By Spy Uganda Correspondent
The president of Congo has warned that war could break out with Rwanda unless its neighbour stops backing rebel groups fighting in the east of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest nation.
“This possibility cannot be ruled out. If Rwanda’s provocation continues, we will not sit and do nothing about it. We are not weak,” Félix Tshisekedi, president of the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo said.
Tshisekedi’s comments follow a strong offensive in eastern Congo by the M23 armed group, which he said was backed by Rwanda.
In recent weeks, the militants have stepped up attacks in a conflict that has displaced 170,000 people since the M23 resurfaced late last year, almost a decade after a peace deal was agreed. The US has voiced alarm about the cross-border attacks.
“There is absolutely no doubt Rwanda is backing the March 23rd Movement,” said Tshisekedi. “We want peace,” he added, during one of his first interviews with international media since taking office in 2019 after a disputed election victory. “But if push comes to shove . . . at one point we will take action.”
Kigali has denied involvement in DRC’s internal affairs and said that there had been shelling from DRC territory into Rwanda.
In the late 1990s, Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo, spurring a string of wars that sucked in several African countries and came to be known as “Africa’s World War”.
Between 1998 and 2008, about 5.4mn people were killed in conflicts in eastern DRC, according to the IRC. The wars spawned an alphabet soup of armed militias, each seeking access to resources.
Ituri, North-Kivu and South-Kivu states are also highlighted in the north east of DRC The M23 led a rebellion in 2012 but was defeated by Congolese and UN troops, leading to a peace agreement in 2013. After fraught and patchy implementation, the armed group resurfaced late last year.
“Rwanda is fighting in the DRC under the guise of the M23, which was defeated in 2013,” said Tshisekedi, adding as evidence the fact that Rwandan soldiers were captured in the DRC. “Its latest emergence is due to the Rwandan Defence Force, which is hiding behind the M23.”
Last Thursday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken called Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, who has urged the deployment of a new regional military force to eastern DRC, to discuss the “efforts to address the continued violence”.
Blinken’s office said it was “alarmed by reports of cross-border attacks between the DRC and Rwanda”, a sentiment echoed by the African Union. With Kinshasa’s approval, Uganda has already sent troops to eastern DRC.
“For years, the DRC’s neighbours have used militias in its east — Congolese and foreign alike — as proxies,” Crisis Group said in a recent report.
In the interview, Tshisekedi also accused Rwanda of wanting to profit from his country’s vast mineral wealth, which includes gold and some of the world’s largest deposits of coltan, which is used in electronic devices. “Rwanda has illicit vested economic interests in the DRC,” said Tshisekedi. “As long as order is not restored in eastern DRC, as long as lawlessness and insecurity prevail, Rwanda will take advantage of that.”
The US Treasury said in March that “more than 90 per cent of DRC gold is smuggled to regional states” including Rwanda, where it is often refined and exported to global markets. “In eastern DRC, where there are approximately 130 active armed groups, the gold trade is a major driver of conflict,” it added.
On Monday, Tshisekedi’s Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame accused Congolese troops of “fighting together” with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose ranks include Hutu fighters accused of involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi people.
The M23 is dominated by Tutsis and claims to protect them against armed Hutu groups, such as the FDLR.
Tshisekedi said it was a “lame excuse” and that his forces had arrested “hundreds” of FDLR fighters and handed them over to Kigali. He added that there were two parallel mediation efforts: one led by Angolan president João Lourenço aimed at bringing Tshisekedi and Kagame together on Wednesday and another led by Kenyatta under the auspices of the East African Community. “There is hope as long as there is sincerity,” said Tshisekedi.
“If Rwanda acknowledges it has backed the M23 and why it is supporting that movement that would be sincere. We can then discuss and lay it all on the table.” If Rwanda refused to admit it was supporting the M23 “that would mean there is a hidden agenda”, he added.