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Article in The East African 10/12/2008

October 17, 2008

Are Rwanda and DRC setting the stage for war?

By FRED OLUOCH

The East African, 12 October 2008 – Is Rwanda about to invade the Democratic Republic of Congo? That was the big question last week as tension and military activity continued to build up rapidly in eastern Congo. It is clear that relations between Kigali and Kinshasa are worsening by the day, with the two parties trading accusations and the rhetoric between leaders of the neighbouring countries becoming more strident by the day. Alarm bells were ringing loudly last week when Congo’s representative to the United Nations, Ateku Ineka, claimed that DRC authorities had seen concentrations of Rwandan troops gathering at the border. This was promptly denied by President Paul Kagame’s envoy to the Great Lakes region, Richard Sezibera, who described the claims by Ateku as “ridiculous.”

The developments were taking place against the backdrop of intense military activity by a rejuvenated Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. On Wednesday, troops loyal to his Congress Nationale pour le Defense de Peuple overran a military camp in Rumangabo, causing heavy damage. Clearly, eastern Congo is on the brink of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Although Kigali insists it has nothing to do with the escalation of military activity around Goma, it was noteworthy that the country had in the wake of the attack on Rumangabo engaged in a new diplomatic and propaganda offensive whose aim was to give tacit justification to Nkunda’s activities during the week. On Tuesday, Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Rosemary Museminali told a meeting of Kigali-based diplomats of an alliance between DRC forces and remnants of Ex-FAR (the Rwanda army of the late president Juvenal Habyarimana) and Interahamwe militiamen who spearheaded the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Meanwhile, newspapers in Kigali, quoting anonymous sources, gave details of the Rumangabo attack, suggesting that elements within Nkunda’s frontline troops and intelligence were indeed in touch with Kigali. Reports claimed that following the attacks, DRC commanders had fled Rumangabo to link up with the Ex-FAR and Interahamwe forces under the command of Lt Col Ndinzimihingo in Rutare. Reports from Kigali gleefully detailed how Nkunda’s forces had vanquished their opponents — and, more curiously, gave out details of the arms and ammunition Nkunda had acquired from the Rumangabo attacks. According to the reports, his forces captured four Katyusha rocket launchers, an assortment of anti-aircraft guns, motor launchers and vehicles. On the face of it, the details of the air power that Nkunda’s forces were being reported to have suddenly acquired did not have much significance.

But officials of the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC (Monuc) told The EastAfrican that they interpreted it as a coded message: A tacit warning to them that Nkunda had acquired the capability to fend off even Monuc. Apparently, Monuc soldiers working around Goma have recently been receiving leaflets warning them that Nkunda has the capability of shooting down armoured helicopters. Although Monuc has not spoken about it openly, sources said the matter had caused much consternation and the leader of the UN forces, Alan Doss, recently visited New York to make the case for superior equipment for his troops. Whichever way one looks at it, Nkunda’s new successes have put him in a situation where he is now able to receive military support from third parties and disguise it as equipment he captured from raids on DRC battalions.

In an interview with The EastAfrican, Francois Grignon, Africa programme director of the International Crisis Group, who has been following the DRC conflict for years, dismissed the fears expressed by Kigali, arguing that Rwanda is not under any threat and that the alliance between the DRC forces and the Rwanda rebels is a marriage of convenience to deal with Nkunda. “This is an internal DRC issue; I don’t see how Rwanda should come in. It is better for Rwanda to work together with DRC government to bring about lasting peace in the region,” he said. Still, observers argue that while Nkunda is capable of maintaining the region he controls, he neither has the will nor the military capability to overturn the government in Kinshasa, as he recently bragged. At best, he is seen as a nuisance, despite claiming that his forces are protecting the province’s ethnic Tutsi population from attacks by the Rwandan insurgent armed group, the FDLR. His advantage, though, is that his forces are familiar with the terrain and have emerged victorious whenever attacked by Kinshasa.

Yet, unlike 1999, there has been no cause for rebellion and Nkunda has had a hard time convincing the world that he is actually protecting the Tutsi population in Congo. Experts on Congo like Mr Grignon believe that the regulation of mining in South and North Kivu provinces will be key to stabilising the country. Rebel groups in the DRC have been using the minerals to finance their war activities. Unlike other areas in the Congo where multinational companies are involved, the mining in South and Eastern Kivu is controlled by small operators, who in some cases sell their products to multinational companies. It is still a matter of conjecture whether the multinational companies are directly financing the rebellion in eastern Congo in order to have unfettered access to the mineral resources. However, the success of Congo’s reconstruction hinges on Kivu province, where the root causes of the conflict — including unequal access to land and unfair sharing of revenues from natural resource exploitation — persist.

There was cautious optimism for peace in North Kivu after the “Goma agreement” was signed on January 23. The agreement followed negotiations between the government, Nkunda and Mai Mai militias, and included a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops from key areas and the creation of a UN “buffer zone.” Under the agreement, militias will be given amnesty for insurgency or acts of war, but not for war crimes or crimes against humanity. However, the Rwandan Hutu FDLR was not invited to the talks and, in March, the Kinshasa government threatened to forcibly disarm the rebels.

Rwanda twice invaded Congo in the 1990s and has persistently accused the Kinshasa government of backing Rwandan Hutu rebels. A UN investigations during the first invasion detailed how the Rwandan government and army, the Ugandan army, and Congolese and Zimbabwean government officials continued to exploit the DRC’s resources. As we went to press, it was reported that Nkunda’s forces had withdrawn from Rumangabo, apparently at the request of Monuc.

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