The relations between the DRC and Rwanda have continued to deteriorate since the analysis published here in mid-June. At the centre of the renewed conflict in eastern DRC is the longstanding rivalry between Rwanda and Uganda, the stakes being both military and economic. The crisis in Eastern DRC takes place within a complex regional picture, where rival countries support rebel groups in neighbouring countries with a destabilising function, in a quagmire of mutual accusations and denials. When in November 2021 Uganda agreed with the Congolese government to deploy its armed forces in the DRC, without consulting Rwanda, Kigali reactivated a dormant Congolese rebel force, the M23, which it had supported ten years earlier until it was defeated by an international military intervention. On 13 June this year, the M23 took control of Bunagana, an important trading centre on the DRC-Uganda border. All along the crisis, Kinshasa accused the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) of supporting the rebels. As in the past, Kigali denied any involvement in what it called ‘an internal Congolese conflict’ and, in turn, it accused Kinshasa of co-operating with the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan rebel movement that has been active in the DRC since 2000.
Two regional peace initiatives were launched, one led by Angolan president João Lourenço on behalf of the African Union (AU). In the context of this initiative, a cessation of hostilities between Congolese forces and M23 was agreed at a mini-summit in Luanda on November 23 and is scheduled to take effect on November 25. However, as M23 was not involved in this deal, the outcome remains uncertain. The other led by former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta on behalf of the East African Community (EAC), of which both Rwanda and the DRC are members. Nevertheless, the conflict rapidly escalated. Already in May, the Congolese government suspended all recently signed accords with Rwanda and RwandAir was banned from Congolese airspace. On 20 June, an EAC conclave held in Nairobi resolved to constitute a regional force ‘to stabilise and secure the peace in the DRC’. It also directed that ‘an immediate ceasefire should be enforced and cessation of hostilities should commence immediately’, yet neither specifying the parties involved, nor mentioning Rwanda or the M23.
Congolese accusations against Rwanda were vindicated by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC. In a public report published on 14 June, it found that Rwanda and Uganda had provided rear bases and other support to the M23. The Group was much more explicit in a leaked July confidential update. It had gathered ‘solid evidence’ of military operations by the RDF on Congolese territory and of support by the RDF to M23 operations. It also accused the M23 of indiscriminate shelling,killing of civilians and attacking the UN peacekeeping force Monusco. On the other hand, it found that some Congolese army members forged ad hoc alliances with local armed groups, including the FDLR, to fight M23. The Group also expressed concern about the increase of hate speech, hostility and violence against Rwandophone populations in eastern DRC. Human Rights Watch (HRW) likewise accused the M23 of targeting civilians in deliberate killings. It called on donor countries to ‘suspend military assistance to governments found to be supporting the M23 and other abusive armed groups’. HRW later also accused Congolese army units of aiding abusive armed groups.
Rwanda became increasingly concerned about international condemnations, particularly by the US. During a visit to Kigali on 11 August, Secretary Blinken referred to ‘credible reports that Rwanda continues to support the M23 rebel group and has its armed forces inside the DRC’, and insisted that ‘every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others’. At a 26 October UN Security Council briefing on the Great Lakes Region, the US representative again called on the RDF to end their assistance to M23.
On 8 September, Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi signed the agreement on the status of the regional EAC force to be deployed in Ituri and the North and South Kivu provinces. Two weeks later, addressing the UN General Assembly, he again accused Rwanda of a ‘direct military aggression’ and ‘occupation’ of DRC territory. As in the past, Kigali vehemently denied the accusations and insisted that the DRC was collaborating with anti-Rwanda groups. The verbal warfare got even worse, when on 25 October the Congolese government denounced Kagame’s ‘permanent strategy of interference’ and Rwanda’s ‘traditional deceitful rhetoric’, reaffirming its determination ‘to put an end to the criminal and terrorist activities of M23 supported by Rwanda’. The expulsion of the Rwandan ambassador to the DRC on 30 October signalled a new low in bilateral relations.
In the June analysis, I suggested that Kenya and Tanzania should take strong initiatives to avoid further destabilisation of the EAC. Kenya has since taken the lead, both politically and militarily. Politically, Kenyatta has actively taken up his role as mediator for the EAC by practising a good deal of shuttle diplomacy. Militarily, the deployment of the EAC regional force decided in June effectively started. On 12 November, the first Kenyan contingent arrived in the North Kivu provincial capital Goma. The total strength of the force will include two battalions from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi each, and one from South Sudan. For obvious reasons, Rwanda is not part of the regional military initiative. The force commander, Kenyan General Jeff Nyagah, vowed that Goma, which was threatened by the advancing M23, would ‘not be taken’. Although a direct confrontation between the Kenyan contingent and the M23 may imply the risk of fighting between Rwandan and Kenyan armies on Congolese soil, it is more likely that the 2013 scenario will be repeated, with M23 defeated by a regional military intervention and Rwanda prevented by international actors from derailing the process. Such a military outcome would need to be complemented by longer-term political solutions, both within the DRC and in the region. On the one hand, the Congolese state must regain administrative and physical control over its entire territory, including by eliminating domestic and foreign nonstate armed groups. On the other hand, neighbours such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi must end their interference in the DRC’s affairs, through both the support of proxy rebel forces and the illegal exploitation of natural resources.
The text was finalized on 25 November