How Rwanda, Uganda rivalry is fueling DRC conflict
M23 is one of more than 100 armed factions operating in eastern DRC, a volatile area where war has raged for decades but has recently escalated. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, which tracks war and human rights abuses, about 8,000 people have perished brutally since 2017. According to the United Nations, more than 5.5 million people have been displaced, including 700,000 this year.
The Norwegian Refugee Council named the Democratic Republic of the Congo the world’s most ignored and under-addressed refugee problem in 2021, a dubious title it already held in 2020 and 2017. A convoluted stew of geopolitics, ethnic and national conflicts and rivalry for control of eastern DRC’s enormous natural resources is fueling unrest.
The conflict has heightened tensions between the DRC and neighboring Rwanda, some of which stem from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which ethnic Hutus massacred around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The long-standing rivalry between Rwanda and Uganda has been exacerbated by competition for resources and influence in the DRC.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo and its president, Felix Tshisekedi, accuse Rwanda of backing M23, the major rebel organization fighting the Congolese army in eastern DRC. Some of M23’s leaders are ethnic Tutsis. M23, an abbreviation for the March 23 Movement, derives its name from a failed 2009 peace accord between the Congolese government and a now-defunct rebel force that had split from the Congolese army and taken control of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, in 2012.
The Congolese army and special forces of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo forced the organization back the next year (MONUSCO). Rwanda and its President, Paul Kagame, accuse the DRC and its army of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Congo-based Hutu rebel organization that includes some genocide survivors.
M23 militants attacked multiple Congolese army locations in North Kivu, near the borders with Uganda and Rwanda, in November. In May, the rebels took control of a Congolese military post, and in June, they took control of Bunagana, a commercial town on the Ugandan border.
Bintou Keita, the highest UN official in the DRC as director of MONUSCO, warned in June that M23 presented a rising danger to people and might soon overwhelm the mission’s 16,000 soldiers and police.
M23’s intensified assaults seek to “push the Congolese government to respond to their demands,” according to Jason Stearns, chairman of New York University’s Congo Research Group, in a June briefing with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The rebels want the DRC government to fulfill a 2013 accord known as the Nairobi agreement, which would award them amnesty and rehabilitate them into the Congolese army or civilian life.
“The longtime rivalry between Uganda and Rwanda in the DRC and the Great Lakes area is a fundamental cause of the present conflict,” according to the Africa Center’s research. It claimed a “deep degree of distrust at all levels — between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighbors, notably Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, as well as among all of these countries.”
Late last November, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched a combined military operation in North Kivu to hunt down the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group of Ugandan rebels connected with the Islamic State and listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has accused ADF of the October and November suicide strikes in Kampala.
According to the Africa Center report, Ugandan authorities have accused Rwanda of utilizing M23 to impede its operations against ADF, and the UN has also “indicted Uganda of helping M23.” A decade ago, UN investigators reported substantial proof of Rwandan complicity.
The Congo Research Group’s Stearns said that the combined Ugandan-DRC military action had “geopolitical rippling effects in the area,” with Rwanda basically protesting that Uganda’s participation “encroaches” on its sphere of interest in eastern Congo.
Some of the conflicts is for control of the immense natural resources of eastern DRC, such as diamonds, gold, copper, and wood. Other minerals found in the nation include cobalt and coltan, which are used in batteries that power smartphones, other gadgets, and airplanes.
“The DRC produces more than 70% of the world’s cobalt” and “holds 60% of the world’s coltan deposits,” according to the industry website Mining Technology, suggesting that the DRC “may become the Saudi Arabia of the electric car era.”
According to the Africa Center research, “ample evidence suggests that Ugandan- and Rwandan-backed rebel forces, including M23, control crucial but informal supply routes flowing from mines in the Kivus into the two nations.” The revenues from trafficking products are used to “purchase weapons, recruit and control artisanal miners, and pay corrupt Congolese customs and border officials, as well as military and police,” according to the report.
Access is also valuable. A three-way agreement was made in late 2019 to expand Tanzania’s standard gauge railway via Burundi to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, allowing the latter two nations access to Tanzania’s Indian Ocean seaport at Dar es Salaam.
In June 2021, Tshisekedi of the DRC and Museveni of Uganda will preside over the groundbreaking of the first of three highways connecting the two nations. According to The East African, the project is expected to boost trade volume and cross-border transparency, as well as strengthen relations through “infrastructure diplomacy.” A road connecting Goma’s port on Lake Kivu to the border town of Bunagana is part of the project.
“Rwanda, sandwiched between Uganda and Burundi, sees all of this and feels sidelined, feels marginalized,” Stearns said at the CSIS briefing.
Rwanda had its own agreements with the DRC, such as flying RwandAir routes and processing Congolese gold, but the Congolese government suspended all trade agreements in mid-June.
The DRC, which joined the East African Community this spring, agreed in June to a Kenya-led regional security force to protect civilians and forcibly disarm combatants who refuse to lay down their weapons.
The deployment of the force has not been scheduled. Tshisekedi, who is running for re-election in 2023, has said that Rwanda cannot be part of the security forces. Kagame, 64, told the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency that he had “no objections.”
At a meeting on July 6 in Angola’s capital, the two presidents agreed on a “de-escalation approach” in the DRC. The diplomatic strategy called for the cessation of hostilities and the quick removal of the M23. However, violence erupted the following day in North Kivu’s Rutshuru area between M23 and the Congolese army.
Major Willy Ngoma of the M23 rebels told VOA’s Swahili Service that his outfit does not recognize the accord.
“We signed an agreement with President Tshisekedi and the Congo government,” Ngoma said of the 2013 deal, “and we are ready to engage with the administration.” Whatever they say, where do you want us to go if we cease fighting and leave eastern DRC? We are Congolese people. We cannot return to exile. As Congolese, we are fighting for our rights.”
The Congolese government has said that M23 must leave the country before peace negotiations can commence. Paul Nantulya, an Africa Center research associate who participated to the study, anticipated that “resolving the long-running tensions between Rwanda and the DRC would take time.”
He urged for “a verifiable and enforceable conflict reduction strategy between Congo and its neighbors — beginning with Rwanda” and “an inclusive democracy process in Congo” in written remarks shared with VOA via email.
In a June interview, Rwanda’s ambassador to the DRC, Vincent Karega, cautioned that hate speech is fueling the violence. He urged, citing previous genocides, that “the whole world raises a finger at it and ensures that it be halted before the worst comes to the worst.”
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