DRC / Rwanda / Uganda: 10 key moments in a complicated relationship

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Thursday, 2 June 2022 12:59

Congolese soldiers advance against the M23 rebels near the Rumangabo military base in Runyoni
Congolese soldiers advance against the M23 rebels near the Rumangabo military base in Runyoni, 58 km (36 miles) north of Goma, October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

Relations between DRC and Rwanda have hit the lowest point of the Félix Tshisekedi era as Kinshasa accuses Kigali of supporting the resurgent M-23 movement rebels who have been wreaking havoc across eastern Congo. 

This past weekend, the DRC suspended RwandAir flights into the country and summoned Rwanda’s ambassador to the country. To prove its claims that Rwanda was backing the rebels, the DRC army paraded two Rwandan soldiers who it claims were arrested near the border. With anti-Rwanda sentiment running high, Congolese demonstrators protested outside the Rwandan embassy in Kinshasa.

Rwanda fired back by accusing the Congolese military of conspiring with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to attack and kidnap the soldiers. The ethnic Hutu group includes some of the original perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“Over the years, [DRC officials] have sanitised this genocidal armed group to the extent that the FDLR are currently co-located, and fighting alongside” the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta.

The third major actor in the conflict, Uganda, also joined the fray. In Kampala, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of President Yoweri Museveni and commander of Uganda’s land forces, sent out fiery tweets declaring full backing for Rwanda.

Ugandan soldiers have been in eastern DRC since November 2021, fighting the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).

Although M23’s resurgence is the immediate catalyst for the current crisis, tensions among the three states long predate the latest flare-up. The Africa Report explores the issues, conflicts and personalities that have shaped their relationship for almost three decades.

1. 1994: The Rwandan genocide

The genocide ended with the Hutus’ flight into the DRC and other neighboring countries as well as the capture of the state by Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front in 1994. Many commanders who took over power in Kigali had been senior army or government officials in Uganda who fought in the guerilla war that brought President Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986 before launching a liberation war in their native Rwanda in 1990.

Kagame, for instance, served in the Ugandan army as a senior intelligence officer. Rwanda Patriotic Front founder Fred Rwigyema, who was killed two days into the 1990 invasion, served as defence minister under Museveni.

2. 1996: Rwanda, Uganda enter the DRC

Many of the Hutu soldiers who participated in the genocide crossed into eastern DRC after the fall of Kigali in July 1994. The new government in Rwanda kept close watch on former Rwandan officials and soldiers with growing unease as Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko ignored Kigali’s calls to have them disarmed, arrested or moved far away from the border. Museveni was also watching eastern DRC closely as a number of rebel groups fighting his government were operating in the area.

Museveni and Kagame found the perfect opportunity to enter the DRC in September 1996 by supporting rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Their overt support was crucial in deposing Mobutu within eight months.

3. 1999-2000: Former allies turn on each other

As Kabila settled down in Kinshasa, Museveni and Kagame felt he was not addressing their security concerns in eastern DRC. Trust broke down between the three heads of state in early 1998 as Kabila began replacing many Rwandans soldiers who had been part of his inner circle and courting Sudan’s Omar Bashir – Museveni’s arch-enemy – for support in case Kampala and Kigali tried to depose him.

Kabila asked Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers to leave DRC soil, to no avail. Meanwhile, Kagame and Museveni could not agree on how to counter Kabila. They ended up supporting different rebel groups in a bid to oust the man they had installed, leading their armies to clash in Kisangani in 1999. Rwanda eventually defeated Uganda the following year after several more clashes. Kabila was assassinated under mysterious circumstances on 16 January 2001.

4. Congolese minerals

During the war, Rwandans and Ugandans alike discovered that the DRC’s vast mineral reserves were easy loot. The smuggling operations they established at the time are still in place today.

DRC eventually took Uganda to the International Court of Justice. After two decades of litigation, the court in February ordered Uganda to pay the DRC $325m in compensation for looted minerals and other effects of the war. Despite its protests, Uganda has budgeted money and is expected to start compensating the DRC in the coming fiscal year.

Numerous reports from the UN and reputable international organisations have documented how Congo’s minerals are smuggled through Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries export large volumes of gold whose source isn’t known.

In March this year, the US Treasury Department sanctioned African Gold Refinery and its proprietor, Belgian gold businessman Alain Goetz. Illustrating the magnitude of the illegal trade, the department noted that “more than 90% of DRC gold is smuggled to regional states, including Uganda and Rwanda, where it is then often refined and exported to international markets, particularly the UAE”.

5. Joseph Kabila

Joseph Kabila succeeded his slain father in 2001 and ruled the DRC until 2019. Like his father, he did little to pacify eastern DRC and its plethora of rebel groups with foreign origins.

He also did little to establish a strong relationship with either Kagame or Museveni, having witnessed their fallout with his father first-hand. His time in office was marked by deep mistrust between Kinshasa and Kampala as well as between Kinshasa and Kigali.

6. Félix Tshisekedi

When Tshisekedi succeeded Kabila in 2019, he urgently set out to pacify eastern DRC. He may have underestimated the complexity of the assignment, however, especially with regard to dealing with Museveni and Kagame. Tshisekedi first sought to improve relations with Kampala and Kigali, before trying to talk Museveni and Kagame into sending troops for an alliance of sorts — under the leadership of the DRC’s army — against the rebels they had all wanted to fight in eastern Congo.

Museveni is also said to have convinced Tshisekedi to join the East Africa Community (EAC). The DRC was admitted to the regional bloc in April, and its membership is being formalised. Tshisekedi’s efforts and time however have not yielded much. Instead, it may have fueled more suspicion as Kagame felt isolated when Tshisekedi allowed Uganda and Burundi to deploy troops to the DRC to fight rebels originating from the two countries.

Immediately after admission into the EAC, Tshisekedi again started pushing for a regional force to be deployed to eastern DRC. His proposal hasn’t been implemented with the haste he wanted.

7. The ADF rebels

Although Museveni has brought some rebel groups who were under his authority in the 1990s and neutralised others, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, the ADF has remained elusive. It set up its main bases in eastern DRC in late 1990s, later establishing strong links with local communities and other local militias. Museveni had wanted to intervene and hand ADF a death-blow in the late 2010s, but Kabila wouldn’t allow it.

Now affiliated with the Islamic State, ADF has been blamed for terror attacks and high-profile assassinations in Uganda over the past decade. In November 2021, Museveni got a nod from Tshisekedi to deploy about 4,000 troops to fight the ADF. Its designation as a terrorist organisation by the US has proved advantageous for Museveni, who received little pushback for yet another Ugandan intervention into DRC.

8. Rwanda and Uganda have a falling out

Tshisekedi has been a bit unlucky with his timing. Just as he was courting Kagame and Museveni, the two leaders had a falling out over competing accusations of espionage and giving sanctuaries to dissidents. In February 2019, Kagame closed Rwanda’s main border with Uganda for almost three years. Tshisekedi then became part of the tripartite initiative with his Angola counterpart João Lourenço to try to patch things up. The flurry of meetings and never-implemented declarations were cut short by the Covid-19 epidemic in early 2020.

The Rwanda-Uganda relationship started to improve earlier this year when Museveni’s son Kainerugaba visited Rwanda twice for talks with Kagame. This led to the reopening of the border and Kagame’s visit to Kampala at the end of April to attend Kainerugaba’s birthday.

9. Resurgence of M23

The entry of Ugandan troops into the DRC to fight the ADF left Kagame feeling isolated. Rwanda had long wanted permission to fight the FDLR, and the president could not hide his anger. In a February address to parliament, Kagame remarked that his country was pondering deploying troops in the eastern DRC without the latter’s approval.

A month later, M23, a rebel group formed by DRC soldiers who seized large swathes of territory during an armed uprising in 2012-2013, launched its most intense attacks in a decade. The DRC is now publicly accusing Rwanda of aiding the rebels.

10. Rwanda and Uganda once again gang up against DRC

As much as Kainerugaba has proved crucial in improving relations between Uganda and Rwanda, his tweeting style could cost Kampala the trust of Kinshasa. He has expressed support for Kagame in Rwanda’s row with the DRC over M23, even as he’s supervising Ugandan army operations against ADF in the eastern Congo.

“I really feel sorry for all those who think they can defeat me and my uncle militarily. It will be a disaster for them,” he said on Twitter last week with a photo of himself and Kagame.

That same day, the DRC suspended RwandAir flights into the country.

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