No doubt Félix Tshisekedi was dreaming of a more peaceful climate for his country’s official entry into the East African Community (EAC). On 29 March, the Congolese President attended the virtual summit ratifying the DRC’s membership. Facing their screens, the heads of state took turns welcoming the arrival of this demographic giant into a space that is among the best integrated on the continent. But there was some anxiety behind the smiles.
At the same time, nearly 2,500km from Kinshasa, fighting was intensifying in the Rutshuru territory, near the border that the DRC shares with Uganda and Rwanda. Since the evening of 27 March, clashes between the Forces Armées de RDC (FARDC) and the M23 have been raging in this part of North Kivu. The rebels have advanced into the Chanzu and Runyonyi hills.
The M23 is thus confirming its resurgence, observed as early as November, with the fighting taking place in the same hills of Rutshuru. Defeated in 2013, the M23 – which had succeeded in bringing down Goma in November 2012 – had seen its capacity to cause harm significantly reduced. Its fighters had then mostly taken refuge between Rwanda and Uganda.
Some of them had taken up positions in the DRC’s Virunga area, probably around 2017, and under Sultani Makenga’s command, according to estimates from both Kigali and Kinshasa. But they had been relatively quiet until then.
The movement’s renewed activity in recent months has therefore raised many questions, particularly about possible external support. On 28 March, General Sylvain Ekenge, spokesman for North Kivu’s military governor, publicly accused Rwanda of supporting the M23.
He pointed out the fact that two alleged Rwandan soldiers warrant officer Jean-Pierre Habyarimana and private John Uwajeneza Muhindi, were captured during clashes. This claim was quickly denied by the governor of the Rwandan Western Province and has reinforced the mistrust between Kinshasa and Kigali.
According to a report presented in the Rwandan capital on 25 February by General Michel Mandiangu, head of Congolese military intelligence, the two suspects had in fact been arrested several weeks earlier. Warrant Officer Habyarimana was arrested on 1 February.
A source within the Congolese presidency talked to us about the “embarrassment” felt by Tshisekedi, who promised “sanctions” in the coming days. Received on 29 March at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vincent Karega, Rwanda’s ambassador to the DRC, reaffirmed that Rwanda supported “the M23 neither politically nor militarily.”
Despite Kigali’s denials, several Congolese officials refuse to rule out the possibility of Rwandan support. The Congolese intelligence report cites several Rwandan officers suspected of participating in M23 recruitment and stresses the need for “Rwanda’s involvement to clear up the issue […], in particular by dismantling the base of the ex-M23 [the movement was officially disbanded in 2013], their recruitment and supply network on Rwandan territory.”
The Rwandans not only point out the setbacks that the FARDC has suffered on the ground and the ineffectiveness of the state of siege decreed last May in the East – which pushed Kinshasa to look for a scapegoat – but also the delay in repatriating M23 fighters who had laid down their arms and were waiting in Rwanda.
The fact remains that this whole sequence of events and the tensions it quickly caused raise questions about the state of relations between Kinshasa and Kigali. Since arriving in power, Tshisekedi has increased his contact with Paul Kagame. The Congolese, who has made security cooperation with his eastern neighbours one of his priorities, has met with his Rwandan counterpart on numerous occasions, thus enabling the development of close collaboration. The two countries’ intelligence services exchange information and, on the economic front, several agreements were concluded in June 2021, notably in the field of gold mining.
This collaboration seems to have gone even further. General Mandiangu’s report, which was mentioned above and presented at a joint meeting, provides several details concerning the cooperation between the two armies against groups hostile to Rwanda present in the DRC.
Accused on numerous occasions by civil society, some politicians but also in a report written by the UN group of experts on the Congo of having conducted several operations on Congolese territory, Kigali has systematically denied its involvement on the ground.
However, the report states that “since September 2019, with the support of RDF [Rwanda Defence Force] elements, the leadership of the [Forces Démocratiques de Libérations du Rwanda] has been decapitated,” citing the cases of Sylvestre Mudacumura and Juvénal Musabimana (aka Jean Michel Africa). When contacted for comment after the presentation, the Rwandan army could not be reached. For Kigali and Kinshasa, this support is limited to an exchange of information.
Recently, however, this good understanding seems to have deteriorated. This is partly due to Tshisekedi and Yoweri Museveni’s rapprochement. The Ugandan President has a tense relationship with his Rwandan counterpart, whom he has known since the 1980s. The two men have been accusing each other of destabilisation attempts for years and their common border, which has been closed for three years, only started to reopen last February, thanks to mediation efforts led by Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
In parallel, Museveni has considerably strengthened his ties with Tshisekedi. In June 2021, he officially launched the rehabilitation of several stretches of road linking major towns in eastern Congo to Uganda. This includes the very strategic road from Goma to Bunagana, which bypasses Rwanda. Above all, after months of insistence, Museveni managed to get Tshisekedi to give the green light for a joint intervention against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which are active in North Kivu and Ituri.
Rwanda seems to have been frustrated when it was sidelined while preparing for Uganda’s intervention in the DRC, in a region considered crucial for its security interests. Kagame made this clear in an interview with us in January. “Neither the DRC nor Uganda warned us. We only received explanations after a month,” he said. Because these movements want to destabilise our country, our interests in the region should not have been neglected.”
On 8 February, the Rwandan President went a step further by referring to the alleged links between the FDLR and the ADF and implying that he would be ready to intervene without prior consultation. “We wish peace to all the region’s inhabitants, but if someone wants a war from us, we will give it to him […]. Our doctrine is to wage war on the enemy’s territory when he asks for it,” he said.
President Tshisekedi indirectly replied a few days later. “It is unrealistic and unproductive, even suicidal, for a country in our sub-region to think that it would always benefit from maintaining conflicts or tensions with its neighbours,” he told several diplomats.
‘Re-establishing a minimum of confidence’
Could the current crisis permanently disrupt relations between Tshisekedi and Kagame? On 24 March, the two heads of state met again in Jordan. However, little information was released about this meeting. Each side merely stated that their get-together had gone well.
“We hope to be able to conduct operations with every neighbouring country. Our cooperation with Rwanda is already very extensive. But first, we need to re-establish a minimum of trust between us,” says a Congolese government source, who believes that increased economic cooperation within the EAC’s framework can only be achieved under adequate security conditions.
In any case, the countries of the region take this issue seriously. According to our information, Tshisekedi was due to hold talks with his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta. A person close to the Congolese President said that this exchange is expected to take place within the framework of the DRC’s integration into the EAC, but that the current sub-regional tensions might be brought up in the discussion.
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