A Dangerous Escalation in the Great Lakes
A Dangerous Escalation in the Great Lakes
Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldiers take their position following renewed fighting near the Congolese border with Rwanda, outside Goma in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo May 28, 2022. REUTERS/Djaffar Sabiti
Q&A / Africa 8 minutes

A Dangerous Escalation in the Great Lakes

Already high tensions between Kigali and Kinshasa have risen sharply after Rwanda’s defence forces shot at a Congolese warplane they accuse of violating Rwandan airspace. In this Q&A, Crisis Group examines why the situation has deteriorated and outlines pathways toward de-escalation.

What is the latest flashpoint?

On 24 January, at around 5pm, the Rwandan army fired a missile at a Congolese Sukhoi-25 fighter jet as it flew over Goma, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province. The city of one million is situated along the border with Rwanda. According to Crisis Group contacts in the area, the jet was returning from operations around Kitshanga, a strategic town 100km west of Goma. That town is the site of pitched battles between the Congolese army and a coalition of armed groups, on one hand, and the M23 movement, a rebel group that re-emerged in November 2021, on the other. According to a growing body of evidence, the M23 enjoys Rwanda’s support. With one wing on fire, the plane landed at Goma airport with no loss of life. Residents were gripped with panic, however, as pieces of debris fell on the city and video footage of the incident circulated on social media. Many assumed that the two countries, whose relations have deteriorated considerably since the M23 restarted its operations, were now in open warfare.

The two sides have traded blame over the incident. Kigali quickly issued a terse communiqué claiming that the plane had violated its airspace, after two similar infringements in recent months, prompting its forces to take defensive action. Kinshasa denied this claim, describing the missile fire as an act of aggression to which it had a right to respond. Given that Goma’s airport is a few hundred metres from the Rwandan border, chances that the two versions will be reconciled are scant. The incident occurred as the M23 continued its attempt to take over Kitshanga. Its offensives have uprooted half a million people from their homes.

How did the situation deteriorate to this point?

Kinshasa and Kigali have been at daggers drawn since late 2021 over Rwanda’s reported support for the M23. The gap between them has grown despite significant diplomatic initiatives to narrow it, the latest of which was a regional summit in the Angolan capital Luanda on 23 November 2022. Rwandan President Paul Kagame skipped these talks, dispatching his foreign minister instead. Kagame has not met with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi since the UN General Assembly in September. The “Luanda process”, as this effort is known, is now paused.

The situation has continued to worsen following the talks in Angola. A communiqué issued after the summit called on the M23 to withdraw from all ground taken since late 2021 and to lay down its arms. It welcomed the new East African Force, comprised of Burundian and Ugandan troops, some of whom are already stationed in DRC, as well as new soldiers from South Sudan and Kenya. Kenya – which is sending the largest continent – began deploying its troops to Goma just as the Luanda summit ended. Since then, fighting has spread as the M23 has expanded its operations, consolidated its hold on Congolese-Rwandan borderlands and fought its way into Masisi territory, an important agricultural and mining area west of Goma. In doing so, it has clashed with both the Congolese army and local armed groups that are determined to defend the areas they control. Though well-equipped and coordinated, the M23 has not had things all its own way, as these armed groups have, with the army’s support, mobilised combatants against it, creating several shifting front lines.

As fighting has engulfed the area around Kitshanga, ... many people have been displaced multiple times as they flee the violence.

Halting efforts to tamp down fighting have failed. In late December and early January, the Kenyan commander of the East African Force negotiated the M23’s withdrawal from key areas to Goma’s north. The M23 never fully withdrew, however, angering many Congolese who accused the Kenyans of making deals with the enemy. The M23’s recent advance on Kitshanga has again raised fears that the rebels will asphyxiate the provincial capital by occupying its surrounds to the north and west (Goma is bordered to the south by Lake Kivu and to the east by Rwanda). As fighting has engulfed the area around Kitshanga, a major crossroads between Masisi and Rutshuru territories, many people have been displaced multiple times as they flee the violence.

Against this backdrop, the rhetoric of Congolese and Rwandan leaders has dangerously sharpened. Foreign powers increasingly believe that Rwanda is backing the M23, especially following a UN expert panel report on sanctions-busting that was shared with Security Council members in late November. In response, Kigali doubled down on its denials and put the blame for the chaos in North Kivu squarely on Kinshasa, pointing to its collaboration with various armed groups, especially the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, a remnant of the militia responsible for the 1994 genocide, and to its perceived mistreatment of Congo’s Tutsi minority that the M23 claims to be defending. President Tshisekedi has repeatedly stated that Rwanda is the central problem in the DRC’s east and in the entire Great Lakes region, often using virulent language in making this contention. He has sought to frame the violence purely as outside aggression.

What risks lie ahead?

War between Rwanda and the DRC seems improbable but cannot be entirely discounted.

For twenty years, insurgents from other Great Lakes countries – Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda – have set up shop in parts of the eastern DRC where the Congolese government has little or no sway. Neighbouring governments have often taken things into their own hands in trying to eradicate rebel forces from their own countries that are sheltering in the DRC. In some cases, they have enlisted Congolese armed groups to do the job for them. Such proxy warfare has proven devastating for civilians, though admittedly full-blown interstate war of the type witnessed in the region in the 1990s would have been even worse. Acting through allied armed groups has provided each of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda with tactical advantages and plausible deniability in international forums.

Against this backdrop, current signs are worrying. Both Kagame and Tshisekedi are using belligerent language that channels public sentiment but also seems intended to prepare the populations for aggressive action. Each portrays his country as the victim, underlining the need for a strong response, possibly in order to lay the groundwork for incursions into the other’s territory to protect legitimate interests. Bellicose rhetoric among ordinary citizens has soared of late, including on social media. Indeed, the two armies have clashed already, according to UN investigators, on the Congolese side of the frontier in mid-2022. Perhaps the most plausible scenarios leading to a more serious conflagration would be first, a Congolese missile attack on Rwanda, prompting Kigali to intervene in what it would portray as a defensive action, or secondly, another skirmish along the long land and lake borders.

Neither side is likely to choose to rush into direct conflict.

That said, neither side is likely to choose to rush into direct conflict. The DRC is tied up with problems on its own territory. Rwanda would have difficulty justifying an open invasion of its neighbour, particularly when the ultimate aims of such action are unclear.

Yet even short of open warfare, the situation is dire and requires urgent international attention. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced amid the latest combat. The fighting is also deepening communal tensions, with Congo’s Rwandophone population bearing the brunt of popular anger. Equally important, the M23 conflict has pulled resources away from efforts to contain the murderous Allied Defence Forces jihadists in Ituri and North Kivu provinces and an upsurge in violence between ethnic militias around the city of Bunia in Ituri. Keeping the latter in check is particularly crucial.

What are the immediate priorities of international diplomacy?

With diplomatic efforts, centred on the Luanda process but including various other offers of mediation (both Qatar and the U.S. have reportedly offered their good offices), stalled, reaction to the latest events has been muted. Former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is leading the “Nairobi process”, a parallel set of talks among various armed groups active in the DRC but not including the M23, called for de-escalation. The UN special envoy for the Great Lakes, Huang Xia, in place since 2019, issued a statement on 26 January along the same lines. Previous expressions of concern, notably by the U.S., which called on 5 January for Rwanda to pull back its troops from Congolese soil, have seemingly done little to shift dynamics on the ground.

With the risk of prolonged conflict now greater than at any time since the end of the war in the early 2000s, more must be done to dial down tensions. The first step should be for all involved in mediation or with influence over the parties to call for urgent de-escalation in both actions and rhetoric. Tshisekedi seems to believe that the crisis strengthens him domestically, especially as his rivals in the elections scheduled for the end of 2023 are upping the ante of anti-Rwanda talk with each fresh statement. Political leaders on both sides (including in the DRC’s opposition) seem equally untroubled by their followers’ increasingly pugnacious positions on social media. International actors, in private and public, need to coordinate messaging as they call for calm to avoid any impression that distance is opening among them, especially with regard to Rwanda’s support for the M23.

Open warfare between the two armies would not serve either president’s long-term interests.

Open warfare between the two armies would not serve either president’s long-term interests. Tshisekedi, whose weak army has failed to stem the M23 advances, would be better off denouncing Rwandan incursion but doing so in a way that leaves the door open to talks. As for Kagame, he is in a particularly delicate position. Over recent years, he has consolidated Rwanda’s place as a reliable partner in international peacekeeping and strengthened alliances with Western countries through initiatives such as taking in expelled asylum seekers from the UK. For this reason, external criticism of Rwanda’s role in the Congo has been less than it might otherwise have been. But full-scale war, or just continued deployment of the Rwandan defence forces, or support for the M23, could eventually threaten this carefully constructed international image. As Rwandan denials of backing the M23 ring ever hollower, Kigali risks a wider loss of international support. Equally, with Kenyans now deployed in North Kivu, Rwanda is risking a direct confrontation with a major African power.  

Assuming that quick diplomacy can help avoid the worst-case scenario, attention must then turn back to mediation efforts. Of the several initiatives in play, the Luanda process has the advantage of regional buy-in, and there is no reason to believe that changing the format substantially would lead to greater progress. Rather, renewed and coordinated effort is required to impress on the two presidents the need for de-escalation and eventually bring them back to talks to stop the spiral of violence in North Kivu.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.