The M23 demon: Could Rwanda ultimately invade eastern Congo?
In this second and last instalment of the M23 problem, Gatete Nyiringabo explains how, when the region’s borders were drawn in Berlin, the minerals stayed on the Congo side and the Tutsi on the Rwandan one, both unable to cross over.
To understand the historical roots of the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, explored last week in “The M23 problem,” it is critical to appreciate that the DRC, like most African countries, came to be after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, that divided Africa.
It was offered to the King Léopold II of Belgium to fund his reign over a new divided kingdom at the heart of Europe, made of French and Dutch peoples who couldn’t see eye to eye and the Flemish and Walloons. At the time, in 1894, Rwanda and Burundi were allocated to “German Tanzania”.
It is at the end of the First World War that defeated Germany would lose its colonies, and Rwanda and Burundi’s “ownership” would shift to Belgium.
Africans, whose immense territory was being divided, weren’t invited to the table, and indeed families and communities found themselves in two — sometimes three — different countries overnight. It didn’t matter at the time because the said borders were more for the colonial administration and didn’t affect the daily life of the “natives”.
The prevailing pan-African zeitgeist during struggles for independence in the 1950s gave our founding fathers an illusion that all freed African nations would live in borderless harmony until the creation of the United African States. They thus decided, upon the establishment of the organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, to maintain the colonial borders “as is”, for there were more pressing matters for the new nations, including the freedom of fellow African states that were still in bondage. The question of border disputes then seemed subsidiary.
Not any more. Today “Ba Rwandais” and “Kagame” are the object of vitriol in DRC. For organising weekly Twitter spaces with Congolese, where at times I find myself alone, I take a lot of credit in Kigali. Rwandans are unanimous, my patience with Congolese on Twitter is nothing short of subhuman! Rwandans are many on the space, joining to be baffled for four hours before they sleep; they simply can’t comprehend what is going on!
Minerals are a big part of the “DRC problem”. They are mapped and the industry is somewhat organised — contrary to perceptions by outsiders — except the country suffers a serious “Dutch disease”. The entire economy revolves around the extractives industry, with scant infrastructure to transform them, and a corrupt tracking system.
Having travelled to Kinshasa twice in the past six months to look into minerals and private air transport, I learned that small Russian planes, Antonovs, are the preferred workhorse because they can land and take off without needing much runway. And why is that? Because the said Russian birds ship raw minerals straight from the mines at the heart of the Congo to destinations unknown.
It costs $200,000 to get an airline licence, and the small cargo business is booming. It isn’t uncommon to meet a random chap around a hotel in Kinshasa claiming to own a carré minnier – which means a mine concession with unspoken reserves of gold, diamond, tin, lithium, and just about any precious material you seek!
Most of these are go-betweens who know a guy that knows a guy. However, if the title is indeed “legit,” two things are certain: The chap in question has never set foot in his own el dorado, and no one knows exactly if the concession is worth a thing. All he wants is a rich foreigner chasing a piece of the Congolese proverbial riches to take the said concession off his hands at as much money as he could get — it could be a million dollars, or a thousand, depending on his luck.
The mine, the object of the carré minnier at the hotel, could indeed be abundant or dry. Buying that piece of paper is like playing the lottery. In spite of this, the fallacy that Rwanda exploits Congolese minerals seems to prevail. And it feeds a hate speech campaign against Kigali.
“What you are doing is justifying the enemy’s war,” said every Congolese politician after horrific images of Congolese Tutsi being harassed, burned alive, killed, and at times eaten.
The “enemy” in question is M23. Did any official come out to say, “stop killing Tutsi, they are Congolese citizens, and they deserve to be protected”?
Dr Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Prize laureate said: “What I saw on social media is unacceptable! You are giving our aggressors the right to steal our land.”
So “the aggressor wants to steal our land” is established.
Land versus People
“Let them withdraw into Uganda while we study their case,” so declared the late Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwandan president in the early 1990s, after the Rwandan Patriotic Front had attacked Rwanda and seized territory. For 30 years, he had denied them a peaceful return to their home, insisting that Rwanda was too small and too poor; that the only available land was the national reserves for animals that attract tourists; that Tutsi refugees, therefore, were to apply for citizenship in their host countries. Later, in the preparation for the genocide, theories emerged that Tutsi were actually not Rwandan, that they were aliens from Abyssinia, at times, Egypt.
The same is being said of Tutsi Congolese, in the media by both officials and troubadours from Kinshasa to eastern DRC, through Brussels and London, wherever there is a “real” Congolese with an internet connection. It is uncanny that people base their arguments on a line drawn three centuries ago in Berlin to define King Léopold II’s personal garden to affirm that minerals stayed on the DRC side, while Tutsi stayed on the Rwandan, both unable to cross.
Source of protracted war
In the previous issue, I discussed how Rwanda invaded Zaire, ousting Mobutu Sese Seko and installing Laurent Desire Kabila in 1997. On the day Kabila Snr announced that the Rwandan army should depart Congo “manu military,” he did so with no alternative force to ensure security in his immense territory, and the population at the time made of 45 million people. The defeated Forces Armee Zairoise (FAZ), Mobutu’s army, were either in disarray or in exile.
When the Rwandans departed, he called upon the former Rwandan genocidal forces, the FDLR, some from travelling as far as Cameroon, transported them to Kisangani into training camps, and promised to offer them sanctuary if they could help fight Rwandans. To this day, the military architecture of the DRC is broken, with an amalgam of militias.
The successors to Laurent Kabila did not build a strong national army, making it possible for all sorts of militias, now counted in hundreds, to occupy the vacuum and thrive.
The militias are extremely violent, wreaking havoc and carrying out massacres of civilians in eastern DRC, despite the UN force (Monusco) and the FARDC, both deployed in Kivu with the very mission to eradicate them. Thus, on the night of July 12, six people were killed in Rwangoma neighbourhood in Beni town, North Kivu, allegedly by Ugandan Islamist rebels of ADF-Nalu. These killings followed others by the same group a week before, but politicians are silent about it. But they care a lot about M23.
Old problems, old tactics
M23, which stands for “Movement of March 23rd,” as in March 23rd 2009, when peace accords were signed between then DRC president Joseph Kabila and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).
As a result, on November 20, 2012, the CNDP rebel group re-baptised itself M23, took control of Goma, the provincial capital of Kivu and one of the most important cities of the DRC with over a million people, causing an international outcry. At the time, pressure was put on the Rwandan government, which was accused of supporting the rebel outfit, a crime by association, given that its leaders had once been part of the rank and file of the RPF campaign of the nineties to liberate Rwanda, as well as Rwanda’s expedition into Zaire under a previous umbrella, AFDL, led by Kabila Snr, which ousted Mobutu.
The M23 was requested to relinquish Goma, with the promise that its demands were finally going to be attended to. M23 announced a unilateral ceasefire and its political wing retreated into Rwanda while the military wing was disarmed and encamped in Uganda.
In 2017, M23 led by their “insufferable” commander Sultani Makenga briefly resumed their insurgency. While the attacks didn’t achieve much, they have been living in DRC forests since, until recently when they reemerged and seized the town of Bunagana at the border with Uganda, throwing the region into turmoil.
M23 demands, just like their strategy to have them fulfilled by the DRC government, haven’t changed: the implementation of the peace agreement signed in Nairobi in December 2013, stipulating amnesty to all M23 fighters who did not commit war crimes and crimes against humanity; registration of M23 as a legitimate political party so that it can exercise politics in DRC; and repatriation of “Rwandophone” Congolese sheltered in refugee camps in Rwanda and Uganda.
After their capture of Bunagana, the Congolese government reacted by declaring them a “terrorist organisation,” closing the door to possible negotiations or the implementation of the Nairobi accords.
The DRC government spokesperson accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, before withdrawing the licence of Rwanda’s airline RwandAir to operate in DRC and cancelling all bilateral trade agreements.
The position adopted by Tshisekedi’s government was detrimental to Rwanda, indeed, and it was a double-edged sword: the Congolese took it on face value, thereby starting a witch-hunt against everyone who “looks” Rwandan and tying the hands of Tshisekedi to negotiate with an M23 that seems to grow in strength every day, defeating the FARDC and capturing new ground.
If the Congolese public isn’t ready to accept the M23, it is because the government has breathed air into an imagined nexus between M23 and the Rwanda Defence Forces.
Therefore the task of President Tshisekedi is difficult; whenever he meets his regional counterparts, including the two mediators, João Laurenco of Angola and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, he cannot count on populist arguments to sway them. He is compelled to rely on facts and, whenever he goes back home, he finds the ground inauspicious to take sensible steps to end the conflict.
It is like the Greek mythology of Laius, Oedipus’ father, who, terrified by the prophecy of the oracle that his son would grow up to kill him, unwittingly engineers the conditions to ensure Oedipus ultimately kills him.
With the insistence that Rwanda is behind the M23, the continued killings of Congolese Tutsi, the DRC may soon leave Rwanda no choice but to conduct military operations in its territory. What are these conditions?
1. To date, while the DRC government has made M23 a pariah by calling them terrorists, Rwanda says they have somehow “mainstreamed” the FDLR. Kigali has made no mystery about its weariness with the collaboration between FARDC and FDLR.
2. Rwanda is the custodian of the Kigali Principles on the protection of civilians, and a champion of the “Responsibility to Protect,” known as R2P; an international principle, adopted in 2005, in response to the failure of the international community to stop the Genocide Against the Tutsi as well as the crimes against humanity in former Yugoslavia. This means that if Tutsi are killed in DRC for their alleged affiliation to Rwanda and nothing is done, Rwanda might be forced to go in to save them.
3. To date, the FARDC have shelled Rwandan territory on three occasions. A fourth might be the casus beli.
Experience has taught us that whenever Rwanda embarks on such (mis)adventure, it usually ends in Kinshasa, and that is not in anyone’s interest.
M23 is part of the solution, but DRC is making it the problem, sadly. There would be nothing more ironic than to be defeated by an army whose only demand is to join and fight on your side, or to ostracise a people whose dream is to be accepted by you.
Many analysts agree that people are safer in areas controlled by M23 than they are in areas controlled by FARDC, Monusco, or indeed militias, to quote Bintu Keita, Monusco representative in DRC. M23 is conducting itself more like a regular army than a rebel group.
While Bintou’s remarks inferred covert Rwandan support of the militia group, it also revealed discipline and chain of command inherent to the “homogeneous” rebel movement.
M23 should be helping DRC to end all the 100-plus militias, to bring peace to their native eastern DRC, if only Congolese politicians could accept them.