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Rwanda’s biggest security dilemma

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The complexity of Kigali’s relationship with Kinshasa and the possible way tensions between the two countries could be reduced

As fighting recently flared up between Tutsi rebels and government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Rwanda government has found itself, once again at the centre of yet another international controversy. Kinshasa has been joined by poorly informed, often prejudiced international observers and `experts’, and local and international human rights groups in a blanket condemnation of Kigali as the mastermind of the rebellion. In the mad rush to point fingers and apportion blame, the complexity of the problem in eastern DRC has been lost, making a solution much more difficult to craft.


Eastern DRC presents the most complex puzzle to the top leadership of the Rwanda government’s security, military, political and diplomatic establishment. DRC has an absentee state in most of its territory. But this problem is much more pronounced in the eastern region. Because power abhors a vacuum, the absence of even rudimentary infrastructure for basic administrative and security functions of the state has created conditions for the emergence of warlords commanding local militias to fill the void. But because of its complex history and land ownership wangles, most of the emergent militias are ethnic-based. They emerged primarily to defend the land rights of one community against another.

To extend its administrative reach and pretend to be institutionally present in most of Eastern Congo, the central government in Kinshasa has often signed agreements recognising these militias and their control of those specific areas. Warlords become governors and military commanders. But it also means that the government in Kinshasa has little effective control over its appointees. The state in Congo is therefore a mosaic of ethnic chieftains led by belligerent overlords. President Joseph Kabila is more of a “warlord-in-chief” than a commander-in-chief. Hence, Kinshasa can issue orders and threats; but local commanders are at liberty to disregard or accept them – making the governance of DRC even more difficult.

And this is how the recent flare up in Eastern DRC began. Kinshasa accused the National Congress for the defence of the People (CNDP), the Tutsi militia, commanders of refusing to deploy troops as it has instructed them to. This is unusual since commanders should obey, not question orders. Refusal is tantamount to mutiny. CNDP argues that they are not sure of their security if deployed in other areas. They claim that 50 of their soldiers who were deployed out of the eastern region were killed in cold blood. Kinshasa has promised a commission of inquiry to establish what actually happened but nothing has come of it – yet.

Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese Tutsi and leader of the CNDP (now M23), is an indicted war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC). In its naivety, and ignorance, the international community has been putting pressure on an impotent Kabila to arrest him. Perhaps it is in response to this pressure that Kabila issued orders transferring commanders hoping to separate Ntaganda from his troops, orders M23 rejected. Technically, that amounted to a mutiny and Kinshasa responded by launching an offensive against M23.

Although Tutsi militias are the main focus of news and international diplomatic activity, they are not the only ones. There are other commanders and warlords in eastern Congo who are in rebellion against Kinshasa. They claim to defend their communities against hostile neighbours. In fact, in a strange twist of fate, some of the Tutsi militias in Congo have allied with Hutu militias to fight the Kinshasa government. This is because for these local communities in eastern DRC, there is no distinction between Hutu and Tutsi. They see both of them as Banyarwanda because they share a common language and culture and came from “the same place”.

This brings us to Rwanda’s regional dilemma. In part of eastern DRC is the FDLR, an extremist Hutu rebel group that has anything between 4,000 and 6,000 troops under its command. One of its missions is to overthrow the Kigali government; the other to exterminate all Tutsi. It has allied with some local communities in DRC to fight the “Tutsi scourge,” a factor that gives FDLR daunting political weight. FDLR does not distinguish the Tutsi of Congo from those from Rwanda. This has created an automatic alliance between FDLR and other eastern Congolese communities hostile to the Tutsi. By extension, these dynamics have created a shared threat between the leaders of Rwanda and the Tutsi militias in eastern DRC. Therefore Tutsi militias in eastern DRC are, by the nature of the threat they face, natural enemies of the FDLR and thereby natural allies of the government in Kigali.

Yet Kigali finds it difficult to officially and actively support its natural allies in Eastern Congo. If you talk to top security and military strategists of the Rwanda government, they feel wary of Tutsi militias in DRC. They complain that these militias and their leaders are “Congolese”. By “Congolese”, the RPF leaders are not merely referring to citizenship but to culture, attitude and behaviour. The typical Rwandan Tutsi is a reserved with Spartan discipline, qualities shaped by decades of harsh life in refugee camps. The Congolese Tutsi is boisterous and lax. Consequently, the Rwandan security personnel accuse Congolese Tutsis of being undisciplined. The Congolese Tutsis accuse Rwandan security officials of being control freaks.

These differences are not merely at the level of behaviour and attitude but also at the level of operational method. The leaders of Rwanda would prefer full control over M23; the Congolese Tutsis insist on independence. Although they share a common ethnicity, the two are as different culturally as an Athenian was from a Spartan in the 5th century BC. So there is constant tension between the two. Kigali is acutely aware that if it supported Tutsi militias in Congo without effective control over their operations, it would risk being held responsible for their actions, like if they committed mass killings. Yet Kigali cannot completely abandon them. For example, if Tutsi militias were defeated, there is a real risk of genocide against ordinary Tutsis by Hutu extremists and other Congolese communities hostile to them. Kigali cannot politically afford to sit by a watch such a thing happen right at its border.

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