In Eastern DR Congo, “The Regional War is Already Happening”
In Eastern DR Congo, “The Regional War is Already Happening”
Op-Ed / Africa 13 minutes

In Eastern DR Congo, “The Regional War is Already Happening”

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has become a battleground for several regional armies and numerous rebel bands. Crisis Group expert Onesphore Sematumba explains the ins and outs of the deadly conflict in this interview.  

Tensions have been rising steadily between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda in recent months, as the M23 insurgency continues to gain ground in the eastern DRC and the humanitarian situation there worsens. Some more positive news emerged at the beginning of March, when the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi, and the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, separately visited Luanda for talks with Angolan President João Lourenço, whom the African Union has designated to mediate between the two countries. Tshisekedi and Kagame could soon meet directly to find a solution to the crisis. But what exactly is the situation on the ground? Who is doing what, and in whose interest? 

Crisis Group expert Onesphore Sematumba addresses these questions in this interview conducted by Tangi Bihan, originally published in French by Afrique XXI. He was speaking from Goma, capital of North Kivu, an eastern Congolese province. This translated and edited version of the interview is reproduced here with permission. 

Bihan: How do you explain the resurgence of the M23 in 2021, after its defeat in 2013?

Sematumba: There are two factors: one internal to the M23 and one regional. The rebellion’s defeat in 2013 was accompanied by a series of commitments from the Congolese government, in particular that the M23 could convert into a political party, which it did, though it did not achieve any electoral success. But, according to the M23, Kinshasa failed to meet another set of demands, such as integrating the group’s political and military cadres into state structures and the army. There is also the perennial question of the Tutsi refugees scattered in neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda and Uganda, whom the M23 purports to represent, demanding their return to the Congo. The M23 also makes other demands, such as suppressing the Forces Démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (or FDLR, whose leadership was involved in the 1994 genocide and which aims to overthrow the government in Kigali) in North Kivu – echoing a priority of the Rwandan government.

For some time now, the M23 has been aligned with – or morphed into, it’s not clear – the Congo River Alliance (Alliance du fleuve Congo) led by Corneille Nangaa, head of the Congolese Electoral Commission from 2015 to 2021, and its political line has hardened, becoming more critical on issues like governance and corruption. Nangaa and his alliance, of which the M23 is the armed wing, now claim to be fighting to oust President Tshisekedi. While this is largely rhetorical, it is nevertheless a concern for the government in Kinshasa.

Bihan: And what about the regional factor?

Sematumba: The November 2021 resurgence of the M23 coincided with two parallel developments. In the same month, Uganda signed a military agreement with the DRC to deploy its troops in the north of North Kivu and the adjacent Ituri province, to fight the Allied Democratic Forces, who are rebels of Ugandan origin. Alongside this military agreement, they signed an economic agreement covering infrastructure, particularly construction of a road linking Beni, a town in northern North Kivu, to Goma in the south – more than 300km, including a good 60km running through Rutshuru territory to Goma. Rutshuru is a sort of corridor for Rwandan influence.

At the time, relations between Rwanda and Uganda were not at their best. The agreement stipulated that the Ugandan army would provide security for the roadworks, which meant that it would be deployed on Rwanda’s doorstep without its agreement. Kigali perceived a threat. Moreover, Kigali, which accuses the Congolese army of collaborating with the FDLR, thought that the Congolese might see an opportunity to deploy the FDLR on Rwanda’s border. In addition, Kigali saw this new road as possible competition for a parallel road in Rwandan territory, which is in good condition. Traffic on this Rwanda-Uganda road could fall considerably, to the benefit of the new Congolese road, with a subsequent loss of tax revenues.

Since then, there has been a kind of reversal of alliances. Uganda has moved closer to Rwanda. At the same time, Burundi agreed with Kinshasa to send troops to the DRC’s South Kivu province to hunt down RED-Tabaraa Burundian armed opposition group, pooling forces with the Congolese army. Rwanda, which had hoped to sign the same type of deal to chase down the FDLR, was turned down. Kigali saw this decision as unfair. In January 2022, President Kagame said Rwanda also had enemies in Congo, the FDLR, adding that he did not need anyone’s permission to send troops across the border to pursue them. Importantly, he made clear that Rwanda, as a small country, cannot allow itself to become a battleground; it must ward off any threat, no matter where it comes from. During the same period, the M23 rose from the ashes. Having been lying low in the Virunga region, it spread fast, and with great efficiency.

Two years later, the M23 has established itself as a force to be reckoned with. The UN has documented the Rwandan army’s backing for the M23, supporting the hypothesis that its emergence was not a coincidence. According to reports by the UN group of experts, Rwanda is supporting the M23 with troops and military equipment. Further leaked reports from the UN mission in the DRC refer to a surface-to-air missile defence system in the area under M23 control. Rwanda has so far denied any military presence, but it does not deny its political support, backing a number of the M23’s key demands.

Bihan: Tshisekedi’s accession to power in 2019 marked an improvement in relations between Kinshasa and Kigali. Why have ties subsequently deteriorated?

Sematumba: When Tshisekedi came to power in 2019, he was strikingly open with his neighbours. He still boasts of being the first Congolese president to have visited the capitals of all nine of the DRC’s neighbours, including Rwanda. We saw Tshisekedi in Kigali. We saw Kagame being applauded in Kinshasa at the 2019 funeral of Tshisekedi’s father Étienne. They even called each other “brother”. This improvement continued with Congolese membership in the East African Community (EAC), strongly encouraged by Rwanda, and through agreements, in particular one for Rwandan processing of gold ore produced by the Sakima mining company, a concrete economic advance. Kinshasa justified it as a way of moving beyond an era of Rwandan plunder of Congolese resources toward normal bilateral relations and a more transparent business model. In addition, the Rwandan airline RwandAir began serving Goma as well as Lubumbashi and Kinshasa.

The M23’s resurgence put an end to this upturn. Tshisekedi immediately denounced Rwanda’s interference. For him, there was no doubt that Rwanda was hiding behind the M23, with the aim of plundering the country’s mineral resources. The attacks escalated right up to the 2023 election campaign, marked by new heights of sabre rattling – Tshisekedi even compared Kagame to Hitler, threatening that if the two armies skirmished, the DRC would invade Rwanda. The Rwandans made it clear that they were ready for such an eventuality.

That is more or less where we stand today. And all the agreements have been cancelled as the edifice of cooperation quickly unravelled, leaving the situation worse than it was before Tshisekedi came to power.

Bihan: We often hear that the M23 is a tool used by Rwanda to plunder the mineral resources of eastern Congo, particularly coltan and gold. What is behind this theory?

Sematumba: There’s no denying that all armed groups take advantage of available resources to survive and to finance their wars. But it is too simplistic to focus on mining resources alone. There is a proverb in the area: “The goat grazes where it is tied”. Since November 2021, the M23 has advanced without directly controlling mining areas. But it still has access to resources: taxing people as they move around is much more profitable than digging in the ground. What’s more, all the armed groups – and there are over a hundred of them – have developed a war economy, not just the M23. 

There is an idea that the Congo is a box full of gold, diamonds and coltan, besieged by all who covet these things. And it goes further: it’s not just Rwanda. Behind it are also the “Anglo-Saxons”, and now the European Union and Poland, which just signed a set of agreements with Rwanda. The Congolese are asking who is responsible, and their politicians are looking for easy scapegoats. “We are victims of our wealth” is a line that goes down well with the public.

Bihan: Does the FDLR still pose a threat to Rwanda today? Or is it simply an argument that serves Kigali’s interests?

Sematumba: A bit of both. We can’t claim, as some did until recently in Kinshasa, that the FDLR are nothing more than remnants who pose no threat. The FDLR have always wielded influence in the region. We know that they have given military training to many armed groups, such as the Nyatura groups in Virunga National Park, and that they have collaborated with the Congolese army – this is documented in reports by the UN group of experts. We all saw that the FDLR spearheaded the military campaign in the Rumangabo area. Recently, the commander of the 34th military region in North Kivu was sacked for having collaborated with the FDLR, which points to FDLR involvement. Recently, Tshisekedi hammered home the message that he would be ruthless with any Congolese officer who had dealings with the group.

It is true that Tshisekedi and the Burundian president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, have hinted at being willing to support groups aiming to overthrow Kagame. The Rwandans are taking this idea seriously. Rwanda also believes that the FDLR is working with the Congolese army and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) force, which includes Malawian, Tanzanian and especially South African troops. It thinks that the FDLR could play the same trick that they themselves played on former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana (by creating an insurgency in a neighbouring country: Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front was supported by Uganda in 1990-1994).

But overall, is this movement powerful enough to compromise Rwanda’s security? Probably not.

Bihan: We hear accusations of genocide from both sides, especially on social media: the Congolese Tutsis are threatened with genocide, and Rwanda is allegedly committing genocide in the Congo. What is the reality of these allegations?

Sematumba: Since 2021, we can’t say there has been a systematic hunting down of one community, but rather a series of oversimplifications. For example, when the Maï-Maï, which are local armed groups, or the Wazalendo, who are informal army auxiliaries, attack a village and set it on fire, it may be that the village is largely Tutsi. The next day, on social media, the M23 will say the genocide committed by Kinshasa is continuing. A few days later, the M23 will attack a village, causing deaths, and others will publicise it, saying the victims are all Nande or Hutu, and that genocide is therefore being committed against these communities. There is a kind of emotional overkill of the term genocide, emptying it of its meaning.

On the other hand, there has been a rise in hate speech, particularly against the Tutsis. The paradox is that by wanting to protect one community, the M23 exposes it to the vindictiveness of other communities. Tshisekedi regularly asserts that the Banyamulenge, a Congolese Tutsi group, are Congolese, that not all the Tutsis are M23 and that we must not mix things up. But the reasoning of those who live under the threat of the M23 is as follows: in 1996, it was the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo that killed them, so the Tutsis; in 1998, it was the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie that killed them, so the Tutsis; in the 2000s, it was the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple that killed them, so the Tutsis; in 2012, it was the M23 that killed them, so the Tutsis; and so on. ... This gives the public the impression that there is an ethnic group with its own army and that this army is murderous. Some say that the M23 isn’t made up only of Tutsis, but the response is that it’s a Tutsi group nonetheless.

Bihan: Is there a risk of regional war?

Sematumba: I think the regional war is already here. Someone asked me if we could see a confrontation between the South African army and the Rwandan army. It’s happening! The fact that the South African army is defending Goma alongside the Congolese army means that it is already thwarting Kigali’s plans. The mandate of the SADC military mission is offensive and targets the M23 first and foremost. So, since February, contingents from this mission, including Tanzanians and South Africans, have been deployed on the front line toward Sake alongside Congolese forces, facing the M23. In mid-February, the South Africans recorded two deaths from mortar fire at their base in Mubambiro. 

Bihan: What is South Africa’s interest in deploying in the Congo through the SADC?

Sematumba: South Africa did not deploy to wage war on Rwanda. SADC deployed to replace the EAC, at Tshisekedi’s invitation. It must be remembered that any military or diplomatic support is an investment, and South Africa and President Cyril Ramaphosa would not want a regional solution to be found without them. Pretoria is a major economic player in the region and would not want to miss the opportunity of improving ties with Kinshasa. There is increasing talk of people close to Ramaphosa, his family or his in-laws, looking for mining contracts. Burundi, the DRC’s other ally, may not have the economic strength to invest in its neighbour, but South Africa is an economic giant able to take advantage of the reconstruction market.

Bihan: Could the M23 go as far as occupying Goma?

Sematumba: The M23 has the military and operational capacity to take Goma. They are, after all, only 20km away. But is it in their interest to do so? They previously occupied the town in 2012 for ten days, and that was the start of their collapse. If they invaded the city, international attention would be firmly focused on them and their backers. That’s a lot of pressure. And above all: what does such an unpopular rebellion do with a city of nearly 2 million hostile inhabitants? How do you manage that? I don’t think, given the 2012 precedent and the complex problems it would pose, that they will. They will probably continue to put pressure on Goma to buttress their position in view of possible negotiations.

Bihan: What are the ways out of the crisis, in particular via Angolan mediation? And what would be the subject of negotiations?

Sematumba: We can’t predict what the points of negotiation will be. But for me, there are clear and urgent stages, and principles to be defined. The first political principle is that we cannot ask Tshisekedi to negotiate under the current conditions of humiliation of his army, because that would be politically suicidal. Tshisekedi needs, if only symbolically, to reverse the balance of power slightly. A potential prerequisite that could be negotiated would be to get the M23 to step back from putting pressure on Goma. That could kick-start a dialogue.

The details of the July 2022 Luanda agreement, negotiated by Angola, under the auspices of the AU, are now hard to apply. It is no longer realistic to ask the M23, as this agreement does, to withdraw and return to Volcanoes National Park, where it came from, nor to ask them to gather in Kitshanga town before being grouped into barracks in Kindu, under the surveillance of a promised Angolan contingent. The balance of power has changed too much in the M23’s favour. 

The other urgent need is to obtain a ceasefire. The humanitarian situation is dramatic. The displaced people are not even in camps but sleeping in the open air. Those from Sake, 25km from Goma, are living between their village and the city, on the road, in bad weather. The government is not helping them, and the NGOs are struggling.

The UN force succeeded in pushing the M23 out of the country in 2013, scoring a clear victory. Kinshasa thereby succeeded in the war, but it failed to achieve lasting peace. But this time the M23’s strength is such that there will be no military victory, nor will it be possible to import one through Kinshasa’s southern African allies. Nevertheless, Tshisekedi continues to say that he will not negotiate with the M23 and that he wants to talk only to Kagame. One of the weaknesses of agreements covering previous iterations of this crisis was that the M23 was a concerned party, but not engaged in direct talks. It would be naive to continue to exclude and “infantilise” a group, as if Kagame, at the last minute, will say that they are his “little ones”, that he will talk to them. He’s not going to change his mind like that overnight.

Bihan: Do the United States and the European Union have any levers to put pressure on Kigali?

Sematumba: It must be said that Congolese diplomacy has finally borne some fruit. International actors have now condemned the M23 and Rwanda, called for Rwandan troops to withdraw, called for anti-aircraft weapons to be withdrawn, and so on. But these are communiqués, and Kinshasa is now saying, “This is not enough. We need to move on to sanctions”. But I doubt very much that the so-called international community will go any further than that. Let’s not forget that Rwanda will soon be commemorating the 30th anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. I think that this has an impact on international relations.

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