The Congo-Rwanda Border Conflict Gets a Reprieve—For Now

The Congo-Rwanda Border Conflict Gets a Reprieve—For Now
Armed militiamen gather near Rutshuru, 45 miles north of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 22, 2022 (AP photo by Moses Sawasawa).
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, have agreed to a deescalation process between their two countries following bilateral talks last week to address rising tensions on their mutual border. The two leaders held the talks in Luanda, Angola’s capital, at a tripartite summit hosted by Angolan President Joao Lourenco, who was appointed by the African Union to mediate. In a statement released on Twitter, the Congolese presidency said that “the summit aimed to restore trust between the two neighboring countries,” adding that their process of deescalation will be achieved by reviving the joint Congo-Rwanda joint commission, which has been dormant for years. Following the talks, Lourenco expressed satisfaction that the summit brought “positive results,” including a cease-fire, as well as the withdrawal from eastern Congo of fighters from the M23 rebel group, which Kinshasa has long maintained enjoys backing from Kigali. The roadmap for deescalation is a welcome development given the recent uptick in violence along the shared border between Rwanda and Congo. The latest escalation in what has been a decades-long dispute between the two countries began in May, when the M23 rebel group launched its most sustained offensive against the Congolese army in nearly a decade. But there are questions about the sustainability of the cease-fire, and those have only deepened after clashes broke out in eastern Congo between government forces and M23 rebels a day after the agreement between Rwanda and Congo was reached. A spokesperson for the rebels dismissed the cease-fire as “irrelevant,” saying that “if there is a ceasefire, it can only be between us and the DR Congo government.” Tshisekedi told the Financial Times last week that his peacemaking efforts should not be seen as a sign of weakness, saying that “if Rwanda’s provocation continues, we will not sit and do nothing about it.” In his FT interview, Tshishekedi said that there is “absolutely no doubt” that Rwanda backs the M23 movement, many of whose fighters are ethnic Tutsis from Congo. The M23 claims that Kinshasa has failed to honor previous pledges to reintegrate its members into the national army. The group was invited to an April meeting in Nairobi between the Congolese government and armed groups engaged in eastern Congo, but its representatives were removed from the conclave at the request of the Congolese government delegation after one day, following reports that the rebels had launched new attacks in the district of Rutshuru. For its part, Rwanda accuses Congo of backing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR, Kinshasa’s own favored rebel group in eastern Congo that includes fighters accused of taking part in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. In a televised interview on France 24, Kagame condemned what he regards as the silence of the international community regarding the activities of the FDLR, whose fighters were accused of being behind the 2021 killing of Luca Attanasio, the late Italian ambassador to Congo, a claim the group denies. Kigali has regularly accused Congolese armed forces of working with the FDLR to attack Rwandan territory. Earlier this year, two Rwandan soldiers patrolling the border between the two countries were abducted; they were released only after Lourenco’s intervention. During the France 24 interview, Kagame nonetheless expressed a willingness to move beyond “blame games” between the two parties and signaled hope that the Luanda summit would lead to “progress.”

The increased tension between Kigali and Kinshasa is sure to complicate the EAC’s efforts to integrate Congo as its newest member.

The resource-rich Great Lakes region has historically been a flashpoint of contestation and armed conflict. Since the mid-1990s, eastern Congo, in particular, has been at the center of an intermittent war in which armed militias have served as proxies for regional powers. The conflict in its various phases has resulted in the deaths of more than 6 million people and the displacement of millions more to other parts of Congo as well as its neighboring countries. Last year, the Congolese government placed two eastern districts under military rule due to escalating attacks by armed militias, including an ISIS-affiliated group called the Allied Democratic Forces. According to independent estimates, the group was responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in 2021. The “state of siege,” however, has done little to improve the security landscape in the two districts, and the humanitarian and displacement crisis in the mineral-rich region continues to deepen. Armed groups in eastern Congo commit horrendous acts of violence on the local population, while exploiting the range of minerals there. International efforts to bring stability to the region, in the form of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Congo, made some periodic gains against particular armed groups over the years, but none that proved to be broadly sustainable. Congo’s April accession to the East African Community has raised hopes of a more concerted regional effort to broker peace there and in the broader Great Lakes region. But as I argued in an April edition of the Africa Watch newsletter, that will be easier said than done, given the connection between the EAC member states and many of the armed groups in eastern Congo. Kinshasa has accepted a proposal for an East African regional force to be deployed to eastern Congo to help control the violence, but only on the condition that Rwandan forces do not take part in the operation. The increased tension between Kigali and Kinshasa is sure to complicate the EAC’s efforts to integrate its newest member, including the Kenya-brokered peace talks in Nairobi. It is also worth noting that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, a major champion of Congo’s EAC membership bid who currently serves as the bloc’s rotating chairperson, is set to leave office in August after his country’s general elections. Kenyatta was the main architect of both the regional security force deployment and the Nairobi peace talks, and his looming departure could create a leadership void in regional peacebuilding efforts at a critical time. Moreover, it is not entirely clear if his successor would be willing to build on his efforts, or even continue down the same path. For now, therefore, the deescalation process hammered out in Luanda, though fragile, just might be the best hope for avoiding further conflict, not least because it is the only one.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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