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Rwanda’s Congo PR failure

By Andrew M. Mwenda

By responding to allegations about its involvement in DRC, Rwanda has allowed its detractors to define the debate

Over the last two months, there has been a barrage of attacks against Rwanda accusing it of involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo by supporting rebels hostile to the regime in Kinshasa. The nature of these accusations is shocking but not surprising. However, what has been frustrating is the response of Kigali. They have allowed themselves to be drawn into the wrong debate i.e. on whether they are aiding rebels fighting Kinshasa. In the process, Rwanda has handed its critics a public relations coup.


Kinshasa has an absentee state on most of its territory, most especially in the east where it borders Rwanda. The lack of even rudimentary state infrastructure for security and administration poses a clear and immediate threat to Rwanda. Rebels hostile to Kigali and bent on exterminating Tutsis inside Congo and in Rwanda have bases in eastern Congo. There, they recruit, train, arm and plot to kill all Tutsis in Congo and invade Rwanda. Therefore even the most biased observer would agree that Rwanda has to be – not only concerned – but involved in Congolese affairs.

For Rwanda, the problem is even more pronounced. In geo politics, there is what is known as the “margin of error.” This refers the ratio of a given mistake and the consequences of that mistake. When even a small mistake can have catastrophic consequences, the concerned party has to be hypersensitive. This is most evident in airport security. Here is the stereotypical profile of a terrorist: male, in twenties or thirties, largely Muslim from an Arab country; and of course we have also had a black (remember the Nigeria underwear bomber?) and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber (who had a white father and a black mother) as terrorists as well. We can infer that it is very unlikely that an 80-year old white woman from Kansas would be a terrorist.

However, because the margin of error is very small and the cost of even a small slip can be catastrophic, airports do not take anyone for granted. Imagine if Al Qaeda used an 80-year old white woman from Kansas and she succeeded in her mission, we may have a plane ramming into an airport terminal with devastating consequences. Therefore, an 80 year old white woman will be searched almost as thoroughly as any angry Arab youth spotting a beard, a turban, with a Muslim name and living in Yemen. Indeed, for every ten million travelers who go through airports in the US, only one is likely to be a terrorist. Yet security takes no chance and searches all the ten million. This is different from road security; we do not have screening machines on any highway in America because the margin of error is big.

In Rwanda’s case, it cannot afford a mistake of ignoring a simmering security threat at its border. This is especially so given the experience it went through in 1994 when one million people were massacred in 100 days. Some people argue that Kigali has used the genocide to justify its involvement in Congo and that this is a tired cliché. There is a point there. But that does not reduce the legitimacy of the paranoia that Kigali suffers. Put yourself in Kigali’s shoes: the murderers and their recruits are a few kilometers from your border; armed, trained and belligerent, promising to return to finish the job. Assume even a 10 percent chance they can implement their threat. What do you do? The price of any mistake on such an issue can be catastrophic. So you have to be paranoid, especially so when you are an ethnic minority.

There is another concept in military science called “strategic depth.” This refers to the distance from a given threat (a front line, a battle ground etc) to the core i.e. the heart and nerve centre of a nation. This could be its capital or its economic or industrial heartland. When the distance is short and an enemy can traverse it in a few hours, the concerned country has to be hypersensitive. In fact, such countries (such as Israel) tend to fight preemptive wars. If they suspect the enemy is going to strike, they move by striking first and fast, enter enemy territory to create “artificial depth”. Hence, any fighting or even retreat takes place on the enemy’s territory.

To make it plain: assume Uganda invaded Congo. Also assume that Congo’s “core” is Lubumbashi and Kinshasa. There are 2,000km of distance from the border at Mpondwe to Kinshasa and about 1900km to Lubumbashi. Even a fast moving army can take five month to reach these two areas because in military campaigns, there is always a necessity to “digest” one’s conquests. If you capture territory, it is critical to pose, consolidate your position, establish supply lines and rest your soldiers before you launch another offensive. This distance would buy Congo time to reorganise, call upon its reserves, mobilize allies, lobby diplomatically and then launch a counteroffensive. Therefore, Congo can afford to trade territory for time. It can afford not to be paranoid.

Not so for Rwanda. Small and densely populated with its ethnic schemes, Rwanda cannot afford a war on its territory. It can take two hours for the enemy to move from any border its core, Kigali. Thus, in both geopolitical (margin of error) and in military (strategic depth) terms, Rwanda has every reason to be hypersensitive about Congo. Hence the question for Rwanda is not (and cannot be) whether to be involved or not in Congo. It has to be involved. That is not a mere tactical or even strategic imperative. It is an existential necessity. The argument cannot even be on the extent or degree of this involvement. Rwanda has to be deeply and intensively involved in Congo. This is the argument Kigali should be making. Instead, Kigali has been frantically denying all involvement in Congolese issues. It is this denial that makes its case unconvincing and suspect as it ignores its vital security concerns.

Having stated the tactical, strategic and existential imperative for Rwanda to be involved in DRC, the question then is what is Kigali’s best mode of involvement? M23, a breakaway faction of the Congolese Army, is largely composed of Tutsi. A significant number of people in the military and security establishment in Kigali are ethnic Tutsi. What they share is not a mere ethnicity but a common existential threat from remnants of interahamwe (who committed the genocide against their kith and kin in 1994) now calling themselves FDLR. It is the stated objective of FDLR to exterminate all Tutsi.

This shared threat creates a common purpose between Kigali and M23 to fight FDLR. That perhaps is the reason many people think Rwanda supports M23’s rebellion against Kinshasa. But if Rwanda chose that path, it would come at the price of alienating the international community, most especially the government in Kinshasa. Kigali would not only be setting itself up against a more formidable enemy (Kinshasa, regardless of its weaknesses can rally more resources on the side of FDLR than FDLR can on its own) but also invite international condemnation. Rwanda’s critics think President Paul Kagame and his security advisors are stupid and do not see the necessity to have friendly relations with Kinshasa. If Rwanda has to support M23 overtly or covertly, it would be because Kinshasa has left them no other option.

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