Fresh off the publication of a damning UN report that implicates the government of Rwanda in assisting M23 rebels in the eastern DRC, Western observers are lining up to rain criticism down on Kigali. But what would motivate this diminutive yet formidable African country to risk its donor lifeline by extending support to a group led by an ICC-indicted war criminal? The answer is as simple as it is predictable: state security.
To understand this latest development in the long-running intrigue that is Rwanda-DRC relations, a short history lesson regarding the eastern DRC border region is in order. After the predominantly-Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali in 1994 and ended the Rwandan Genocide, the Hutu Interhamwe militiamen who had helped organize the killings fled to the DRC, then Zaire. This marked the beginning of an extended period of RPF campaigns to clear out Hutu militias that used the eastern DRC as a base of operations from which to launch attacks forces within Rwanda. In 1996, the RPF-controlled Rwandan government launched an invasion of Zaire via a proxy force controlled by Laurent Kabila, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). However, the Hutu militants that the RPF sought to rout simply retreated deeper into the heart of Zaire, only to return when Rwandan forces eventually retreated. Once it became clear that a direct military confrontation wouldn’t be enough to stomp out Hutu militias that were increasingly employing guerilla tactics, the Rwandan government switched gears and began to prop up proxy militias in the eastern DRC. These militias were primarily Tutsi and they acted as a security bulwark that stood between the still-simmering racial hatred of Hutu paramilitaries and Rwanda proper.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the security equation remain the same; the only thing that has changed is the acronyms that the militias operating in the DRC go by. The Hutu Republican Rally for Democracy in Rwanda (RDR) birthed the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALiR) which reformed into the still-operational Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). On the Tutsi side, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) blazed the trail for the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) which eventually split in two upon integration into the DRC armed forces. But this integration was exceedingly short-lived, as this very same CNDP faction, led by suspected war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, recently mutinied and began calling itself the M23 Movement (March 23rd refers to the day that the CNDP splinter group was integrated into the DRC armed forces). This is the very group that the UN has accused the Rwandan government of clandestinely supporting.
To return to the original question of why the Rwandan government would support M23, one must consider the current situation on the Rwanda-DRC border. It has become quite clear that not only does the DRC government lack the legitimacy and the resources to exert credible administrative authority over eastern Congo, it doesn’t appear that it will be able to remedy this situation anytime soon. Thus, President Kagame’s government in Rwanda has been given no choice but to come up with a strategy to deal with the lawless region on its border- an area that also just so happens to be where opposition militias have entrenched themselves in the past.
Thus, the looming threat of cross-border attacks and new outbreaks of widespread ethnic violence compel Rwandan influence to fill the void of an absentee government in eastern Congo. Yet Kigali cannot escape the logic that active support of rebels could be a case of sacrificing long term security for a short term reprieve. After all, strengthening anti-government rebel groups isn’t the best way of bringing about the rise of a central DRC government that can police the border area on its own. Thus it’s quite possible that these latest accusations of M23 support stem from the Rwandan government continuing a policy of ‘official indifference’ towards militia groups in the eastern DRC. Under this policy, the government won’t actively intervene against individuals in Rwandan society who choose to aid the rebel cause in the DRC. This is viewed by some as somewhat of a compromise insofar that it helps to perpetuate the existence of bulwark militias without actively seeking to destabilize a fragile DRC state.
Given the weighty economic factors involved, it’s hard to believe that Kigali is actively seeking to destabilize its western neighbour. The untapped economic potential of the DRC could make for a lucrative partnership between the two countries, and there are a number of important projects in Rwanda for which success or failure hinge on regional stability. Some such projects include the Kibuye methane gas plant at Lake Kivu, and agreements signed with the UK’s New Forest to develop the area around Nyungwe Forest. Rwanda also wants to make a splash in the international travel market by re-branding itself as a premier tourist destination in central Africa; another ambition that could be undermined by an outbreak of violence on the DRC-Rwanda border.
It stands to reason that the governments of Rwanda and the DRC want the exact same thing: a stable security situation that will allow their economies to grow and develop. They just disagree on how to go about getting there.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com.