DRC – Rwanda: Can Félix Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame still choose peace?

By Romain Gras

Posted on Thursday, 9 June 2022 18:15
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Félix Tshisekedi © Paul Kagame/Flickr
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Félix Tshisekedi © Paul Kagame/Flickr

After three years of cooperation, the two presidents are at odds over the M23 rebellion, which Kinshasa believes is supported by Kigali. On 5 June, the Congolese head of state publicly challenged his Rwandan counterpart for the first time.

Paul Kagame and Félix Tshisekedi had promised to “build bridges and not walls” between their two countries. “Problems in Rwanda often become problems in the DRC and vice versa. We cannot solve them alone,” the Rwandan president said while meeting his Congolese counterpart for the second time on 26 March 2019 in Kigali. “Our countries will remain neighbours for life […]. Going to war is a waste of time,” Tshisekedi said.

A fever pitch

The scene was surprising. After decades of tension, Kagame seemed to be laying the foundations for a new relationship with Tshisekedi, who had come to power two months earlier. But after having displayed their good faith for nearly three years, the two neighbours are now at loggerheads. In Congolese opinion circles, on social networks and even within the president’s entourage, the sometimes xenophobic discourse against “the Rwandan aggressor” has intensified. On the ground, several demonstrations took place to demand the departure of the Rwandan ambassador to the DRC, Vincent Karega. “We are back to square one,” sighs a member of the Congolese head of state’s entourage.

This fever pitch is directly linked to the resurgence of the M23, which resumed its attacks in November 2021 and has been regularly clashing with the Congolese army (FARDC) since the end of March in the territory of Rutshuru, in North Kivu. The rebels, who brought down Goma in November 2012, even briefly approached the provincial capital by reaching the Rumangabo military camp on 26 May, their headquarters ten years ago.

Although defeated in 2013, the M23 has a strike force that has aroused suspicions for months among the Congolese authorities, who are convinced that it is receiving foreign aid. Its fighters took refuge in Uganda and Rwanda after their defeat and the signing, in December 2013, of a peace agreement that provided for the integration of the M23’s political cadres into national institutions, such as the central government or its general staff. Three years later, however, a contingent led by Sultani Makenga redeployed to the DRC, believing that its demands had not been met. While it had previously shown only sporadic signs of activity, in recent months it has intensified its attacks.

Kinshasa’s fumbling

Kigali, which has a long history of supporting rebel movements active on Congolese soil and which was already suspected of sponsoring the M23 in 2012, was therefore quickly implicated. First by the FARDC, as early as the end of March. Then by the political authorities, who fumbled for a long time, seeking the right tone to evoke the situation without offending their neighbour.

Never before has DRC’s president adopted such a firm position towards Rwanda

On 25 May, DRC’s Foreign Affairs Minister Christophe Lutundula said, “The M23, supported by Rwanda, attacked MONUSCO troops”. At the same time, government spokesman Patrick Muyaya mentioned “suspicions” about Kigali, a double discourse illustrating Kinshasa’s fumbles. It was only during the defence council held on 27 May that Tshisekedi finally toughened his tone: a warning, suspension of RwandAir flights, classification of the M23 as a terrorist movement… Never before had the Congolese president adopted such a firm position towards Rwanda.

For their part, the Rwandan authorities have not deviated from their line. They speak of an “intra-Congolese” conflict, in which they are not involved “either politically or militarily”. After accusing the Congolese army of collaborating with the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda – FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) – whose strength remains unclear but which still remains a threat – they have, through Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta, threatened to respond to attacks by the Congolese army. For a long time, the two heads of state refrained from expressing themselves on the subject. But on 5 June, during a visit to Oyo (Congo), Félix Tshisekedi said he had “no doubt” about Rwanda’s support for the M23.

Risk of retaliation

His statement comes at a time when mediation, supported by the African Union, has been entrusted to Angolan President João Lourenço. He received Tshisekedi on 31 May and managed to convince DRC’s president to return two Rwandan soldiers arrested on 28 May to their country of origin. A meeting between the two presidents was even mentioned.

But the resumption of dialogue will be complicated. On the one hand, Kigali’s accusation of cooperation between the FARDC and the FDLR has raised fears of reprisals, while fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 resumed on 5 June. On the other hand, the crisis has also become a political issue for Tshisekedi, who has been engaged in discussions with the armed groups for a month and a half.

This new strategy was decided even though the state of siege, still in force in North Kivu and Ituri, is a failure and the joint offensive with Uganda has struggled to weaken the Forces démocratiques alliées – ADF  (Allied Democratic Forces). This dialogue is therefore crucial for Tshisekedi who, with 18 months to go before the next elections, needs to achieve results in the realm of security. But a return of the M23 to the discussion table would put him in a difficult position with regard to public opinion calling for a break in relations with Rwanda.

Do we have to consider a president who wants peace as necessarily naive?

Since he came to power, Tshisekedi has made the return of peace in the east one of his priorities. To achieve this, he has multiplied initiatives and strategies without much success. His determination has, however, led to a strengthening of security cooperation with Rwanda. Several FDLR leaders were killed at the end of 2019 during operations in which the Rwandan army was suspected of having participated, a suspicion Kigali has systematically denied.

In parallel, cooperation on the economic level has developed significantly with – in addition to the opening of RwandAir – the signing of several economic agreements in June 2021, particularly in the field of gold mining, despite the reluctance of part of the public quick to point out Tshisekedi’s “naivety”. “Do we have to consider a president who wants peace as necessarily naive?” asks a source close to Tshisekedi.

It was at the end of 2021 that the collaboration between the DRC and Rwanda experienced its first bumps, when Tshisekedi grew closer to the Ugandan Yoweri Museveni, Kagame’s old rival. This rapprochement resulted in the launch of two major projects: the construction of several stretches of road in eastern DRC, including the strategic Goma-Bunagana axis, which bypasses Rwanda, and the launch of a joint offensive against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group in Uganda and the DRC considered a terrorist organisation by the Ugandan government.

By obtaining a green light last November to send his troops to North Kivu and Ituri, Museveni indirectly contributed to weakening the ties between Kagame and Tshisekedi. The Rwandan president, who at the time had strained relations with his Ugandan counterpart, hardly hid the fact. “Rwanda’s interests in the region should not have been neglected,” he told Jeune Afrique in January.

A ‘suicidal’ speech

A few weeks later, Kagame went further by saying that there were links between the FDLR and the ADF and that he was ready to intervene on the ground. The statement didn’t go over too well in Kinshasa, where Tshisekedi criticised – without mentioning Rwanda – an “unrealistic and unproductive, even suicidal” speech.

It is in this complicated regional situation, also marked by the DRC’s accession to the East African Community (EAC), that the M23 has intensified its attacks, raising questions and speculation. Was the rebel group hoping to use the opportunity to make some of its demands heard, such as integration into the Congolese army after a demobilisation and reintegration process? Or is it trying to block any sign of a lull in the fighting?

To this tense context another reality is added: the loss of influence of several interlocutors within Tshisekedi’s Kigali entourage. The main one, François Beya, former special adviser to Tshisekedi, has been on trial since 3 June for ‘plotting’ against the head of state. Close to many Rwandan securocrats, he was the main conduit between the two countries on security matters. Within a cabinet that was suspicious of the neighbouring country, Beya acted as a counterweight, for which he was reproached.

Claude Ibalanky, active on the issue of repatriating M23 elements who had taken refuge in Rwanda, was relegated to a back seat as discussions between Congolese authorities and armed groups were organised. While advocating for bilateral dialogue between the DRC and M23, he was replaced by Serge Tshibangu, who favoured a round table with several armed groups. Fortunat Biselele, a former RCD-Goma member who has become a private adviser to Tshisekedi, remains. Although he is involved in some issues concerning Rwanda, he has more fragile relations in the Rwandan capital.

Military escalation

Can a diplomatic solution still be found? By taking the lead with an offensive communication strategy, Tshisekedi is counting on the support of the international community. After his intervention before the UN Security Council, DRC’s Foreign Affairs Minister Christophe Lutundula met on 2 June with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In 2013, the United States publicly denounced Rwanda’s support for the M23. But such a condemnation now seems more hypothetical. Within the Security Council, the M23’s actions are certainly condemned outright, but no one has ventured so far as to publicly accuse Rwanda.

Does this mean that military escalation is inevitable? Tshisekedi has said he wants to speed up the establishment of a regional force against armed groups. The M23, which has issued a number of statements hostile to the FARDC and Monusco, nevertheless insists that it wants “a peaceful solution”. But its demands have little chance of being heard and its leeway has been considerably reduced.

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