In 2006, a law was introduced to the US legislature individually sponsored by senator – and future president – Barack Obama. It passed almost unnoticed.
But the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act may now have found its moment, as Rwanda has been accused of helping to foment a fresh rebellion in neighbouring eastern Congo.
The act requires the US to strengthen enforcement of an international arms embargo on Congo and encourage “more effective protection of its natural resources …especially in the eastern part of the country”. It also authorises the US to withhold assistance for any foreign country determined by the secretary of state to be acting to destabilise the DRC.
On the face of it, that is exactly what has been happening almost 10 years since the official end to Congo’s apocalyptic civil war. Only three years since the war’s main protagonists, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and President Joseph Kabila of Congo sealed a bilateral entente addressing a complex web of residual conflicts, Rwanda has been found in violation of the arms embargo by a UN Group of Experts.
The report, issued this month, reinforces earlier allegations from Human Rights Watch and from the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. It details high-level complicity by the Rwandan authorities in mobilising fighters and supplying weapons and ammunition to the M23, a militia led by ethnic Tutsis that is responsible for the worst outbreak of violence in the region in several years. This has escalated in recent days, displacing hundreds of thousands and threatening the regional capital, Goma.
“These mutineers could not even be thinking about taking Goma without the help of Rwanda; the evidence is now overwhelming. We have documented that Rwandan military officials at senior levels are clearly involved in support for M23,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg, the Congo expert at Human Rights Watch.
This is a drama that has played out repeatedly during the past decade as the UN panel of experts, set up by the Security Council to report on the trade in weapons and illicit flow of minerals from Congo, has frequently accused Rwanda of violations.
Furious denials – often in the face of compelling evidence – have followed from the government. Western donors are often left wringing their hands. They have invested heavily in Rwanda’s remarkable social and economic recovery under Mr Kagame’s leadership since the 1994 genocide but are ostrich-like when it comes to his army’s more sinister involvement in the violence and plunder in Congo.
Those donors have been frequently outmanoeuvred by a man, Mr Kagame, and a movement, his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front. For all Rwanda’s dependence on foreign aid to support its budget, they have rarely waited for a green light from the west before acting in what they believe are their best interests.
As Congo faces another meltdown, the dilemma is how to rein in the ambitions of both man and movement. These have appeared to have outgrown the densely populated mountain country of 11m they have controlled with an iron fist since 1994, with potentially enormous consequences for the territorial integrity of neighbouring Congo and the stability of its central African surroundings.
Ever since the Rwandan army crossed into Congo in 1996 in pursuit of ethnic Hutu forces with a persistently genocidal agenda gathered on the border, and went on to help overthrow the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, speculation has been rife that Mr Kagame harbours expansionary ambitions.
The Financial Times has received a draft of Kigali’s detailed rebuttal to the UN report, which it plans to submit to the Security Council on Monday. Its argues that the UN panel report fails to offer a motive, relies almost exclusively on unreliable, anonymous or compromised sources to “retrofit” evidence to suit a predetermined narrative and serves as “the latest act of a carefully orchestrated media and political strategy to cast Rwanda as the villain in this new wave of tensions in eastern DRC”.
Although the rebuttal is carefully argued, international patience already appears to be wearing thin. If it is proved that Rwanda has been feigning constructive engagement with Congo while undermining hopes of peace in the vast, mineral-rich country it neighbours, a slew of international countermeasures could kick in.
These would squeeze the country’s finances and erode the moral capital Mr Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, has been accustomed to command since his guerrillas ended the genocide.
Last week, Stephen Rapp, a senior US official, said Mr Kagame could be liable for war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court although the state department later backtracked, saying no action had been initiated. The M23’s leader, Bosco Ntaganda, is an indictee, making Rwanda complicit in another violation of international law if it has indeed been supporting the rebellion.
Donors who fret they have been misled by Rwanda will weigh carefully Kigali’s response in days to come. In the mean time, the Netherlands has suspended budget support to Rwanda’s judiciary worth €5m ($6m) . Washington, which counts Mr Kagame among its closest allies in Africa, has frozen $200,000 of military aid in an unprecedented slap. Nordic countries and India on the board of the African Development Bank have meanwhile forced a one-month delay in the disbursal of $38m in budget support while they pore over the allegations.
“We need to see how Rwanda and the region will respond before making our move,” a Swedish official says.
Even Britain, the largest bilateral donor to Rwanda, which could previously be relied on to champion Mr Kagame’s leadership through thick and thin, has delayed the first instalment of a twice-yearly disbursal of £16m aid as it verifies compliance with human rights provisions.
The sanctions applied so far are predominantly symbolic. But they will disrupt budget flows and have put Kigali on the back foot.
The question is whether it is wise to put Mr Kagame on the back foot.
The Rwandan leader has a highly developed sense of western mendacity and an independent-minded streak forged at the height of the 1994 genocide, when the world abandoned the ethnic Tutsi minority to its fate, leaving his RPF guerrilla movement alone to end the mass murder against a better equipped foe.
“The way to get Kagame to do things is not by publicly ridiculing him …If the US wanted to protect Goma, they should not have withdrawn the money but asked Kagame to rein this guy in. Kagame is the only one in this region who can make this happen. In Congo, Kagame is the game changer, not Kabila,” says a senior official from the region.
“They [the rebels] could over-run Goma for breakfast tomorrow morning. The only restraining force I see is Rwanda; the UN’s not going to do anything.”
Polemics are par for the course in a region scarred by virulent hatreds.
Mr Kagame is viewed either as a ruthless tyrant or visionary leader, rarely both. He has striven to transform Rwanda into a regional economic success story with the same relentless determination with which he once ran his guerrilla army.
But he has also been given extraordinary licence to repress dissent. The prosperity of elites in Kigali derives partly from the plunder of minerals from the DRC during Rwanda’s serial invasions of its neighbour.
According to UN reports, his army killed tens of thousands of Rwandans and Congolese as he secured his country’s borders in the face of continuing threats to surviving Tutsis. Political opponents and journalists still end up in exile, jail or, in some cases, a grave.
Yet he can count on support from luminaries: the likes of former UK prime minister Tony Blair and Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks. Members of this unofficial fan club have tended to overlook the more troubling aspects of his rule or support the notion that he has done what is necessary to lay the foundations for peace and development.
“Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda, in many respects, leads Africa today,” Mr Blair said recently.
“Lifting 1m people out of poverty over the past five years is an amazing feat by any global standard.”
In an interview with the FT last year Mr Kagame was characteristically unapologetic. “I have no regrets about being who I am, and being what I am in my country for my people. No regrets at all,” he said.
In the face of the latest accusations, Louise Mushikiwabo, foreign minister has been equally defiant, yesterday saying donors made “hasty decisions based on flimsy evidence”.
“Rwanda has had a very tricky history with Congo. We have had war with Congo and we have had peace. But it would be a terrible mistake to judge the present on the basis of the past,” she told the FT.
Still, given Rwanda’s history of meddling across its border it may be much harder this time for Mr Kagame to persuade the world of his case.
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