Goma, the capital of the resource-rich North Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, is now in the hands of M23 – a rebel group accused of human rights abuses and the recruitment of child soldiers. The Congolese Army offered only sporadic resistance and the UN retreated to the airport. Some 50,000 people, including 35,000 from a nearby refugee camp, are thought to have fled the region around Goma already. Once more the UN proved impotent, once more thousands are forced to leave their homes.
To make matters worse, Rwanda claimed that the Congolese army fired at Rwandan territory. Rwanda, however, did not respond with military action and was accused by the DRC that it fired at its own territory in order to establish a precedent for a later invasion.
The protracted conflict in North Kivu, characterised by murder, rape, exploitation and all forms of depredation that make this place to one of the most dangerous in the world, has just added another cruel chapter to, as it seems, a never ending story. Just as many previous conflicts characterised by welter, nihilism and heinous crimes, this one involves various parties following each their own interests.
The robust UN Mission MONUSCO has currently a strength of nearly 20,000 personnel, which makes it the biggest and most expensive UN Mission worldwide. Notwithstanding its resources MONUSCO is insufficiently equipped to provide security in an area the size of Western Europe. Most importantly the mission is equipped merely with a reactive, rather than proactive mandate; that is, the protection of civilians rather than offensive military measures against rebel groups. In addition, MONUSCO is not tasked to control the Rwandan-Congolese border – a region which should be observed with more scrutiny. The Congolese Army, controlled by Kinshasa 1, 700 miles to the West, is not a guarantor for stability in the region either, mainly due to a lack of payment and proper equipment, which has resulted in low morale and motivation amongst its soldiers.
Madnodje Mounoubai, the UN mission spokesman stated:
“We are not going to engage the M23 directly. Our mandate is to support the national army.”
In other words, if the Congolese army withdraws, then the UN withdraws as well.
North Kivu is not only known for conflict, but also for the world’s largest deposits (70%) of coltan – a metallic ore used as components for, inter alia, mobile phones and laptops. These coltan mines are largely in the hands of local warlords. In summary, whoever controls North Kivu controls the mine. Whoever controls the mine, makes money.
What is Rwanda’s role in all of this?
Recently Rwanda, and at a later stage Uganda, were accused by the UN and Human Rights watch of assisting the M23 movement. This accusation, put in contrast with the fact that Rwanda is considered as one of the darlings of western donors, is rather perturbing, if not alarming. Moreover, the UN Security Council has condemned Rwanda for its support of M23. Nonetheless, Rwanda will join the Council as a temporary member on 1 January 2013.
In order to understand the underlying issue for this particular development and a possible rationale for Rwanda’s involvement, one needs to go a few years back.
In 2006 one of the armed groups in the region – The National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) – was founded by Laurent Nkunda. This group split in 2009 and the remaining soldiers were, as part of a peace agreement, to be integrated within the national Army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo- FARDC).
General Bosco Ntaganda, a Rwandan-born ethnic Tutsi – known for his brutality and nicknamed the “The Terminator” – took over command with the support of Rwanda. Ntaganda, a former fighter under the then Rwandan Patriotic Front leader and now Rwandan President Kagame, was indicted by the ICC in 2006 and additional charges were added in 2012. The accusations range from the recruitment of child soldiers to rape and murder. Nonetheless, Ntaganda lived a rather luxurious life in Goma, as DRC President Joseph Kabila refused to arrest him on the grounds of maintaining regional stability. In addition, Ntaganda has reportedly crossed the border to Gisenyi, Rwanda, on several occasions without any repercussions. Rwandan authorities confirmed their support by adding that “Bosco contributes to peace and security to the region, which converges with Rwanda’s aims”.
In April this year Ntaganda defected with 300 soldiers. Reports claim that he has currently 2500 – 3000 rebels – some sources mention up to 6000 rebels – under his command. The group – which calls itself “M23” after the day of the Peace Treaty between the CNDP and the DRC Government (23rd March 2009) – claims that the reasons for the mutiny vary from poor pay accompanied by a lack of logistical support to the proposed relocation of the troops to other parts of the DRC. However, rumour has it that the DRC’s Government came under increased pressure from the International Criminal Court, which had just convicted Lubanga for the war crime of recruiting child soldiers in DRC. Subsequently, an imminent arrest of Ntaganda by the DRC’s Government may be the real underlying cause for the mutiny. Adding to the confusion, Colonel Makenga – apparently a rival of Ntaganda – appears in interviews as the one who has initiated the rebellion and taken over command of M23. Makenga also denies any connotation with Ntaganda. However, it is widely suspected that, behind the scenes, Ntaganda is pulling the strings.
DRC’s much smaller, but, in military terms, more capable neighbour Rwanda invaded DRC twice in the past to hunt Hutu rebels alleged of having been involved in the 1994 genocide. Rwanda, however, has also been accused of taking advantage of the tumult in the mineral rich area by establishing significant control over the mines in the region. In addition, the CNDP fought against the FDLR which consists, inter alia, of alleged perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide. Basically, the FDLR is a common enemy of the CNDP and the Rwandan Forces.
The UN dispatched a group of experts to analyse the situation and came to the conclusion that M23 received significant clandestine support from Rwandan authorities. The published report can be found here (annex), but a summary which is indeed disturbing and worrisome, can be found below:
“Since the outset of its current mandate, the Group has gathered evidence of arms embargo and sanctions regime violations committed by the Rwandan Government. These violations consist of the provision of material and financial support to armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, including the recently established M23, in contravention of paragraph 1 of Security Council resolution 1807 (2008). The arms embargo and sanctions regimes violations include the following:
• Direct assistance in the creation of M23 through the transport of weapons and soldiers through Rwandan territory
• Recruitment of Rwandan youth and demobilized ex-combatants as well as Congolese refugees for M23
• Provision of weapons and ammunition to M23
• Mobilization and lobbying of Congolese political and financial leaders for the benefit of M23
• Direct Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) interventions into Congolese territory to reinforce M23
• Support to several other armed groups as well as Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) mutinies in the eastern Congo
• Violation of the assets freeze and travel ban through supporting sanctioned individuals.”
Furthermore, the BBC reported that defected rebels claimed to have been persuaded to join the Rwandan Army already in February, two months before the mutiny began. The government of the DRC made similar claims. Moreover, claims emerged that several M23 fighters are anglophone – the DRC is francophone – and operated weapons which are used not by the DRC, but by Rwandan Forces.
Reports by the UN are corroborated by Human Rights Watch which undertook research in the area and concluded that Rwanda has
“provided weapons, ammunition, and an estimated 200 to 300 recruits to support Ntaganda’s mutiny in Rutshuru territory, eastern Congo.”
The men, of whom some are former FDLR fighters, were often forcibly recruited under the false pretence of being incorporated into the Rwandan Defence Forces. Reports suggest that the recruits received weapons and military training and were taken to join the M23 rebels across the DRC border. Several were executed when they tried to flee.
In addition, Makenga reported that the mutiny he initiated is of no connection to Ntaganda’s rebellion. Ntaganda seconds that statement. However, Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses who claim that both mutinies are indeed converged and that Ntaganda is the man in charge.
The response of donors
Rwanda has been the darling of Western donors for many years. Partly this might be attributed to the fact that the West failed miserably during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and took over the role as bystander while over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The West realised its mistake of historical proportions – too late – and attempted to heal its bad conscience by pouring aid into Rwanda. Kagame’s Government achieved remarkable progress and over 1 million people were lifted from below the poverty line in recent years – an unprecedented success story in Africa. The US and the UK considered Kagame as source for stability and sanguinity in the region and Blair described Kagame in 2010 as a “visionary leader”. However, Western Governments raised also criticism about Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC albeit words were not followed by serious actions. Following the damning UN Report, however, the West lost its patience and the US, EU, UK (its biggest donor), Germany and The Netherlands suspended either some or all of their aid as of July of this year. In addition to the financial burden, this step has to be considered as symbolic one. Stephen Rapp, Head of the US Office of Global Criminal Justice, took the diplomatic row a step further when he argued that Kagame could face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for supporting war crimes in DRC.
Notwithstanding the damning evidence, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, announced in September, as one of his last actions in office, and probably precipitously, that the payment of UK aid will be resumed.
Rwanda’s response came prompt and Kigali repudiated any accusations. The response, however, is rather vague and fails to respond to all accusations. Instead, it answers questions with, inter alia, a new set of questions:
What would be Rwanda’s end goal in supporting a mutiny in DRC? What strategic purpose would be served by active involvement in destabilizing the central government of the DRC?
The New Times Rwanda – known for being rather government-friendly – published a rebuttal of the accusations and claimed that
“This report is a calculated move to shift blame away from the Government of DRC and the international community – both of which have failed to resolve the conflict in the eastern DRC despite numerous bilateral, regional and international initiatives in the last fourteen years”.
President Kagame made his point very clear in a recent TV interview and Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, told the BBC the UN report consist of “categorical lies” and asked “What would Rwanda gain in creating instability around its own borders? It does not make sense”.
The answer the Rwandan Governemnt is looking for might be found in the coltan mines and the background of M23. As mentioned before, Kinshasa has hardly any control over North Kivu. Subsequently, Kigali, with M23 controlling the region, will have few difficulties in engaging and controlling the coltan trade in the region. Moreover, M23 consists mostly of Tutsis, who would go after the FDLR, creating a buffer zone between themselves and Rwanda. Even if only half of the accusations were true, it would place a significant responsibility on Kagame and his government. International donors, still sufficiently impressed by Rwanda’s development success, need to reconsider their strategy and put significant pressure on Rwanda. The country has made impressive progress since the genocide, however the Congolese are also entitled to stability and peace. If the allegations are true – and only Rwanda knows the full truth – then the Rwandan Government has not only created instability in Eastern Congo, but has also jeopardized its own development, and now risks undoing all of the progress that has been made. Withdrawal of aid seriously harms the Rwandan society and should have been avoided, but pressure needs to be exercised in the interest of the whole Great Lakes Region.
This article was also published at International Policy Digest