DRC-Rwanda: Félix Tshisekedi’s headache

By Romain Gras
Posted on Wednesday, 20 July 2022 13:26

Presidents Félix Tshisekedi (l.) and Paul Kagame (c.) meet with their Angolan counterpart João Lourenço in Luanda on 6 July 2022. © Flickr Paul Kagame

At a time when a regional force is due to be deployed to fight armed groups in the eastern part of the country, the Congolese suspect Rwanda and Uganda of playing a double game.

The time for smiles and open embraces seems to be long gone. On 6 July, in Luanda, Angola, Félix Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame barely made eye contact. The two heads of state were forced to take a photo together and their attitude says a lot about the mood of the summit hosted by Angola’s President João Lourenço.

For months, Tshisekedi has accused his Rwandan counterpart of supporting the M23 rebels, who have been clashing with the Congolese army since November 2021. In an interview published on the eve of the Luanda summit, the Congolese head of state even said that he could not rule out going to war with his neighbour. Kagame denies and denounces cooperation between the Congolese army and the armed group Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR).

Scepticism

Appointed mediator due to his role as president of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), Lourenço has been trying to get his two counterparts around the same table for several weeks. The result was ultimately mixed, as evidenced by the absence of a final communiqué.

A roadmap, which provides, among other things, for the establishment of an ad hoc commission, a ceasefire and a withdrawal of the M23 – which has taken control of the town of Bunagana, in North Kivu, not far from the border with Uganda – was nevertheless concluded. However, it too was immediately met with scepticism by the various delegations.

“Angola did not try to harmonise the Rwandan and Congolese positions because, at this stage, it is almost unthinkable. Lourenço first tried to resolve the problems by proposing that the M23 issue be tackled, then the FDLR,” says a diplomat who follows this dossier. “The road will be long,” says a person close to Tshisekedi, for whom “no progress will be possible as long as Rwanda does not acknowledge its involvement.”

Rebels “not concerned”

The scepticism of the participants was justified, given that fighting between the Congolese army and the rebels, who demand a direct dialogue with Kinshasa and say they are “not concerned” by the roadmap concluded in Luanda, resumed the very next day. More than ever, Rwanda and DRC seem to be at an impasse. “It is not naive to want to negotiate. But are they being sincere?” asked Patrick Muyaya, the Congolese minister of communication, in the wake of the summit, before Vincent Biruta, the head of Rwandan diplomacy, warned against “disinformation and populism, [which] sabotage the objective of achieving peace in DRC”.

Far from having dissipated the unease, this mediation attempt comes at a time when Tshisekedi wants to quickly establish a regional force in eastern DRC. This project has been in the making since the latter joined the Community of East African States (EAC) at the end of March and was put on the table at the last summit of the sub-regions heads of state on 20 June. But its format is still being debated. Above all, the Congolese President is opposed to Rwanda’s participation in these joint operations, because of its alleged support for the M23.

Although he won his case on this point, Tshisekedi risks a lot by continuing to voice his theory that neighbouring armies will arrive in the country, as part of his administration is extremely sceptical.

Second front

In recent weeks, in addition to Rwanda’s alleged support of the M23, Uganda’s attitude has fuelled the suspicions of the Congolese head of state’s entourage. On 15 June, Christophe Mboso, president of the National Assembly, announced that the process of ratifying economic agreements concluded between the government and Uganda would be frozen. The reason? Rumours were spreading that Kigali and Kampala had formed an alliance following the fall of Bunagana, a strategic commercial crossroads. Tshisekedi has so far refrained from making similar comments. “We cannot open another front with Uganda when the situation is already difficult with Rwanda,” said one of his advisers.

The joint operations launched at the end of November 2021 with the Ugandan army to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) are one of the reasons for this cautious behaviour, as their outcome is uncertain at the moment. Although the spokesperson for the Forces Armées de RDC (FARDC) stated on 27 March that all the terrorists’ strongholds had been destroyed, the real impact of this mission remains difficult to measure, since no independent analysis has been conducted on the ground and, above all, the massacres attributed to the ADF group do not seem to have decreased. According to a recent report by the Congo Study Group (CSG), the operation has mainly served to protect Uganda’s economic projects in the region, starting with the oil fields and infrastructure around Lake Albert, as well as the road sections that Kampala has planned to rehabilitate.

This mixed record should be weighed against the geopolitical cost of launching this joint offensive. Negotiated with the utmost discretion, it was openly criticised by Rwanda, which felt it was unfairly left out of such discussions. It was also seen as one of the factors that may have led to a resurgence of M23 activity, which intensified its attacks from the beginning of November. Burundi and Rwanda are also regularly accused of conducting military incursions into Congolese territory.

Under these conditions, the prospect of launching a joint force involving armies “regularly accused” of contributing to insecurity in the East raises many questions. The decided format, that of a coalition where each army would have its own perimeter of action, raises fears that this regional force would only serve to solve national security problems for the neighbours involved. Moreover, the various participants’ degree of investment seems to vary. Tanzania, for instance, has not yet specified whether it intends to send soldiers.

Tshisekedi feels that this regional force should, in particular, make it possible, a year and a half before the general elections, to obtain results. After all, the various strategies put in place so far – whether it be the state of siege or the Shujaa (“hero, champion” in Swahili) operation undertaken with Uganda to combat the ADF – have not yielded the hoped-for outcomes.

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