Rwanda: ‘Our rapprochement with the DRC can’t please everyone’ – Vincent Biruta

By Romain Gras
Posted on Friday, 2 October 2020 21:55

vincent biruta rwanda
Vincent Biruta during an interview with Jeune Afrique, in Kigali 28 September 2020. (Cyril Ndegeya / JA)

Following the postponement of the Goma summit, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister discusses the country’s at times strained relations with Burundi, Uganda and the DRC, and touches on the mysterious arrest of Paul Rusesabagina, the controversial hero of the film Hotel Rwanda.

The coronavirus pandemic may have ground most diplomacy efforts to a halt, but a plethora of affairs continue to keep the countries of the African Great Lakes region busy.

While the mediation process between Rwanda and Uganda is showing signs of progress, relations between Kigali and Bujumbura are still dead in the water, and the rapprochement with the DRC is contested by a swath of Congolese citizens.

The Goma summit, which was set to bring together representatives from the DRC, Angola, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda in September at President Félix Tshisekedi’s invitation, was in the end indefinitely postponed. It would have given Burundi’s new president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, the opportunity to make his first diplomatic visit and meet his counterpart, Paul Kagame, for the first time, seeing as how Rwanda-Burundi relations have been strained for more than five years.

READ MORE Kinshasa dreams of entering East African Community

Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s foreign affairs minister, agreed to answer our questions on a variety of topics and on other issues that have made the news, beginning with the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina, the controversial hero of the film Hotel Rwanda.

The Africa Report/Jeune Afrique: Since early September, Félix Tshisekedi has been trying, in vain, to organise a summit in Goma. Is there too much mistrust among the DRC and its neighbours?

Vincent Biruta: We aren’t distrustful of anyone or anything. We’re ready to have discussions with our neighbours, regardless of the differences we may have. If anything, that’s the goal of this type of meeting. Nor do we take issue with how the summit is organised, but you have to keep in mind the COVID-19 situation, which is making in-person meetings difficult. We’ll be open to taking part in the summit as soon as the conditions are ripe, but that won’t be the case before the beginning of next year.

One year ago, President Tshisekedi proposed creating an integrated chief of staff of the region’s armies to combat armed groups in eastern DRC. Has this initiative been scrapped?

The proposal is still on the table. The Goma summit may be a good opportunity to evaluate this solution in concrete terms.

Would you say that relations with Kampala have returned to normal?

We still have some work to do to establish normal relations, but we’re headed in the right direction. A certain number of Rwandan nationals who were being illegally detained in Uganda have been released.

READ MORE Rwanda-Uganda tension rises after border incident

However, we’re also finding that the politico-military groups operating out of Uganda and behind the October 2019 attack are still active. They continue to receive the backing of certain Ugandan officials. As a result, in recent months they’ve carried out political actions in refugee camps with the support of various security agencies. We’re still waiting on concrete action to be taken to end these activities.

Initial interactions with Burundi’s new government don’t seem to be getting anywhere at the moment. In early August, President Ndayishimiye even described Rwanda’s approach as “hypocritical”. Is peace possible?

We also read these statements. Our Burundian counterparts have set down several conditions before dialogue can resume. For instance, they are asking that Rwanda hand over a certain number of refugees accused of participating in the attempted coup in 2015.

For our part, we don’t necessarily think this is the right solution and we feel that relations can be re-established without preconditions. We’ve already given them our assurance that these refugees will never be able to undertake hostile action in Burundi from Rwandan territory.

READ MORE Kagame: “On Judgement Day, I will get better marks than those who criticise us over human rights”

Rwanda is open to re-establishing trust-based relations with Burundi. If needed, we would even be ready to get international organisations involved in the process, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], and to find a solution that would enable Burundi to feel at ease with this process.

Does Rwanda still view Burundi as a threat?

Several armed groups have carried out attacks on Rwandan territory from Burundi or taken refuge there. Recently, we were able to determine – thanks to items we retrieved from the assailants’ homes – that their equipment came from Burundi’s army.

Would you support lifting sanctions and bringing an end to the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Burundi?

We didn’t bring these sanctions against Burundi nor set up the commission of inquiry, so we don’t have the power to stop anything. If bilateral relations were to be restored between our two countries, then we would nevertheless be able to discuss these topics.

Statements made by your ambassador to Kinshasa, Vincent Karega, regarding the Kasika massacre provoked a huge controversy. Wouldn’t replacing the ambassador be a gesture of peace?

Indeed, there are groups that protest, interpret our ambassador’s remarks and even demand his departure from Kinshasa, but his relations with the Congolese government are excellent.

We aren’t open to doing anything or replacing anyone in that regard. Today there’s one group protesting, and tomorrow there’ll be another one. We can’t please everyone.

Even so, this protest movement is far from being an isolated case. How does Rwanda interpret this mobilisation?

In the DRC, the mobilisation is led not only by members of civil society but also by politicians who think their popularity depends on being aggressive towards Rwanda. There are a number of them who use this line of thinking. At our level, we are working to restore trust between our two countries, without looking to hit back at certain people with a popularity deficit.

If Rwanda has nothing to hide concerning this matter, would you be prepared to support the idea of an international criminal tribunal on crimes committed in the DRC, or would you propose an alternative?

Before there can be a tribunal, there needs to be an investigation, not to mention facts. These tribunals are under the authority of the UN and there’s an entire process that has to be followed. Those who recommend the establishment of such a tribunal are often inspired by the Mapping report, but this report is still in draft form and has never been adopted.

We’ve expressed our views in the past about the report’s methodology, which we consider botched. The document was completed in the space of just six months for a country as large as the DRC, covering a long 10-year period and with anonymous investigators. We can’t use a disputed draft report such as this one as a basis for initiating an international criminal tribunal. If we want to find a solution, we need credible mechanisms for analysing the past and establishing responsibility.

Since his surprise arrest, Paul Rusesabagina has revealed certain details about his arrival in Rwanda, including how he thought he was going to Burundi at the invitation of a pastor. Can Rwandan agencies corroborate this version of events?

The destination of the plane Rusesabagina boarded in Dubai was Kigali, not Bujumbura. The plane wasn’t diverted.

READ MORE Rwanda: the mystery surrounding Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest

He thought he was going to Burundi, but he wasn’t forced to board the plane. Perhaps he got on the wrong one.

Do you have reason to believe that his arrival may be linked to the activities of the FLN (the armed wing of Rusesabagina’s opposition movement), which seems to be active in Rwanda around Nyungwe forest?

Yes, we do. In any event, it’s likely that his arrival is linked to these activities, even though he claimed that he was scheduled to meet with pastors. He knows what he was going to do.

Don’t you think the circumstances surrounding his arrest need to be clarified?

They have been clarified. He was in full possession of his mental and intellectual faculties when he boarded a flight he thought was headed to Burundi. He was tricked and ended up in Kigali instead of Bujumbura.

Callixte Nsabimana, the former spokesperson for the FLN, confirmed that Zambia was providing aid to Rusesabagina’s group. In the meantime, Zambia’s foreign affairs minister made a trip to Kigali. Can you say with certainty today that Lusaka isn’t financing the FLN?

All we know is what Nsabimana told the court. We’re waiting to see if Rusesabagina will himself reveal further information on the matter.

We’ve communicated the information we have to the Zambian authorities and we even offered to organise a meeting between their teams and Nsabimana. We’ve never accused them of supporting movements hostile to the Rwandan government and we’re willing to work with them to shed light on this matter.

On 3 July, a French court definitively dismissed the case involving the attack that brought down a plane carrying President Habyarimana. Was this essential to furthering the rapprochement between Paris and Kigali?

It’ll certainly move things forward. Both sides are willing to make progress, which is what counts. Despite all that, there are cases of génocidaires [perpetrators of genocide] who are on the run and hiding in France.

READ MORE Rwanda genocide: Paris drops investigation into attack of plane carrying Habyarimana

Efforts have been made to arrest them; for instance, there have been developments in the cases of Félicien Kabuga and Aloys Ntiwiragabo, but we would like there to be more such cases. In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron promised to increase French justice system resources so that the courts could handle these cases, but we are waiting on that to bear fruit.

Will a French ambassador to Kigali be named by the end of the year?

That’s a question you’ll have to ask the French government. We have an ambassador in Paris, but it would be a step in the right direction to have one in Kigali.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options