DRC-Rwanda: Is history repeating itself?

Yann Gwet
By Yann Gwet

An essayist from Cameroon. A graduate of Sciences Po Paris, he lives and works in Rwanda.

Posted on Tuesday, 20 December 2022 17:32, updated on Friday, 23 December 2022 19:32

President of Democratic Republic of Congo Felix Tshisekedi and President of Rwanda Paul Kagame in Kigali, Rwanda on June 25, 2021. (Photo by Habimana Thierry / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

Is history repeating itself? On 4 July 1994, the military forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, seized Kigali. The Rwandan army, which had just committed genocide, was defeated.

The government that had organised and supervised the execution of the massacres was in disarray.

Panicked, the Rwandan population, including the infamous Interahamwe militia, went into exile, strongly encouraged by the deposed political and military authorities.

All these people settled in the town of Goma, on the border with Rwanda, in huge camps set up by the United Nations.

Fed and housed by the international community, the forces used their base in Goma to continue sowing death upon Rwandan territory.

Tired of the indifference of the community of nations, the RPF army crossed the border of Zaire in 1996 to eradicate the genocidal forces, which were later reunited under the banner of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). This was the start of the first Congo war.

Ghosts of the past

Some 24 years after its end, the spectre of this war continues to haunt relations between the DRC and Rwanda.

Reports from international human rights organisations point to an alliance between the Congolese army (FARDC) and the FDLR as part of the FARDC’s operations against the M23 rebels (themselves accused of receiving support from Kigali).

In late November, on her return from a mission to the DRC, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Nderitu denounced the massacres committed against the Banyamulenge of Congo [Congolese Tutsis who settled in Congo during the pre-colonial period], accused of complicity with the hated regime in Kigali, by “armed groups such as the FDLR, which are still active in Rwanda”.

2022 certainly does have some hints of 1996.

It was in this context that, on 30 November, Rwandan President Paul Kagame took the floor during the ceremony appointing new members of government, devoting most of his speech to the crisis between his country and its large western neighbour.

Unsurprisingly, the media only picked up on a small, provocative but incidental remark about the possible instrumentalisation of the Rwandan issue by the Congolese government, in the context of the DRC’s upcoming presidential campaign.

In so doing, they ignored two essential verses: the first on the value of peace (“peace in Eastern Congo means peace for us”, “we don’t want war, we know what it is”, etc.); the second on the persistence of the existential threat posed by the FDLR and the heavy mortgage that this group has imposed on the ideal of peace between the two neighbours.

War a possibility

In the end, the message was clear: if circumstances demand it, as they did 26 years ago, then the Rwandan president would not hesitate to resort to war to impose peace.

The point of no return seemed strangely close.

Was it crossed, a few days later, by DRC President Tshisekedi who, speaking before an audience of young local civil society leaders, said “It is the Rwandan regime, headed by Paul Kagame, that is the enemy of Congo”?

He added that Rwandans should be seen, not as enemies, but as “brothers who need our solidarity to rid us and Africa of this kind of backward leadership”.

The 1996 war led to the overthrow of the former president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, and the installation of Joseph-Désiré Kabila, a Rwandan ally in the war against the genocidaires and their institutional allies.

Shortlived honeymoon

But the honeymoon between Kabila senior and his Rwandan sponsors was shortlived.

Kabila wanted to shake off their cumbersome tutelage, a move his patrons did not appreciate.

Lacking the military capacity to impose his will, Mobutu’s successor set up a vast military coalition including countries as diverse as Angola and Zimbabwe along with armed militias, among them the infamous Rwandan FDLR.

The Second Congo War began in 1998 and was an orgy of violence involving at least nine African countries, including Rwanda and Uganda, and dozens of armed groups, all engaged in the wholesale plundering of Congo’s resources.

Those who observed the early relationship between presidents Tshisekedi and Kagame recall the closeness they displayed, multiplying acts of kindness and gestures of goodwill, against a backdrop of cooperation agreements in many areas.

However, just like in 1998, the honeymoon was short-lived. And just like in 1998, on the Congolese side, the break with Rwanda seems to have taken the form of a kind of alliance with what remains of the FDLR.

Once again, a coalition of countries is militarily engaged on Congolese soil.

There is one notable difference, however: it is an initiative of the East African Community (EAC) to “impose peace”, in the words of Kenyan President William Ruto, whose country is the largest contributor of men to this regional force, from which Rwanda is excluded.

Kenya has established itself in recent years as a major economic player in the DRC.

Economic interests, geopolitical and security challenges. Is history repeating itself?

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