September 24, 2012 11:50 pm

Security: New chapter of conflict opens in the region

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M23 rebels sit at the back of a pick-up truck©Getty

M23 rebels: officials say testimony implicating the Rwandan military in the M23 revolt has been cooked up by Kinshasa

The mountains are as dramatic on both sides of the border, and the land as verdant. Yet, the contrast between what goes on in Rwanda and its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, could not be starker.

Border towns tell part of the story. On the Rwandan side, giant billboards warn new arrivals against corruption. Immigration and other services are so comparatively orderly, suggests one senior western official by way of a metaphor, that even the flowers stop smelling when you cross from west to east.

On the Congo side, predatory state agencies compete for cash. The chaos can be intimidating, even if the music relieves some of the anguish.

The stories of both countries have become inseparable nevertheless. As eastern Congo heads into another chapter of conflict, Rwanda has something to fear, even if matters inside its own border appear in order. Eighteen years ago, nearly a quarter of the Rwandan population together with the country’s vanquished army fled into Congo fearing retribution for the genocide against minority ethnic Tutsis it had just carried out. The region has suffered continuous aftershocks since.

Conflict between the two countries, much of it through proxy militias, persisted at some level between 1996 and 2009 when Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila, began to repair relations. Until April this year, the peace was delivering substantial dividends. Congo’s minerals, pastures and 70m people represent perhaps the greatest latent opportunity for the expansion of the Rwandan economy and trade has been thriving.

The Braliwa brewery in Rwanda made $4.8m in exports to Congo in 2011 and $2.5m between January and May 2012. Agro-processing company, Inyange made sales of $700,000 across the border in 2011, up three times on 2010.

“No one has more at stake in eastern Congo than Rwanda other than the Congolese themselves. You cannot have development here and problems there. It is obvious but people don’t seem to get it. Rwanda is better off when there is peace,” says General Karake Karenzi, Rwanda’s chief of intelligence.

Yet the evidence from UN peacekeepers, UN experts and rights groups is mounting that Rwanda has been supporting a fresh revolt. This was triggered by a mutiny among ex-rebel soldiers allied to Kigali but who had been integrated into the ragtag Congolese army.

Militias have been regrouping, violence has escalated and regional relations soured. Rwandan generals protest their innocence and claim to be victims of a conspiracy. They say testimony implicating them in the revolt by a rebel group called the March 23 Movement (M23), has been cooked up by Kinshasa which has planted hundreds of witnesses across the region. UN experts and rights activists who listened on these witnesses are described as either dupes, or have an axe to grind.

Rwanda’s military top brass have often denied what their troops are up to in Congo or justified it because of the continuing presence of Hutu rebels carrying the flame of genocidal ideology and intent on returning home to overthrow the government.

Ostensibly, their strategy has been to maintain some kind of allied buffer force inside Congo to secure the border and look after their interests. Officers bristle at being blamed for Congo’s problems when Mr Kabila’s government has proved inept at re-establishing state authority and restoring order in the east.

But in recent weeks Rwanda’s protestations have stretched the credulity of even the most ardent of their supporters. Washington is proving steelier than London and wants evidence Rwanda has ceased meddling. Several European countries and the African Development Bank are withholding direct aid.

“There has been a running narrative – just because it happened once – to blame anything in eastern Congo on Rwanda or originating from Rwanda. It is very difficult to challenge that narrative,” says James Kabarebe, the defence minister and architect of past invasions.

Prospects of a fresh entente are not looking healthy. Rwandan and Congolese officials are still talking to each other but the trauma and bad blood in eastern Congo are getting worse and neither the UN nor the many parties to the conflict seem to have viable ideas on how to stop the rot.

The Congolese like to blame Rwanda for exporting their problems across the border. But so long as eastern Congo remains a festering sore, there will be a danger of those problems flowing in the other direction.

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