DRC: Tshisekedi’s strategic ‘errors’ as M23 advance towards Goma

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 31 October 2022 16:37

DRC's President Tshisekedi addresses a press conference after the "G20 Compact with Africa" (CwA) meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool Photo via AP)

The relationship between Rwanda and DRC has hit a new low after Kinshasa expelled the Rwandan ambassador Saturday night. The expulsion comes amidst a resurgence of fighting in North Kivu, in eastern DRC between M23 rebels and the 'Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo' (FARDC) resulting in the former gaining more territory. But getting to this point has included miscalculations in the part of DRC. The expulsion is the harshest decision that Kinshasa has taken.

DRC’s government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya Katembwe said the decision was due to Rwanda’s arrogance.

He also cited contempt for Nairobi and Luanda peace initiatives as well as Kigali’s failure to adhere to recommendations of the international community to cease supporting M23 “terrorists” and withdraw them from Congolese territory. In May, DRC banned RwandAir from operating in its territory.

The tweet below from the Congolese Presidency reads: “Here is the official communiqué of the High Council of Defense chaired this Saturday 29.10.22 by the Head of State, Supreme Commander of the FARDC and the National Police, Felix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo.”

Rwanda in response, pointed fingers to the DRC army, accusing it of teaming up with the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda  (FDLR), an armed rebel group active in eastern DRC. It is  made up of Hutus and is opposed to the ethnic Tutsi influence in Rwanda.

Kigali sees it as a genocidaire group which targets its territories with heavy weaponry. Rwanda soldiers at the border remain on alert, government said.

The M23 rebels, mainly of Tutsi descent, are now within a distance of 69km from Goma, capital of North Kivu and largest city in eastern DRC.

The Tutsi question in DRC politics and military remained unresolved during the 2003 peace talks that led to the end of DRC’s second war and formation of a coalition government led by Joseph Kabila. It continues to haunt the country.

UN backing

The rebels briefly occupied Goma in 2012 before they were pushed back by government forces backed by UN peacekeepers.

The M23 rebels resumed fighting towards the end of last year before intensifying this year. DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi has accused Rwanda countless times of supporting the rebels. Though Kigali continues to deny it, DRC’s accusations have been confirmed by the United Nations.

From May, when rebels captured Bunagana border, to early October, a lull in fighting had prevailed, giving a chance to diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict. These include:

  • The Nairobi process, started by former Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, has both a political track for negotiation with rebels and a military track for deployment of a regional force.
  • The Luanda process of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region led by Angola president João Lourenço.

DRC has also won US diplomatic support as well as the UN who have been calling out Rwanda for backing the rebels. US officials have been unequivocal in condemning Kigali.

US senate foreign relations committee chairperson Bob Mendez  tweeted on Saturday: “I join @USAmbUN in calling on Rwanda to halt its support for M23 rebels in eastern DRC…M23 & its backers merit international condemnation & must be held accountable.” During a UN security council meeting on the Great Lakes region last week, a US official delivered the same message.

EAC force that hasn’t showed up

Dialogue and international community support hasn’t tilted the situation in Kinshasa’s favour as its weaker security apparatus continues to crumble in the face of the rebels.

Analysts argue that Tshisekedi may have made some miscalculations. First, his faith in the East African Community (EAC) force. The standby force which was expected to be deployed immediately after a June EAC heads of state summit has yet to materialise.

Uganda and Burundi soldiers, though deployed on DRC territories, are largely pursuing their security interests, fighting rebel groups originating from their respective countries.

Tanzanians and Kenyans, asked by DRC to command the force, have also not shown  up. “The election outcome in Kenya changed the dynamics of the relationship between Tshisekedi and the East African Community,” Pierre Boisselet, coordinator of research on violence at Ebuteli, a research institute based in Kinshasa, tells The Africa Report.

“Kenyatta was much more committed to help Tshisekedi than the new administration.”

Impact of Raila loss

Indeed Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, who Tshisekedi backed during the Kenya election, are close allies of his. For instance, Kenyatta talked Tshisekedi into bringing DRC into the East African Community and as chair of the heads of state summit, he fast-tracked the country’s admission which took effect in April.

Pointedly, Tshisekedi did not take Raila’s loss lightly. He was the last regional head of state to congratulate William Ruto’s presidential win. Raila and Kenyatta were both firmly behind Tshisekedi as he campaigned in 2018 for presidency.

But another miscalculation, Boisselet says, was a thinking that he could use East Africa to fight Kagame. “There was a miscalculation in this idea that you could use EAC against M23 and therefore against Rwanda’s interest. Did they factor in what could be Rwanda’s reaction? There was a misunderstanding of what [the] EAC could really be prepared to do,” he says.

Kenyatta was much more committed to help Tshisekedi than the new administration.

Christoph Vogel, author of Conflict Minerals, Inc. War, Profit and White Saviourism in Eastern Congo, 2022 tells The Africa Report that it would be hard for the regional force to represent a new dawn for DRC’s security given that all countries have forces on the ground through either UN peacekeepers or bilateral agreements.

But, he expresses optimism that the “ephemeral and fragmented deployment is an important evolution, for it may accelerate the half-life of the UN’s long-standing peacekeeping mission.”

Appointed as special peace envoy for the Horn and the Great Lakes Region by Ruto, Kenyatta has admitted that a military solution is beyond reach. On Sunday he called “on all parties to recognise that there is no military solution to the conflict and embrace a peaceful means to the settlement.”

Ineffective talks

Despite many months of diplomatic talks, nothing has produced positive outcomes. Analysts say had it not been due to a push from the international community, Kagame and Tshisekedi would not have even met.

“Neither Tshisekedi nor Kagame were interested in finding a compromise,” says Boisselet. “They couldn’t refuse to talk but I don’t think there was a real and sincere discussion.”

During a June meeting in Nairobi, the two exchanged harsh words, leaving other heads of state stunned.

Tshisekedi has also ruled out any possibility of holding direct talks with the rebels. In an April meeting in Nairobi with other rebel groups, Tshisekedi reportedly declined to meet M23 representatives who had been invited without prior informing his government.

Yet following the latest fighting, everybody is calling for dialogue. Both Rwanda and DRC, as well as the M23, say they are ready to seize any dialogue opportunity. UN great lakes region special envoy Huang Xia last week said the Nairobi peace process will resume soon.

On Sunday, Angola’s President Lourenço dispatched his foreign affairs minister to deliver a message to Tshisekedi, an indication that he and Kagame may be invited for another round of talks soon.

Targeting Goma?

It remains unclear whether M23 are looking to capture  Goma. But experts say even if they did, Tshisekedi’s government would not consider speaking to them directly.

Occupation of Goma would tip the balance to Kinshasa’s disfavour, Vogel says. But adds: “As much as this may add pressure for negotiations it would also be politically unacceptable to Congo as it makes negotiations less likely.”

Tshisekedi is getting ready for a presidential election next year. The M23 issue has gained traction in the political arena with all political groups competing to condemn and show disdain towards it and Rwanda.

Because of the political climate in Kinshasa, Boisselet says: “Every new gain they [M23] have made has radicalised the Tshisekedi administration, making these [direct] negotiations less likely.”

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