Rwanda + 1 more

Kigali will probably manage current Congolese tensions

Originally published

The United States on July 21 cut a small element of 2012 military financing support to Rwanda while boosting help to other regional armies. Washington cited its concerns over evidence of Rwandan support to Congolese Tutsi armed groups, especially the 'M23' group. M23 mutinied in April against the FARDC, the national army of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), into which it had been loosely integrated since 2009. Relations between Kinshasa and Kigali have improved significantly since mid-July, but the situation in eastern DRC remains highly fluid and unstable. The question also arises of whether Washington's signal to Rwanda was merely symbolic or represents the beginnings of a shift in its calculations on regional partners.


  • UN peacekeepers are unlikely to have any near-term significant impact on the security situation.
  • The DRC-Rwanda agreement providing for a neutral external force to police the border zone is unlikely to yield results soon.
  • Rwanda remains uneasy about US drones offered to Uganda and Burundi, despite these ostensibly being related to the latters' Somalia role.

What Next

Any M23 attempt to attack the regionally significant city of Goma would involve a greater military challenge than anything it has yet encountered. It will probably consolidate existing positions and extend alliances with smaller Mai-Mai and other regional militias. Rwanda is expected formally to respond to the M23 allegations before the end of July. Continued international pressure against both Kinshasa and Kigali -- and the latter in particular -- will tend to promote further diffusion of current tensions. However, Rwanda is most unlikely to refrain from influencing eastern DRC security.


The current crisis began on April 6, when General Bosco Ntaganda withdrew his Congolese Tutsi CNDP forces from the 2009 FARDC integration arrangement. His ranks were swelled by troops following other CNDP commanders, and a new round of CNDP-FARDC fighting resulted:

  • Strengthened by a newly-deployed special battalion, FARDC initially prevailed. By early May it had seized the Masisi Highlands -- the first time since the 1990s that the national army has enjoyed effective control over this CNDP heartland area.
  • On May 8, another senior CNDP officer (Colonel Sultani Makenga) announced the M23 movement -- a reference to the March 23, 2009 CNDP-FARDC agreement, which Makenga alleged Kinshasa had not honoured.
  • M23's creation at first did little to alter the military situation; Makenga's forces remained near the Virunga National Park. In early June, FARDC reported that the mutiny was under control.
  • In late June, an M23 offensive resulted in significant victories against both FARDC and the UN peace operation MONUSCO, which had increasingly been drawn into the fighting on FARDC's side.
  • On July 6, M23 seized the strategically important town on Bunagana, on the Uganda border. An Indian MONUSCO soldier was killed, and over 600 FARDC troops fled into Uganda. M23 then took Rutshuru, Ntamugenga and Rubare towns, leaving regional capital Goma exposed to attack. FARDC and MONUSCO stepped up Goma's defences, the latter deploying tanks and attack helicopters against M23 positions. Uganda's army mobilised on the border.

The fighting has displaced over 220,000 civilians.

Rwandan involvement

Presidents Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame met on July 15 on the African Union summit sidelines, announcing a joint task-force to tackle FARDC-M23 fighting. This reprieve comes after growing evidence of Rwanda's backing for M23 had led, in recent weeks, to a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations:

  • HRW report. On June 3, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed it had conclusive evidence of Rwandan army material and personnel support to the CNDP since Ntaganda's mutiny. It also alleged that Ntaganda -- indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes -- remained in command despite Makenga's role. HRW alleged that Rwanda had allowed Ntaganda to enter its territory, violating UN resolutions.
  • Donors. On June 7, EU and US officials released similar statements criticising external support to M23.
  • UN experts. The most conclusive evidence of Rwandan support to the mutiny emerged on June 27, with publication of an Addendum to the UN expert group on DRC's latest report. (The Addendum was omitted from the original report five days earlier -- US officials appeared unable to agree over how best to manage its findings). It showed that senior Rwandan officials -- including Defence Minister General James Kabarebe and his staff -- have remained in constant contact with Ntaganda and Makenga throughout the mutiny; it documented extensive Rwandan army assistance in M23's creation, and even the deployment of Rwandan units in support of discrete M23 operations.

Since early June, the Rwandan government has strongly and repeatedly denied any involvement in the fighting. However, as the evidence mounted, Kinshasa began to adopt an increasingly hostile stance over Kigali's influence in eastern DRC. In late June, Kabila blamed the recent violence on "dark and foreign forces" and on July 1 expelled 200 Rwandan special forces troops who had been allowed to operate in the Kivus against the Hutu extremist FDLR group. A week later, Kinshasa official issued an arrest warrant against Ntaganda: it had previously refrained from doing so for fear of upsetting DRC-Rwandan relations. More recently, senior FARDC officers have put M23's battlefield successes down to the role of "entire battalions" of Rwandan troops. This heated background explains why Kabila and Kagame's July 15 agreement represents such a significant breakthrough. The outcome would seem to be a result of sustained international pressure on Kagame following the UN report.

Rwandan Motivations

It is unclear what Rwanda's assistance to M23 was intended to achieve:

  • Nothing new? The HRW and UN evidence is largely unsurprising. The CNDP has long been a proxy for Rwandan interests in the Kivu regions. These interests extend beyond containing Hutu armed groups and protecting Congolese Tutsis: the CNDP has long controlled various minerals smuggling networks that have greatly enriched senior Rwandan army figures.
  • Rwandan shift? However, aspects of the UN report may represent a new departure for the Rwandan hierarchy. It is claimed that during their efforts to mobilise men and materials for M23 campaign, Kabarebe's staff referred to M23's intention to claim secession for the Kivu regions from the DRC. The idea of a new Kivus nation has received support in the past from Kabarebe and some other senior Rwandan officials. These secessionist voices have always been drowned out by others, in particular Kagame, who resists the idea of a Tutsi-led 'buffer' nation on Rwanda's western border. Indeed, Kagame is becoming as concerned about the emergence of internal and external Tutsi rivals as he is of his ostensible priority foe, Hutu extremists. References to a secessionist agenda in the UN report may thus reveal a potential slight shift in the balance of power within Kigali itself, away from Kagame.

The current crisis is unlikely to prompt Washington to shift substantially its support for Kagame's government in the near term, although US officials will probably increasingly scrutinise what the relationship brings to promoting their interests in the region.

Oxford Analytica
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