DRC-Rwanda crisis: what’s needed to prevent a regional war

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In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South African, Burundian and Tanzanian troops are fighting against the Rwandan army, which has deployed in support of the rebellion by the March 23 Movement, or M23.

Soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania, and Burundi, as well as from the United Nations peacekeeping mission, have recently suffered casualties. In the crossfire, civilians have fled: seven million Congolese are now displaced due to this and multiple other crises in the DRC.

Diplomats are concerned: the conflict in the eastern DRC was the subject of a special meeting at the United Nations Security Council on 20 February 2024 and a mini-summit on the sidelines of the African Union annual meeting of heads of state on 16 February.

Rwanda, which has denied backing M23, says the Rwandan rebel group – Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) – which includes combatants who participated in the 1994 genocide, has been fully integrated into the Congolese army. It also claims that the Congolese government is engaged in “massive combat operations” aimed at expelling Congolese Tutsi civilians.

The Congolese government has mounted a campaign against Rwanda. In December, while he campaigned for re-election, President Félix Tshisekedi compared his Rwandan counterpart to Adolf Hitler and accused him of expansionist aims.

In January, the Burundian president Évariste Ndayishimiye closed his border with Rwanda and accused the country of backing rebels against him. He stopped just short of calling for Kagame’s ouster.

We have been working on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for around 20 years. This wave of violence resembles previous ones, but is also different. At the root of the M23 conflict are countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, intent on projecting power and influence into the eastern DRC, while the Congolese government seems incapable and often unwilling to stabilise its own territory. Donors and United Nations peacekeepers provide humanitarian aid, but do little to transform these dynamics.

Resolving this crisis will require less hypocrisy from foreign donors, the end of Rwandan aggression, and a more accountable Congolese government. But the hopes of a grand bargain are far off, for now. The current peace processes – a “Nairobi process” for domestic negotiations and a “Luanda process” for regional talks – are dead or on life support.

The upcoming elections in Rwanda (July 2024) and the US (November 2024) will likely not help cool heads or focus minds. But it is clear that ending the violence will require a new approach, one that places the lives of innocent Congolese civilians at its centre.

Beginning of regional escalation

During the early days of his presidency, Tshisekedi’s army collaborated intensely with the Rwandan army, allowing troops to conduct operations against the FDLR on Congolese territory in 2019 and 2020. In late 2019, his government even recommended dropping charges against the M23 commanders, then in exile.

Less than three years after winning power, however, Tshisekedi changed his approach, breaking his coalition with his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, and moving to cement his position in power. He declared a state of siege in two eastern provinces, shuffled generals around in the army, and sidelined key securocrats. He also shifted gears in his regional relations.

By mid-2021, Tshisekedi had begun to privilege relations with Uganda, then a bitter rival of Rwanda. Notably, Tshisekedi gave permission to the Ugandan army to deploy somewhere between 2 000 and 4 000 troops to hunt down Allied Democratic Forces rebels, an Islamist Ugandan rebellion based in the eastern DRC. Shortly after that, he did the same for the Burundian army, which had its sights on RED-Tabara, rebels based in the DRC seeking to overthrow the government of Ndayishimiye.

Rwanda suddenly felt isolated, even vulnerable, surrounded by hostile neighbours. According to United Nations investigators, it probably resumed throwing its weight behind the M23 in November 2021. It is above all these regional tensions, coupled with its goal of maintaining influence in the Congo, that pushed it to move.

Since then, the regional fault lines have shifted. Rwanda has patched up relations with Uganda, and the East African Community intervention force – Kenyan, South Sudanese, Burundian and Ugandan troops – that deployed in 2022 to help quell the violence was asked to leave just a year later. This is because their hosts saw them as dragging their feet, if not complicit with the M23. Tshisekedi, who came into office seeing east African countries as allies, has now turned southwards.

Military changes in eastern DRC

Beginning in late 2023, a new force from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) began deploying troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi to take the fight to the M23, alongside the Burundian army.

Already, these forces have begun to take casualties. Two South African soldiers were killed on 14 February by a mortar strike; two others were injured when their helicopter took fire. Some sources indicate that Burundian soldiers have taken heavy losses. Three Tanzanian soldiers were killed on 8 April by an M23 mortar attack.

The rising degree of military sophistication also raises eyebrows. The US government has accused Rwanda of deploying surface-to-air missiles, UN officials have reported armed drones striking their bases, while Tanzania has sent Soviet-era BM-21 Grad rocket launchers. The DRC has bought nine Chinese CH-4 combat drones (three of which have reportedly been shot down already).

Meanwhile, the Congolese army has partnered with private security contractors as well as with an array of local militia, collectively dubbed Wazalendo (patriots), who are poorly trained and disciplined. There are credible reports from late 2023 that, as in the previous year, they are also partnering with the Rwandan FDLR rebels.

And yet, the Congolese government has been unable to make much headway. In early February, M23 forces surrounded the lakeside town of Sake, just 30km west of the provincial capital Goma. This most recent push has displaced another 135,000 people toward Goma; there are around half a million displaced people around the town now.

Mixed signals

Unlike the previous M23 crisis, influential foreign actors have sent mixed signals. At the UN Security Council on 20 February, the US and France called on Rwanda to withdraw their troops from the DRC. The US has gone the furthest of all of Rwanda’s donors, sanctioning a Rwandan general, suspending all military aid, and attempting to broker a ceasefire in December 2023.

And yet, the US remains, by far, the largest donor to Rwanda, which receives the equivalent of around a third of its budget in aid. Other countries have pushed much less or not at all. While the M23 rebellion was going on, the British Commonwealth held its big biannual meeting in Kigali in 2022 and the UK struck a controversial asylum deal with Rwanda.

The EU gave US$22 million to support the deployment of the Rwanda Defence Force in Mozambique. On 19 February, the EU announced a deal to boost mineral exports from Rwanda.

This last piece of news caused an uproar in the DRC, touching on the popular belief that minerals are the root of the crisis. While the causes of the violence are far more complex than that, they have a point: the largest export from Uganda (56% in 2021), Rwanda (23%), and Burundi (29%) in recent years has been gold, almost all of which is smuggled to their countries from the DRC.

In the long term, the DRC government will need to undertake a host of reforms to quell these cycles of conflict. They include reforming the Congolese army, a new demobilisation programme for armed groups, an economic development programme that would allow Congolese to benefit from their resources, a plan for communal reconciliation, and an end to discrimination against Kinyarwanda speakers. But none of that can happen as long as Congo’s neighbours continue to destabilise it.

Written by Jason Stearns, Assistant Professor, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, and Joshua Z Walker, Director of Programs, Congo Research Group, Center on International Cooperation, New York University

Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.