Rwanda and the Tutsi militias in eastern DRC. Therefore Tutsi militias in eastern DRC are, by the nature of the threat they face, natural enemies of the FDLR and thereby natural allies of the government in Kigali.
Yet Kigali finds it difficult to officially and actively support its natural allies in Eastern Congo. If you talk to top security and military strategists of the Rwanda government, they feel wary of Tutsi militias in DRC. They complain that these militias and their leaders are “Congolese”. By “Congolese”, the RPF leaders are not merely referring to citizenship but to culture, attitude and behaviour. The typical Rwandan Tutsi is a reserved with Spartan discipline, qualities shaped by decades of harsh life in refugee camps. The Congolese Tutsi is boisterous and lax. Consequently, the Rwandan security personnel accuse Congolese Tutsis of being undisciplined. The Congolese Tutsis accuse Rwandan security officials of being control freaks.
These differences are not merely at the level of behaviour and attitude but also at the level of operational method. The leaders of Rwanda would prefer full control over M23; the Congolese Tutsis insist on independence. Although they share a common ethnicity, the two are as different culturally as an Athenian was from a Spartan in the 5th century BC. So there is constant tension between the two. Kigali is acutely aware that if it supported Tutsi militias in Congo without effective control over their operations, it would risk being held responsible for their actions, like if they committed mass killings. Yet Kigali cannot completely abandon them. For example, if Tutsi militias were defeated, there is a real risk of genocide against ordinary Tutsis by Hutu extremists and other Congolese communities hostile to them. Kigali cannot politically afford to sit by a watch such a thing happen right at its border.
Therefore, to understand the complexity of the current flare up in fighting in DRC is to first appreciate the fears and temptations people in Kigali face. First, the Tutsi militias in Congo, even without Kigali’s active support, act as a buffer between Rwanda and the FDLR. Second, they protect local Tutsi populations that face existential threats from the FDLR and other Congolese communities. Third, these militias and their warlords ensure order in a region where the Congolese state in almost absent. Therefore, their defeat would present a key security challenge to Rwanda. Hence Kigali finds itself in a position where it cannot support the Tutsi militias in Congo while at the same time it cannot condemn their cause.
To resolve this dilemma, Kigali adopted a two pronged approach: One short term and tactical; the other long term and strategic. In the short term, Kigali would not support any Tutsi militias in eastern Congo. However, it would not act against them either – and this is exactly what Kinshasa and the international community would like to see. Thus, whenever individuals inside Rwandan society are involved in helping their kith and kin across the border, Kigali refuses to play the role of Congolese policeman. It just turns a blind eye and pretends it does not know. For example, assuming Rwandan security services got intelligence that some individuals inside the country were actively raising funds and meeting some of the militia leaders. Kigali would not arrest them. It would pretend it did not know. Assuming Rwandan officials heard that one of the militia leaders was in some village in Rwanda, the government would again pretend it does not know.
It is in this context that some human rights groups that claim that some of the rebel leaders enter Rwanda could be telling at least a slice of the truths. Kigali is clear on two things: It is not going to play cop for Kinshasa or the international community. At a press conference in Kigali on June 19, President Paul Kagame made it clear: these warlords live in DRC which has 17,000 UN troops costing US$ 1.2 billion a year – 50 percent of Rwanda’s annual budget. Why can’t this force arrest these rebel commanders with all the capacity it has? Why transfer the responsibility to Rwanda?
Second, Rwanda government officials are not allowed to deal with rebel leaders and other Congolese in whatever shape and form. When information emerged that some top generals in the Rwanda security services had been involved in meetings and financial transactions with Congolese businessmen early this year, President Kagame placed them under house arrest.
However, Kigali understands that this cannot be a long term policy to solving the problem. The source of Rwanda’s security vulnerability is the long standing governance issue in DRC i.e. the absence of an effective and functional state. The solution for DRC lies in reconstructing the state. Indeed, ironically Kigali is even more concerned about security in the eastern DRC than Kinshasa. For example, Rwanda is positioning itself as the region’s main high-end tourism destination. Its prize in this strategy is the mountain gorillas right at the border with DRC. Nothing threatens this strategic interest than insecurity in eastern DRC as it scares away tourists – but most especially rich ones whom it charges top dollar.
Secondly, Rwanda is making a couple of strategic investments right at the border with DRC. First, it is developing a methane gas plant in Lake Kivu, just a stone throw from the border with Congo, to produce 150 MW of electricity to supply the country. Kigali has further signed a multimillion dollar joint venture investment with New Forest Company, a consortium of Britain’s high net worth individuals along with HSBC Bank and the European Investment Bank. The consortium are going to cut and replant Nyungwe Forest and develop a regional timber and furniture industry on one hand and on the other, produce 100MW of electricity. Finally, Kigali is beginning to increase its mining and export of Coltan – located in the same place.
Kigali is acutely aware that insecurity in eastern Congo would be a strategic vulnerability in its pursuit of its Vision 2020. And it is also aware that it cannot attract and sustain serious investments if eastern DRC is controlled by warlords – however closely tied to Kigali they may be. Rwanda’s leaders are acutely aware that their vital national strategic interests are therefore best served by a stable and effective state in DRC. Kigali also knows that it cannot manage Congo. But it is confident that it can help Congolese find a solution to their problems.
As a foreign policy strategy, Rwanda has long abandoned its earlier faith in influencing regime change in neighbouring states. By 2004, Rwanda had also abandoned any ambitions to fight proxy wars, realising that they may achieve short term tactical objectives at the price of creating long term strategic vulnerabilities. This lesson was driven home by Kigali’s fallout with former Congolese president and erstwhile ally, Laurent Kabila; coupled with its fallout with Uganda in Congo. The lesson from these two experiences, every strategist in Kigali will tell you, was that helping someone capture power in another country does not automatically guarantee a durable alliance between you and them.
RPF had been supported by Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni. But this did not sustain the alliance as the two countries degenerated into hostilities and finally fought in Congo. Equally, Rwanda had helped Kabila and installed him president in Kinshasa. They turned enemies and fought pitched battles. Kigali realised that it has always fought more allies than those it was not related to. The lesson sunk: you can make a king, but you cannot control them once you have made them. So Kigali has no ambitions to make another king in Congo; its own strained relations with Congolese Tutsi always works as a reminder that it should not rely on them entirely. The view is that government should always seek to deal with the leaders their neighbours produce rather than seek to influence who emerges as leader. Therefore, Kigali decided that in the long term, it needed to engage Kinshasa and leverage whatever connections it had with the Tutsi militias to arrive at a solution for eastern Congo. Rwanda offered to help bring the militias to agree with Kinshasa on a peace deal. Kinshasa agreed to integrate the militias into its army but leave them in control of their troops to protect their communities. The two sides also agreed that Rwanda would send its army into eastern Congo to fight the FDLR. Even today, Rwanda has its special forces inside eastern DRC who have been conducting joint operations with the Congolese army. This offers the best possible solution to the DRC crisis and should be the agreement that the international community should push Kagame and Kabila to uphold rather than condemn one side.