How Deep is Rwanda’s Influence in Eastern Congo?

Early last week, Human Rights Watch accused Rwanda of providing training and material support to army mutineers calling themselves M23, believed to be led by General Bosco Ntaganda. The report came after the BBC published a leaked memo from MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, which also suggested Rwandan involvement in supplying M23 rebels. Human Rights Watch presented some damning eyewitness testimony, but critics claim that this is not enough. The Rwandan Foreign Minister said her country had no interest in interfering with Congo’s affairs and that its neighbor should not use Rwanda as a scapegoat for its own problems. Jason Stearns at Congo Siasa writes that MONUSCO admits they have no material evidence of Rwandan involvement, contrary to what may have been claimed in the leaked memo.

On June 6, the US State Department issued a press statement saying that the United States supports the Congolese government’s efforts to quell the mutiny and that it calls on the Congo and its neighbors to prevent all non-state armed groups from receiving “outside support,” a thinly veiled reference to the Human Rights Watch accusations. The statement stressed not only the need to bring the M23 mutiny under control, but for the continued disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, and reintegration of FDLR combatants. The FDLR is an armed group in eastern Congo made up in large part from militia and ex-army forces from Rwanda who were responsible for the genocide there in 1994. It has traditionally been militantly opposed to the current government in Rwanda.

On June 7, Prime Minister Matata Ponyo arrived in North Kivu, in the eastern part of the country where the mutineers are active, with a delegation of ministers to talk to affected civilians and assess the situation on the ground. Laura Seay on WarScapes describes this as a level of crisis response on the part of Kinshasa that is “virtually unprecedented;” typically such action consists of a brief token visit and speech by a single politician.

Until this weekend, the official government line was that it was investigating allegations of outside support to M23, but that it did not believe Rwanda to be involved. But on Saturday, government spokesperson Lambert Mende said the evidence was “overwhelming” that rebels were recruited, trained, and deployed from Rwanda. Without accusing Rwanda openly of active involvement, he denounced the “passivity” of Rwandan authorities in failing to take action.

The reasons for the about face aren’t clear, but the Prime Minister has ruled out negotiations with the army defectors and said the FARDC will be authorized to use all necessary military means to fight the M23 and end the conflict. At the same time, a political analyst that talked to Johnny Hogg at Reuters said, “Total victory would be a trap. If we destroy (the rebels) totally without Rwanda’s agreement, there will be war with Rwanda.” It could be that Kinshasa is taking a hard line, refusing to negotiate, because of renewed confidence and the relative weakness of the rebels.

Local and regional politics in the DRC are complex, and the M23 movement is not the whole story. Jessica Hatcher and Laura Seay provide two very good summaries of the local, internal, and ethnic dynamics of the current violence, including the resurgence of FDLR and Mai Mai activity that M23 appears to have inspired and the internal inconsistencies in M23 itself.

As for the accusations against Rwanda, recent reports seem to suggest that the Prime Minister was affected by the testimony he heard enough to publicly contradict the official stance and denounce the Rwandan government for not taking action. Aside from whatever evidence he may have come across last week, his suspicions might also be understood in the context of past Rwandan support of rebel movements in eastern Congo. Yet these are serious allegations, particularly if they are directed at Rwandan government or military leadership, and Seay points out that “it is almost impossible to tell whether the alleged support for M23 came from the top leadership or from elsewhere within the government or the military.”

In light of this, despite the temptation one may have to jump to conclusions based on the eyewitness testimony and past actions of Rwanda, it’s difficult to say for sure. The recent violence, including massacres of civilians, has led to the displacement of some 100,000 Congolese. Kigali and Kinshasa will have to work on this together (and it seems they are trying, despite Rwanda’s ire at the accusations against them) or things could get worse.