Ramaphosa tries to patch up relations with Rwanda

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Could South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts to rekindle ties between his country and Rwanda also help resolve the dangerous standoff between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)? Or vice versa?

Ramaphosa met with President Paul Kagame on 6 April to ‘straighten out wrinkles’ in the long-troubled South Africa-Rwanda relationship. Ramaphosa was in Rwanda to attend the genocide’s 30th anniversary commemoration.

Tensions between the two include the unresolved issue of assassinations or attempted assassinations of Rwandan dissidents in South Africa a decade ago – and Kigali’s unhappiness that Pretoria is harbouring individuals it accuses of plotting to overthrow Kagame’s government.

The most recent dispute is over South Africa contributing troops to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC). SAMIDRC has a mandate to defeat the M23 rebels in eastern DRC who are supported, militarily and otherwise, by Rwanda.

Two days after the two presidents met, SADC announced that three Tanzanians in SAMIDRC had been killed and three injured in a mortar attack on their base near Goma. In February, two South African soldiers were killed and three wounded in a mortar attack on their base. In both incidents, M23 was the prime suspect.

So how do Ramaphosa and Kagame iron out such mountainous wrinkles? They have been trying to do this for over six years after meeting at a 2018 AU summit in Kigali.

The dissident issue is seemingly intractable. In 2014, after Kagame’s former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya’s murder in Johannesburg and the fourth assassination attempt on his former army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa near Pretoria, South Africa’s indulgence finally snapped. It expelled three Rwandan and one Burundian diplomat. Kigali retaliated by expelling six South African diplomats.

Since then, diplomatic relations have never been quite the same. Pretoria doesn’t want to expel Nyamwasa and other dissidents, and Kigali is not going to extradite the two suspects in Karegeya’s killing, which Pretoria requested. So, stalemate.

The other issue over M23 is equally thorny. In 2013 South Africa played a decisive role in the defeat of M23 by the United Nations’ Force Intervention Brigade, which was comprised of SADC troops. After a decade of dormancy, M23 resurged and began capturing territory in the DRC’s North Kivu province.

After dismissing the East African Community Regional Force in December 2023 because it wouldn’t fight M23, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi asked SADC states to intervene. They started deploying SAMIDRC in December with the same aggressive mandate as the Force Intervention Brigade had. But M23 is now more formidable, and SAMIDRC’s casualties suggest its mission will be tough.

So what did Ramaphosa and Kagame talk about? Ramaphosa told a press conference on 7 April that he and Kagame ‘agreed that a peaceful political solution is the best option to any military action’ in eastern DRC. They agreed that incursions into Rwanda of the DRC-backed, largely Hutu, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) should end. This group was founded by genocidaires who fled Rwanda ahead of Kagame’s avenging Rwandan Patriotic Front army in 1994.

At a press conference on 8 April, Kagame didn’t deny that Rwanda was supporting the M23. He defended himself by saying M23 comprised Congolese (ethnic) Tutsis who were being denied DRC citizenship. He has frequently accused the DRC army of allying with the FDLR to exterminate M23’s Tutsis. He has accused SADC of the same goal by acting in league with the DRC, FDLR and other forces in targeting M23.

None of Ramaphosa’s peace talk sounded entirely consistent with South Africa contributing soldiers to SAMIDRC with the goal of defeating M23. Did this represent a change of heart? Did it have anything to do with the presence in Kigali of former president Thabo Mbeki, also for the genocide commemoration?

Mbeki emphasised to journalists in Kigali that there was no military solution to the eastern DRC conflict. All the forces in the field, including SAMIDRC, should disengage to allow for peace talks, he said.

While in Kigali, Mbeki had briefed Ramaphosa – who wasn’t in government when Mbeki was president – about the conflict including that in 2002, Kagame and former DRC president Joseph Kabila signed a peace agreement in Pretoria.

Kabila agreed to continue ‘tracking down and disarming the Interahamwe and ex-FAR within the territory of the DRC under its control.’ The Interahamwe were Hutu death squads which along with the then Rwandan army (FAR), massacred the Tutsis. Remnants of the two groups formed the FDLR. Kagame agreed that Rwanda would ‘withdraw from the DRC as soon as effective measures that address its security concerns, in particular the dismantling of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe forces, have been agreed to.’

Mbeki told journalists in Kigali that the agreement was that the Congolese government would disarm and deal with those who committed genocide in Rwanda and then relocated to eastern Congo. Then Rwanda would withdraw its troops from the region.

He said the accord had never been implemented, but had also never been repudiated, and remained the basis for a political resolution of the conflict. The Rwandan media have unsurprisingly seized on these remarks as vindicating Kagame’s insistence that the root of the conflict is Kinshasa’s failure to deal with the FDLR.

Will that be Ramaphosa’s approach henceforth? Will he recommend that SADC states disengage SAMIDRC and focus instead on disarming the FDLR? He will presumably remember that not everyone agrees that the FDLR is Kagame’s real reason for meddling in eastern DRC, and that mining and other economic interests might be more decisive.

Could this be more about Ramaphosa wanting to demonstrate that ‘peace is our calling card,’ as he said in Kigali? And about facing the electorate on 29 May, with most polls showing his African National Congress dropping to below 50%? He doesn’t need more deaths on distant battlefields right now.

Disengaging from eastern DRC would be convenient. Whether it would resolve the conflict is less certain. Especially given Tshisekedi’s likely resistance.

‘The credibility of the 2002 Kagame-Kabila memorandum of understanding may no longer provide a solid foundation to pursue a political solution, given the shifting power dynamics in play over the past two decades,’ says Piers Pigou, Head of the Southern Africa Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. ‘If the DRC political leadership does not buy into this, it is likely to be a non-starter.’

Written by Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria.

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