Rwanda, Congo drifting toward war again as rebels surge anew

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By Anadolu News Agency

Tensions ongoing for months between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo over rebel groups have brought the two countries to the brink of war again.

Congo, which has repeatedly become a conflict zone due to the economic and political interests of neighbouring countries, is currently home to dozens of armed groups.

While Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebel group March 23 Movement (M23), which is made up of Tutsi – an ethnic group of over 5 million people, Rwanda is threatening a cross-border operation against Congo, citing the existence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed rebel group which poses a security threat to the Central African country.

Congo, which has been seeking stability since the 1996-2003 Congo wars, faces a renewed threat of war that ethnic identities have rekindled.

Despite a cease-fire decision in two separate negotiations with the leaders of armed groups and neighbouring countries in Kenya and Angola, tensions between the two countries still continue to escalate.

Eastern Congo, which borders several countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, is also the region where dozens of precious metals like gold and cobalt are mined.

Shift in regional balance with migration after Rwandan genocide

Congo, the biggest African country by land area after Algeria, stands out with its ethnic diversity.

Nearly 250 ethnic groups live in the country and many local languages are used in daily life. Official languages include Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili as well as French – which is a remnant of the country’s colonial past.

The settlement of Hutus – an ethnic group that was displaced from Rwanda – in the regions where Tutsis, who were discriminated against by citizenship and land laws in the Kivu region, lived, caused major conflicts in eastern Congo after the Rwandan genocide.

After the Rwandan genocide, Congo has become the country where migrants, who moved to Burundi, Tanzania and Congo itself, had the most problems.

Congo’s protection of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and its support for arming them in refugee camps are among the issues that deepen the crisis between the two African countries.

While Congo protected the perpetrators of the genocide, Rwanda provided military, political and economic support to the Tutsis in eastern Congo, emboldening their organizational structure.

Congo wars: 7 years of bloodshed

The First Congo War (1996-1997) began with Rwanda’s invasion of eastern Congo in 1996. Rwanda’s goal was to capture and punish the perpetrators of the genocide.

After the conflicts in Congo between September 1996 and May 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko’s government, which took the reins with a military coup in 1965, was overthrown after 32 years in power.

A coalition of Ugandan and Rwandan armies and Congolese opposition leader Laurent Desire Kabila defeated Seko and Kabila assumed power in Congo.

The Second Congo War (1998-2003) was ignited when Congo’s President Kabila, after he took office, wanted to expel foreign missions, including diplomats, advisers, soldiers, and refugees, from the country.

He ordered Rwandan and Ugandan forces to leave Congo’s east, fearing the resource-rich region would be annexed by the two regional powers.

The decision spurred in the reaction from the Tutsi refugees, who came to the country from Rwanda, and caused the Tutsi rebellion. The revolt grew and Rwanda intervened in the situation under the pretext of protecting the Tutsis.

While Burundi and Uganda fought alongside Rwanda, socialist-leaning African countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mali, Libya, and Chad also supported Kabila.

The US government also lifted the embargo it imposed on Kigali after the Rwandan genocide, paving the way for Rwanda to support the rebels, while France supported Kabila.

After Kabila was shot dead by a bodyguard in 2001, he was succeeded by his 29-year-old son, Joseph Kabila, and the war ended a year after 2002 peace deals between Rwanda and Congo and Uganda and Congo.

Violence ramps up over past year

The M23 is one of the main reasons for the current crisis between Congo and Rwanda.

The rebel group, which relaunched its attacks in November 2021 in eastern Congo, caused forced migration of thousands of civilians and devastation.

In May 2022, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi accused his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame of supporting the M23, while Kagame denied the allegations, saying that Tshisekedi avoided responsibility by blaming Rwanda.

In response to Rwanda, Congo decided to expel Rwanda’s ambassador in Kinshasa in October 2022.

On Jan. 19, Rwanda accused Congo of preparing for war by recruiting foreign mercenaries, and on Jan. 24, it shot down Congolese warplane, which violated its airspace three times.

In response, Congo expelled two Rwandan soldiers from North Kivu within the East African Community over grounds of “security” on 31 January.

The M23, also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army, was founded on March 23, 2009 after the peace agreement was broken.

Underground resources draw attention

According to the UN, silver, copper, cobalt, gold, coltan, and diamond are just some of the dozens of precious metals mined in Congo, which has a rich underground reserve of a whopping $24 trillion.

Due to problems in management, mines are mostly transported to small traders by rebel groups and later exported via neighbouring countries.

However, the smuggling network allowed by the Congolese army in exchange for bribery cannot be prevented despite all efforts, according to the UN.

Regional countries step in to solve crisis

Former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is currently the East African Community’s facilitator on the peace process in eastern Congo, also stepped in to resolve the crisis between the two countries.

The leaders of the East African Community met on June 22 last year in Kenya’s capital Nairobi and agreed to send troops to eastern Congo.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco hosted a mini tripartite summit in Luanda, the capital of Southern African country, on July 6 last year as a mediator appointed by the African Union.

At the summit, Rwanda and Congo agreed on the “de-escalation process” for the resolution of the crisis and determined a new roadmap. According to the roadmap, it was decided to establish a Rwanda-Congo joint commission under the supervision of Angola.

The two countries agreed on the immediate withdrawal of the M23 operating in eastern Congo from their positions and joint struggle against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

However, despite all the steps taken, conflicts and political tension have continued in the region.