Rwanda’s Kagame Sees Influence in the DRC Take a Hit

When the M23, a Rwanda-backed militia, launched a rebellion last year in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), few could have guessed the fallout it would cause in Kigali. 

For years, credible reports had documented a host of Rwanda-sponsored abuses in the region, from civilian massacres to the plundering of minerals. Yet Rwanda’s Western backers, wary of undermining a countryconsidered a major development success, generally looked the other way.

But when a series of U.N. Group of Experts reports found evidence of systematic Rwandan support for the rebels, including the provision of weapons and troops, and direct Rwandan command over rebel operations, international condemnation was swift. Several Western donors cut or suspended aid, which makes up approximately 40 percent of Rwanda’s budget. The about-face was shocking for President Paul Kagame, who has long deflected criticism of an unsavory human rights record by citing his engineering of Rwanda’s dramatic rebirth from genocide.

Though livid, Kagame got the message, reducing—if not entirely eliminating—support to the rebels, and watching his aid money gradually return. Yet the episode continues to have critical implications. With donors looking closely over his shoulder, his rebel ally weakened and a new robust U.N. intervention force arriving in eastern DRC, Kagame’s ability to influence events in the region has taken a major hit.

From Kigali’s perspective, this is worrying for several reasons. Since Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized power following the 1994 genocide, it has viewed the neighboring Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu as part of a critical security buffer, where a strong projection of power, either by direct military engagement or by proxy, would help keep its enemies on foreign soil and the Rwandan homeland safe.

In the second half of the 1990s, Rwanda twice launched wars in the DRC in an effort to neutralize the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an armed group founded by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, and shift the balance of power in Kinshasa to Kigali’s liking. When the DRC’s new leaders proved less malleable than expected, Rwanda turned to ethnic Tutsi proxies—first Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and later its M23 offshoot—which created enough instability in the Kivus to prevent the consolidation of an already weak Congolese state. 

This enabled Rwanda to maintain its security buffer and facilitated the continued flow of minerals to Kigali’s political, military and economic elites, shoring up budgets and fostering intraparty loyalty. It all came at a terrible cost to civilians in the region, which is now 17 years into a seemingly unending humanitarian crisis. For Rwanda, however, a strong foothold in eastern DRC remained at the crux of national security policy.

But now that foothold is uncertain. In addition to demands from donors, Kigali is confronted with new African boots on its doorstep—part of the U.N.’s “intervention brigade” designed to shore up the long-struggling $1.4 billion-a-year MONUSCO peacekeeping mission. Approved by U.N. Resolution 2098 in March, the new force consists of 3,069 South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops and is tasked with conducting “targeted offensive operations” against the M23 and dozens of other rebel outfits—the most explicitly offensive mandate in U.N. peacekeeping history. 

In its first months of deployment, the brigade has already battled the M23 with its infantry, artillery and air force, forcing a rebel retreat at the end of August and at least a temporary cease-fire. By December, the U.N. expects surveillance drones to aid the effort. This boost in U.N. firepower, combined with searing internal divisions among the rebels and little chance of a boost in support from Rwanda, suggests the M23 is likely to further weaken.

For now, these shifting security dynamics do not pose a major threat to Rwanda, whose main enemy in eastern DRC, the FDLR, is thought to be relatively weak and incapable of orchestrating a major offensive. Still, although Rwanda—currently a member of the U.N. Security Council—voted in favor Resolution 2098, it remains uneasy with the U.N.’s strengthened presence. This sentiment is magnified by the involvement in the intervention brigade of South Africa and Tanzania, which both maintain links to a pair of high-profile Rwandan dissident exiles, former Army Chief Kayumba Nyamwasa and Head of External Security Patrick Karegeya. Although the South Africa-based duo lacks the means to launch a rebellion, Kigali remains wary of their influence among critical members of the diaspora as well as would-be mutineers from within the Rwandan army. According to journalist and commentator Charles Onyango-Obbo, some within Rwanda also fear that Pretoria, which has growing energy and mining interests in the DRC, may have larger “designs against the Kagame government.”

Despite Rwanda’s weakened regional position, the RPF’s grip on power at home remains tight. As expected, the ruling party and a host of smaller allies dominated mid-September elections for the lower house of parliament—a poll conducted, like the last presidential election, with critical opposition figures sidelined. 

Still, events in the DRC have caused some unease inside Rwanda. During the M23 offensive in August, a series of artillery shells landed across the Rwandan border, killing a woman and her baby in a market. Kigali blamed the mortars on the Congolese army. The U.N., however, reported that many came from M23 positions—perhaps as part of an effort to drag Rwanda openly into the conflict.  

Although Rwanda responded by mobilizing troops to the border, an outright Rwandan invasion is unlikely, given watchful Western donors, the beefed-up U.N. presence and strong diplomatic engagement by several African regional bodies. So is a wider regional war, similar to that which occurred from 1998 to 2002 and split much of east and southern Africa between allies and enemies of Kinshasa. 

Nonetheless, further provocation of Kigali by an increasingly desperate M23 remains possible, Kris Berwouts, an independent analyst on Central Africa, told World Politics Review. This would be a critical test for a Rwanda unaccustomed to its current position of weakness. Should Kagame overplay his hand, he could risk derailing his grand development project.

Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist and independent consultant focusing on East Africa and Africa’s Great Lakes region.


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