Friday, July 20, 2012

Rebel Uprising in the Congo

A rebel group that calls itself M23 has been wreaking havoc in the east Congo, and looks poised to attempt to take the city of Goma, on the border between DRC and Rwanda.

The Country Director for Peace Corps Rwanda Recently forwarded a US embassy security message. The gist of it is that, while things are troublesome in the Congo's North Kivu region, there is no security threat to Rwanda, including its border cities.

Goma borders northern Rwanda, and is next to the city of Gisenyi. Because I live in southwest Rwanda in the Cyangugu region, I'm far away for the current trouble. My village, Mibirizi, does not border the Congo and I feel safe here.

In addition, Peace Corps will continue to operate as normal in Rwanda, with no travel restrictions.

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Friends have been sending me links to articles about M23 and the problems in the Congo. The situation is interesting to me because all of the events are connected to the history and politics of Rwanda, going back to the genocide.

War-Scarred Congo

The genocide began after the death of president Juvenal Habyarimana. Led by the Rwandan Armed Forces and anti-tutsi militias, radical Hutu slaughtered Tutsi and moderate Hutu by the hundreds of thousands. It ended when a Kagame-led army, the RPF, pushed the former national army and evil militias out of the country.

That's the end of the story, right? Unfortunately, no.

After the Rwandan genocide and civil war, the Hutu militias, such as the interahamwe and the former Rwandan army, retreated into the Congo (then Zaire). They quickly allied themselves with the Zaire government forces and continued persecution of Tutsi living in eastern Zaire. 

Rwanda has twice invaded the Congo, accusing its successive governments of failing to act against Hutu rebels. In the aftermath of the second invasion, known as the Second Congo War (in which 9 countries and some 20 armed groups were involved), the country's stability was shattered while Hutu and Tutsi militias continued to contend for control over areas of eastern DRC. The area's natural resource wealth became a curse, as the exploitation of this wealth provided an incentive and a means for such militias to thrive.

M23 is one of these militias. The group is named for a peace treaty dated March 23 2009, which integrated the rebels into the Congo army. The militia mutinied this April under pressure to turn in commander Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.

Rwanda's Alleged Connection

The DRC and a UN sanctions panel report have accused Rwanda of secretly backing M23's mutiny by supplying weapons and finances, AFP reports*. The militia's numbers are growing fast and there are concerns that the group is trying to make alliances. Though the rebels are outnumbered by the Congo army, they are better equipped and have successfully forced Congo army installations to retreat from several towns around Goma. Because of the rebels' recent movements, the Congo government and the UN are worried that the rebels will try to take Goma, which is the provincial capital, a border town, and a hub for the mining operations in the area.

The BBC's Andrew Harding, has an interesting take on Rwanda's possible motives for backing a rebel force in the Congo:
Ever since [the genocide], the Rwandan government has sought to crush the Hutu fighters responsible for the genocide, and to prevent them returning to undermine Rwanda's hard-won stability and economic growth. And so for years Rwanda has been accused of supporting various proxy armies in the eastern DR Congo, with or without the agreement of the Congolese government. 
Given the rampant and enduring corruption and chaos within the Congolese armed forces and government, Rwanda wants and - you could argue - needs its own loyal commanders in key positions of operational control in the eastern DR Congo in order to protect its own borders, its legitimate security interests and its far less legitimate economic interests. 
So once again Rwanda has, presumably, calculated that any international criticism will be outweighed by the benefits of shoring up its local allies across the border.
In an interview on BBC's Hardtalk program, Kagame denied any connection between Rwanda and the M23 rebels, saying that "We are not supporting them. We do not intend to because we don't know what they are about or what they want." He then attacked the credibility of the UN report by saying that the sanctions panel responsible, which works out of DRC, is only reporting what it hears from one side. "The people who are being accused have not been asked at all."

The Local Take

A few of my friends came over and saw that I was reading about the situation in eastern DRC, so I had the opportunity to ask them about their thoughts on this. Did they think Rwanda is supporting Tutsi rebels in the Congo?

Someone said "Good question!" and they got a laugh out of that. I had recently taught them this expression and told them that it often means 'I don't know' if it's not followed by anything else. But after the evasion, one of them offered that they got their news from BBC just like I did (I was reading the BBC article linked above, they listen to BBC radio), so they couldn't know any better than I did. This admission really surprised me, even though we were behind closed doors. People usually only speak of the Rwandan government positively, so even allowing the possibility that the government is violating international arms agreements is bold.

They also took pains to stress that Mibirizi is completely safe, which was heartwarming, because it means they don't want me to leave early.

Outcomes

According to AFP*, The Congo army and a UN peacekeeping force are moving troops to fortify the city of Goma. In addition, DRC and Rwanda have tentatively agreed to the institution of a neutral, international  peacekeeping force to protect the border and get rid of the rebels.

The recent outbreak in violence has led to a number of civilian deaths, as well as the death of a UN peacekeeper. 

No doubt the situation has revived tensions between Rwanda and DRC, who have a history of accusing each other of siding with rival factions.

*The following AFP reports helped me to understand this 
UN raises fears over foreign aid to Congo Rebels
DR Congo, Rwanda agree on force to combat rebels

**Update

US cuts military aid to Rwanda over Congo rebel support - Reuters

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