Great Lakes mediation critical to prevent the eruption of full-scale war between Rwanda and the DRC

Great Lakes mediation critical to prevent the eruption of full-scale war between Rwanda and the DRC
Felix Tshisekedi (L) of Democratic Republic of Congo and Paul Kagame (C) of Rwanda during a summit in Angola on a process to de-escalate tensions that have arisen from a rebel insurgency, Luanda, Angola, 06 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ampe Rogerio)

Angolan president João Lourenço must keep Rwanda and the DRC talking to defuse the region's crisis and halt the violence.

Last week, Angola’s President João Lourenço confidently stated his belief that his Rwandan and Congolese counterparts are ready to reconcile with one another after a year of strained relations. His announcement came after many months of mediation, yet just days before heavy fighting between the Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group and the Congolese army began once again.

Relations between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have not always been so difficult. When Felix Tshisekedi become president in January 2019, he invested substantial energy in improving the DRC’s relations with its neighbours. He welcomed Paul Kagame, who became the first Rwandan president to visit the DRC in over 20 years, on numerous occasions. And he allowed Rwanda troops to deploy clandestinely in Congolese territory. In turn, Rwanda deployed a new ambassador to Kinshasa. Rwanda Air started flying between the Congolese and Rwandan capitals.

Things changed, however, in 2021. By now, some were expressing concerns that Tshisekedi had been naïve in rushing his rapprochement with Kagame. And when the Congolese president refused Rwanda’s secret request for a larger-scale military deployment in the eastern Congo, the relationship soured. In October 2021, the Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group resurged.

Rwanda was likely further antagonised by the DRC’s improved relations with Uganda, which was invited to deploy troops in the northeastern DRC in November 2021 as part of joint operations against the rebel Allied Defence Forces (ADF).

Despite solid evidence presented by a UN Panel of Experts that Rwanda is providing logistical support to the M23 and reinforcing its ranks with Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) soldiers, Kigali denies backing the rebel group. At the same time, however, it has said any military involvement it does have in the eastern Congo would be justified because the DRC is working with the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia whose leaders were involved in the 1994 genocide.

In fact, despite its official denials, Rwanda has done relatively little to counter the perception that it supports M23. It is participating in internationally supported reconciliation mediation efforts with the DRC, which suggests it recognises there is something to be reconciled. And on 24 October 2022, it accused the Congolese government of abandoning a negotiated solution with the M23.

The DRC responded by saying the statement was tantamount to “a clear and irrefutable admission that it is Rwanda that operates behind the M23” and accused it of defending “an armed group, a terrorist one at that, in another state”.

Deployments to the eastern DRC

The M23’s resurgence has prompted several bilateral and multilateral efforts in the past. Already on the ground is the UN mission Monusco, which has been present since 2001. The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) arrived in 2013 after the M23 captured key towns in eastern DRC. Composed of troops from South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi, the FIB’s deployment coincided with a rare moment of international consensus that Rwanda must end its support of the M23 and stop destabilising the region.

Since the M23 reconstituted itself in 2021-2022, a new regional bloc has entered the fray. The East African Community (EAC), of which the DRC became a member in March 2022, has initiated a two-track process aimed at ending instability in eastern Congo: political talks with rebel groups that have expressed a willingness to surrender, coupled with the deployment of an East African Force. So far, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, and South Sudan have contributed to this new unit. The DRC welcomed the force but stated that it would not accept Rwanda’s participation in it.

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The neutrality of the EAC’s intervention, which will be commanded by Kenya, is questionable. Over the last three decades, Uganda has intervened unilaterally in the DRC countless times, pursuing its own political and economic interests. Meanwhile, the Burundian army has also been secretly active in the eastern Congo for some time, pursuing anti-government rebels. Both the Ugandan and Burundian contingents will remain where they were before the EAC rebranded their military engagements as a regional stabilising force.

The East African unit’s official mandate is to go after rebel groups — domestic and foreign — that refuse to surrender. Former president Uhuru Kenyatta is mediating talks in Nairobi with those that have. But as the M23 captures more terrain, it is likely that some of those armed groups may resume fighting.

For the M23’s part, its military strength is apparently greater than ever. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that Monusco cannot contend with an M23 that has the fighting power of a conventional army. The question also remains of whether Kenyan and South Sudanese troops will be able and willing to get involved in what is now a hot war.

Constrained in the Congo

In moving forwards, president Tshisekedi is constrained by a number of factors.

To begin with, the M23’s resurgence has stoked ethnic hatred and anti-Rwandan sentiment in the DRC. There is little popular appetite for talks with the rebels or for attempts to de-escalate tensions with Rwanda.  Tshisekedi has accordingly raised expectations that only a military defeat of the M23 or a Rwandan admission of guilt will bring an end to the violence.

At the same time, however, this has backed the Congolese government into a corner. The DRC’s attempts to garner international condemnation of Rwanda’s actions have been largely unsuccessful. Despite the UN Panel of Experts report, the historic reluctance among many governments to criticise Kagame remains a key obstacle.

It may be significant that Tshisekedi and his team are relative newcomers to the regional game. Unlike former president Joseph Kabila, who had intimate knowledge of the key military and civilian leaders in the Great Lakes, and who spent over 20 years interacting with his Ugandan and Rwandan counterparts, Tshisekedi’s inner circle is composed of civilians, most of whom are relatively unfamiliar with the byzantine inner workings of the insecurity dynamics in eastern DRC and wider region. This complicates the possibility of a behind-the-scenes rapprochement.

Mediating the divide

Lourenco’s comments last week may have been premature, but his job as mediator is vital. He must keep the two presidents talking with the aim of defusing the crisis, halting the violence, and keeping the DRC and Rwanda from full-scale war.

Mediated talks between the Congo, Rwanda and the M23 may also be a useful approach. Although talks with the rebels will be politically costly for Tshisekedi, the armed group’s ongoing military successes are already making his government look weak. But in order for Tshisekedi to accept such talks, there must be a quid pro quo from Rwanda in the form of some admission of its role in supporting the M23.

This could lead to improvements in the short term. In the long run, however, mediation efforts — supported by the Africa Union, EAC, SADC, the UN, and special envoys from key countries — must address the entrenched drivers of violence in the Great Lakes. It is not enough just to reconcile Kagame and Tshisekedi or militarily defeat the M23.

After three decades of conflict and meddling in the eastern DRC, relationships in the region are characterised by distrust and disrespect. This will not change until the cost of the status quo becomes unbearable, not just to the DRC but also to Rwanda and Uganda. DM

This article was first published by African Arguments

Stephanie Wolters is a Senior Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (Saiia) and a director of Okapi Consulting.



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