In an encouraging sign for stability in East Africa, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi recently met his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in the Angolan capital of Luanda, agreeing to begin a de-escalation process. The encounter was the pair’s first face-to-face meeting in several months and came in the wake of increasingly prickly relations between their respective countries, due in large part to a suspiciously-timed resurgence of the M23 rebel group in eastern DRC. Tshisekedi is convinced that Rwanda is behind the group’s latest attacks, which Kagame vehemently denies.
Open conflict, which has not been ruled out by either party, would have devastating consequences for the entire region, so any attempt to avoid such an outcome is to be welcomed. But with strong evidence pointing towards Rwandan involvement in the DRC’s internal struggles, supported by a laundry list of troubling motives for doing so, Tshisekedi will need to lean heavily on his knack for diplomacy to maintain Congolese independence and dignity whilst curbing broader instability in East Africa.
M23 back from the dead
Although insurgency and conflict in the eastern DRC is nothing new, the reappearance of the M23 rebels last November after nearly a decade-long hiatus was nevertheless a surprise, particularly considering the increasing sophistication of their attacks. With advanced weaponry at their disposal and several well-coordinated operations under their belt, the group’s exploits are hardly those of one starved of funds and eking out survival in the mountains for the last five years.
Tshisekedi has consequently pointed the finger squarely at Rwanda, which has a long history of propping up rebels in Congo when it suits their interests. Both Rwanda and Uganda were heavily implicated the last time that M23 reared its head, and despite Kagame’s protestations to the contrary, there is mounting evidence that the latest attacks bear the hallmarks of his handiwork. Besides the impressive arsenal at M23’s disposal, the UN footage showing individuals wearing Rwandan army uniforms inside the rebel’s camp raises further suspicions of state backing from Kigali.
Kagame has the motives and the means
Given that regional stability would surely benefit all parties, why would Kagame continue to rock the boat in such a provocative manner? There are multiple possible explanations. For starters, the tensions between the two countries have historically been rooted in ethnic and ideological differences.
Other incentives are more modern and mercenary in their nature. For example, the DRC is home to an abundance of natural resources, and access to these raw materials – by lawful or illicit means – is a huge draw for its eastern neighbors. Indeed, it’s suspected that over 90% of Congolese gold is smuggled out of the country to Rwanda, Uganda and other players, while precious metals such as cobalt and coltan are also in high demand. The DRC is the top producer of both commodities worldwide; tellingly, Rwanda ranks as third on the list for the latter, despite having few recognized deposits within its own borders. Continued access to such mineral wealth is a strong spur for inciting unrest.
Geopolitical concerns come to the fore
Meanwhile, there are also suspicions that Kagame is feeling increasingly sidelined by Tshisekedi’s rising star. The DRC recently became the seventh nation to join the East African Community (EAC), greatly enhancing its trade and security prospects with the other members. Kenya, in particular, has shown great interest in tapping into the 87 million-strong market of the DRC. At the same time, the construction of a Ugandan-funded and governed road in the Congo – which borders but bypasses Rwanda – has also been viewed unfavorably in Kigali.
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Finally, Kagame has also expressed anger at Tshisekedi’s decision to allow Ugandan and Burundian troops to pursue rebels into Congolese territory, threatening his own incursion even without Tshisekedi’s approval.
Tshisekedi must continue on the path to regional integration
Such an outcome should be avoided at all costs, since the presence of multiple different militias whose recent relations have been anything but hospitable could reopen old wounds and lead to open warfare between the involved parties. Some 170,000 people have already been displaced by the renewal of hostilities, but the consequences of a collapse in regional peace could affect far more than just the local populace; the very security and prosperity of the entire EAC is at stake.
Fortunately, Tshisekedi has worked tirelessly to forge cordial relations with his neighbors ever since his accession to the presidential hotseat, reaching out to end rivalries and encourage cooperation. The DRC president has set out his stall to his opposite number in no uncertain terms, stating that “there is hope as long as there is sincerity”. But while Kagame may have won plaudits from Western powers such as the US and the UK, significant question marks remain over his human rights record. Can such a man be trusted to deliver the full honesty that Tshisekedi is asking for? The latter, and indeed the wider East African community, can only hope for an answer in the affirmative.
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