African business, politics and lifestyle
Congo: Step forward or back to the past?
Rwanda sent hundreds of its soldiers into eastern Congo on Tuesday in what the neighbours have described as a joint operation against Hutu rebels who have been at the heart of 15 years of conflict. Details are still somewhat sketchy, with Rwanda saying its soldiers are under Congolese command but Kinshasa saying Kigali’s men have come as observers.
Evidence on the ground suggests something more serious. United Nations peacekeepers and diplomats have said up to 2,000 Rwandan soldiers crossed into Congo. A Reuters reporter saw hundreds of heavily armed troops wearing Rwandan flag patches moving into Congo north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. The world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping mission is, for now, being kept out of the loop.
Foreign soldiers in Congo are nothing new. Rwanda first invaded in 1996. A 1998-2003 war in Congo sucked in six neighbouring armies. But after years of diplomacy and billions of dollars spent on peacekeeping and Congo’s 2006 elections, analysts are frantically trying to work out what is going on.
The current joint operation stems from an agreement signed in December between Rwanda and Congo to cooperate more closely after weeks of heavy fighting in North Kivu province. Although the fighting was officially between Congolese government forces and Tutsi rebels, most analysts saw it as an escalation of a proxy war between Rwanda and Congo that has continued despite 2003 peace deals.
U.N. experts have accused Rwanda of supporting the Tutsi CNDP rebels, formed in 2004 out of previous Rwandan-backed movements that fought against the government in Kinshasa. As on many occasions in the past, Congo was, in turn, accused of arming and using Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels to boost the effectiveness of its fragile and chaotic army.
The fighting underlined the weakness of President Joseph Kabila’s army, which looted and raped civilians as they fled the CNDP. But it also refocused attention on the Hutu rebels, many of whom crossed into Congo when they were routed after taking part in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and have long since been used by both Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi forces as justification for military operations in the mineral-rich east.
Rwanda and Congo have frequently agreed to resolve the FDLR problem. With talk of normalising relations, does Tuesday’s intervention by the Rwandan army mark the first concrete step in new a new relationship between the two countries?
How will Kabila sell a Rwandan military intervention in Congo that is likely to be unpopular amongst many ordinary Congolese, who have long-accused Rwanda of entering their country to loot resources rather than remove rebel threats? How will a handful of Rwandans help Congo’s notoriously weak forces disarm the FDLR in 10-15 days after Kigali’s army failed to do the job during several years of occupation?
What is the international community’s role in all this? The U.N. has some 17,000 peacekeepers on the ground but they have largely been kept at a distance. What about the threat of reprisals on civilians? Over 600 people have been killed in recent weeks after another of Congo’s neighbours, Uganda, led an assault on its rebels in a another remote corner of the country.
Previous foreign occupations of Congo’s mineral-rich east have been justified by hunts for rebels. Is there a danger of history repeating itself?