Rwanda – DRC: Can Uganda remain neutral in M23 fight?

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Tuesday, 21 February 2023 18:50
Rwandan president Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni in Entebbe, Uganda 2018. Michele Sibiloni/AFP

A year after Rwanda reopened its main border with Uganda, following three years of mistrust punctuated by accusations of espionage and backing rebel groups targeting to destabilise each other, trade is flourishing between the two countries, a sign of good relations, according to analysts. But perceptions die hard, as diplomatic mistrust continues over what side Uganda is truly on in combatting M23.

In December, Uganda’s export to Rwanda hit $28.8m, an all-time high, according to data from the Bank of Uganda. As little as six months earlier, the exports were worth less than a million dollars. When Rwanda reopened the border after talks brokered by General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, its people, not goods, were crisscrossing the borders.

In June, Uganda Manufacturers Association were complaining about Rwanda’s continued refusal to allow entry of Uganda products. The turnaround happened quickly. But it also happened at the time when tension between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda was ratcheting up over M23 rebels.

Neutral or not?

With Uganda still expected to deploy in eastern DRC as part of the East Africa Standby Force (EARF), of which Félix Tshisekedi wants to engage in combat with M23 rebels, will Kampala feel obliged to do a favour for Kigali or the M23? Lonzen Rugira, a researcher based in Kigali and chief editor of Pan African Review believes so.

“I hope that Uganda would support M23 for as long as there is [a] systematic effort not to recognise the citizenship of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese,” he tells The Africa Report.

Solomon Asiimwe, an international relations researcher at Nkumba University in Uganda believes a neutral Uganda in the Rwanda-DRC row should be forgotten.

Asiimwe argues that due to history, Uganda is bound to gravitate towards the Rwanda side. “Can Uganda be neutral? I doubt the neutrality of Uganda in a situation where Rwanda is connected because of its history and closeness. I am sure that is why DRC people are doubting whether Uganda is not supporting Rwanda in that conflict.”

He adds: “They (Ugandans) will try, it can be in words that they will be neutral but it’s not possible.”

Uganda soldiers will face M23

The heads of the army chiefs from the East African Community recently met and re-drafted a deployment plan for countries expected to contribute soldiers. As per a document they drafted, Uganda is supposed to “deploy in Bunagana, Kiwanja/Rutshuru and Mabenga areas.”

These areas are currently occupied by the rebels. For instance, M23 has occupied Bunagana town which is on the border between Uganda and DRC since June 2022.

Previously, as per the deployment plan agreed upon in August last year, Uganda and Burundi were supposed to deploy to areas not occupied by M23 rebels. Kenya, which deployed first, has come under pressure from Kinshasa to engage in combat with the rebels. The regional force was conceived as a buffer that would create an environment for rebels and the DRC government to engage in sustainable peace efforts. Kinshasa has rejected the calls to dialogue with the M23.

If Uganda deploys in areas under M23 occupation, it will, much like Kenya, face pressure from DRC to engage in combat. That would put Kampala directly between the opposite requests of Kinshasa and Kigali.

Kinshasa has long suspected Uganda of not being a neutral player but feared to openly confront another neighbour. For instance, when M23 rebels captured Bunagana, there was a feeling among Congolese soldiers that Ugandan soldiers aided them during the night. Kampala was quick to dismiss the claims.

It should not be a suspicion, Rugira says, Uganda needs to voice a side. “Whether there is a suspicion that Uganda is sympathetic or supporting … should not be mere suspicion. Uganda, as any country that has the goodwill of the people, should be involved and should try to protect the lives of these people.”

In several regional meetings to resolve the M23 impasse, Museveni has taken positions unpleasant to Kinshasa, such as arguing for Rwanda to be part of the regional force – a point that Kinshasa never entertained. Museveni has also for a long time held a view that Kinshasa should negotiate with M23.

Improved relations with Burundi

Last year, Rwanda took steps to significantly improve ties with Burundi that broke down in 2015 following an attempted coup in Bujumbura. Burundi placed the blame on Rwanda and is still demanding the coup plotter currently held in Kigali be handed over for prosecution.

On 4 February, Paul Kagame was in Bujumbura for the EAC heads of state summit to discuss the M23 impasse. It was the first time Kagame visited Bujumbura in a decade.

Does Rwanda have a chance to woo Burundi on its side? Rugira describes such a question as misconceived. “It’s in Rwanda’s interest to have neighbours who it gets along with,” he says. “The idea that Rwanda is suddenly interested in having good relations with Burundi and Uganda so that they get on its side in the Congolese conflict is faulty.”

Trust EAC

Rather than try to deepen mistrust, which could impact bilateral relations between DRC and its neighbours for years, Asiimwe says DRC should trust the regional bloc. “Now that DRC joined the East African Community, if [it] can respect the regional organisation, it helps [it] to negotiate. Where there is a problem, [DRC] report[s] it and the regional structures work to resolve it.”

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