In late May and early June, as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accused Rwanda of backing resurgent the M23 rebels, the latter counter-accused the former of working with the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR).
Among the leaders of the FDLR are people who participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide who have lived in eastern DRC for nearly three decades. FDLR members are from the Hutu ethnic group and M23 is largely made up of Tutsi of Congolese descent.
The DRC has played a crucial role in weakening the FDLR in recent years. In 2019, the armed Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) – DRC national army — killed Sylvestre Mudacumura, the FDLR’s main leader. The FARDC killed many other FDLR leaders since 2019.
However, there have been collaborations between the Congolese army and the FDLR in the past. The current claims by Kigali are hard to verify but should not be dismissed, experts interviewed by tell The Africa Report.
When the DRC last month presented two Rwanda soldiers allegedly arrested on its territory as evidence that Kigali was providing support to M23, Rwanda’s defence ministry hastily issued a statement saying “FARDC with FDLR attacked the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) along our border, and two RDF soldiers were kidnapped while on patrol.”
On 30 May, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister Vincent Biruta argued that for more than three decades, the DRC has condoned “this genocidal armed group, to the extent that the FDLR are currently co-located and fighting alongside the FARDC.”
Finding sanctuary in the DRC
Following the 1994 genocide, some Rwandan political leaders as well as members of the army of the Hutu government crossed into eastern DRC, where they have lived since then. Some of them formed the group which later morphed into FDLR, the political wing and later in 2001 the military wing: DLR-Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi.
The FDLR has experienced defections over the years. In 2007, FDLR’s Ralliement pour l’Unité et la Démocratie (RUD) broke off from the main group due to leadership disputes, according to several reports by researchers and international organisations.
The Conseil National pour le Renouveau et la Démocratie (CNRD), another faction, splintered off in 2016. The CNRD took a more moderate stance than the FDLR and started negotiations with the Rwanda government that resulted in repatriation of about 300 members of the CNRD in 2019.
Cooperation and fighting
The sanctuary given to deposed government soldiers and officials by then Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko after the genocide sparked fury from Kigali. Rwanda and Uganda, under President Yoweri Museveni, gave their support to rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu in 1997. By 1998, the Kabila-Kagame-Museveni relationship soured, as Kampala and Kigali felt that their security interests were not being taken seriously. Rwanda claimed that Kabila’s army was not giving them leeway to fight genocide perpetrators.
As Kampala dropped its support for Kabila in 1998, the DRC head of state looked for support where he could get it, including from the FDLR. “More than 20,000 fighters hiding in Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic and Sudan travelled back to eastern Congo to fight the invading [Rwanda Patriotic Army],” Harry Verhoeven and Philip G. Roessler wrote in Why Comrades Go to War, a book that details conflicts that ensued after Kabila came to power.
Apart from serving directly on the front, the authors say, former Rwandan troops also trained Mai Mai militias and helped Kabila reestablish an army.
However, in the past years, these ties were severed, Christoph Vogel, a researcher on conflict in eastern DRC tells The Africa Report. He says the FDLR’s military strength has consistently decreased since its creation, most notably due to divisions and major military operations by the Congolese army, like Umoja Wetu in 2009 or Sukola II in 2015.
“Notwithstanding, it remains a serious belligerent [force] due to high levels of instruction and continuous training akin to a proper army. Its small special forces unit is a highly skilled and mobile troop,” Vogel says.
Another Congolese researcher working on armed groups and security dynamics in North and South Kivu, who did not want to be named due to sensitivity of the debate, says both the main and splinter groups of the FDLR have about 500-700 combatants. Though the FDLR may have been weakened, the researcher adds: “They have created a strong social capital across North and South Kivu. It’s difficult to underestimate their strength because of this social capital.”
FDLR units — like a couple of Congolese armed groups, too — have engaged both M23 and Rwandan troops, but it is not entirely clear to what extent these operations are coordinated and integrated with FARDC.
Vogel also says that numerous demobilisation programmes run over more than 20 years, in which thousands of FDLR members have returned to Rwanda, have weakened the FDLR too. “It’s by all accounts the most successful, or perhaps the only successful disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme worldwide to date,” he tells The Africa Report.
However, Vogel says the programme operates in an environment where all stakeholders have competing interests. “That’s where a lot of politics at different levels kick in […] [some] don’t necessarily agree that its full dismantling is in their interest. In all that, the FDLR positions itself and tries getting by,” he says.
Accusations about the FDLR
Rugira Lonzen, a researcher based in Kigali, tells The Africa Report that collaboration between the Congolese army and the FDLR has been “on and off, depending on internal Congolese political dynamics”.
In the current diplomatic escalation, Vogel says, “FDLR units — like a couple of Congolese armed groups, too — have engaged both M23 and Rwandan troops, but it is not entirely clear to what extent these operations are coordinated and integrated with FARDC.”
The Congolese researcher who requested anonymity also points to an apparent link between Congolese army and the FDLR rebels. “Some local sources and others certify that FARDC and the FDLR have been contacted and probably involved in operations,” the researcher said, referring to the operation against the M23 rebels.
Kigali-based Lonzen says the long-term solution to the FDLR threat requires DRC and Rwanda to reach a consensus that they constitute a problem and the nature of the problem. “As long as that’s not well understood by both parties no solution will happen,” he says.
Dealing with the FDLR requires establishing strong and permanent military forces, cutting off the rebels’ social capital and dealing with FARDC’s operational problems, Josaphat Masamba, a researcher at the Conflict and Human Security Studies Group based in CERUKI Bukavu–South Kivu, tells The Africa Report.