War drums go quiet in DRC as besieged Kabila becomes East African ‘prisoner’By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO | Monday, September 10 2012 at 08:12
There has been a big push to lower political temperatures in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but President Joseph Kabila could emerge weaker, and his silent dependence on his East African neighbours to hold on to power could deepen.
The conflict in eastern DR Congo that flared up recently, threatened to suck several countries into a new war, and set neighbouring Rwanda on a collision course with its international allies, improved quickly over the past week.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which the DRC is a member, announced in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam on Wednesday that it was ready to contribute troops to a proposed neutral force to pacify eastern Congo if asked to do so by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
It was a notable change from a declaration SADC issued after its summit in Maputo on August 18, in which it sharply lambasted Rwanda, and all but threatened to send a force into DRC to deal with Kigali and its alleged proxies.
As happened, however, the SADC meeting also tasked Mozambique President Armando Guebuza, the current chair of the bloc, to engage Rwanda on the situation in eastern DRC. Guebuza went to Rwanda almost immediately, and met President Paul Kagame.
In its latest statement, SADC said, “President Guebuza recently travelled to Kigali and presented a report before this meeting which has been welcomed and its recommendations endorsed.”
Significantly, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, who is the current chair of the SADC’s Organ on Democracy, Defence and Security, made the SADC announcement.
The August 18 SADC statement alarmed many Great Lakes observers, who envisioned a return to 1998-2002, when Angolan and Zimbabwean forces were in western DRC backing the Kinshasa government, and Uganda and Rwanda in the east propping up rebels. The forces clashed several times.
Last Friday, Rwanda announced it was pulling 280 of its Special Forces troops out of eastern DRC. They have been stationed for some years there now following an agreement with the DRC government.
The two companies had been working with Congolese troops fighting rebel militia in the area.
The latest crisis broke out in April, when rebels of the M23 movement returned to arms, overrunning several government army positions, and clashing with the UN peacekeeping force in DRC, Monusco.
Several senior figures in M23 are Congolese Tutsi — known as Banyamulenge and kin to the Rwandan Tutsi — although Rwanda’s Gen James Kabarebe told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir that 80 per cent of its members are Hutu. The rebels said that Kinshasa had gone back on a peace agreement, and also killed their members.
The government in Kinshasa and the UN accused Rwanda of being M23’s puppet master, a charge Kigali angrily denied.
Rwanda, however, was hit by a torrent of international criticism following a report by a UN Experts Group on Congo in June, which alleged that was clear evidence that Rwanda was actively involved in the M23 rebellion.
Rwanda’s alleged complicity in the renewed conflict became big news in Africa and elsewhere as its close donor allies, the Netherlands and United Kingdom, the USA, and countries such as Germany and Sweden cut off aid of various amounts to show their displeasure.
Though Rwanda has recorded high levels of growth in the past 10 years, and has been praised for its economic achievements, the cuts exposed its vulnerability.
The country is still far from fully recovering from the 1990s war and the 1994 genocide, and still depends on aid for nearly 50 per cent of its budget.
Hitherto an astute player of international politics and a country with many friends — and equally powerful enemies — Rwanda this time seemed to have been caught on the back foot and appeared momentarily dazed by the barrage of hostility over its alleged role in aiding the M23.
Kinshasa accused Kigali, and later some elements in the Kabila regime also blamed Uganda. Loud protests from Kampala, however, seem to have made the DRC realise that the sharp divisions between Rwanda and Uganda in the DRC that led to the rupture of their alliance and bloody clashes in eastern DRC in 2000, had dissipated.
Kabila, who cut his teeth in Museveni’s army and whose father Joseph Kabila, whom he succeeded after the latter’s assassination in 2001, was installed as president in 1997 on the back of the Rwanda army that kicked out the country’s long-term dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
Kabila would have figured that in 2012, it wasn’t the smartest move to have Uganda and Rwanda back in eastern DRC, working together against Kinshasa.
The flurry of diplomacy of the past two months, however, shored up Kabila. He met with Kagame in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of the July African Union, and they agreed to handle the crisis diplomatically through a heads of state meeting in Kampala in August.
The idea of a neutral force to monitor and keep the peace in eastern DRC was first mooted in Addis Ababa.
By agreeing to the neutral force, Kinshasa acknowledged that it did not have total control of the eastern part of the country, and it alone could not guarantee the security of the region.
The August 18 SADC statement raising the prospect of sending a force to contain Rwanda, essentially put DRC in the same category as Burundi in its troubled years when South Africa sent a peacekeeping force to Burundi.
The blame game continued after the Addis Ababa meeting and a handshake, and in Rwanda leaders were getting increasingly irritated.
A summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) chaired by Uganda was delayed to take a more detailed look at the DRC crisis.
This, some critics said, was because Uganda didn’t want to call it as it too had active proxies in eastern DRC, and was biased in favour of Rwanda.
In the end, the meeting, chaired by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni took place in Kampala on August 5. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, DRC’s Joseph Kabila, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete attended it.
It was a difficult meeting, sources told The EastAfrican, as the DRC had been emboldened by Angola’s support to drive a hard bargain, and would have collapsed but for Museveni’s astuteness.
SADC signalled it was not satisfied by the outcome, because it issued its terse statement after the ICGLR meeting and resolutions.
It is likely that Kikwete, a key player at the ICGLR Kampala meeting, found himself in an awkward position with the statement by SADC– where Tanzania is also a member.
The latest SADC position is similar to ICGLR’s, so it releases Kikwete from being in two blocs that are at odds with each other.
It is significant that last week’s SADC statement said it “totally” supported ICGLR, and abandoned any attempts to take its own initiatives: “SADC is totally satisfied with efforts made by ICGLR and thus we think there is no need for a parallel initiative to tackle the conflict,” Kikwete said.
On Tuesday, Britain announced that it was partially restoring aid to Rwanda, two months after it was suspended.
It is likely that these developments are partly driven by a fear of what will happen in eastern DRC now that Rwanda, with the withdrawal of its troops there, officially ceases its co-operation in stabilising the volatile region.
In addition, the authoritative voice of President Kabila remained in the background all these weeks, suggesting his hand was weak.
Furthermore, an outflanked Rwanda finally collected its wits and started to push back. It dispatched Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo to speak to the UN Security Council, where she put up a no-holds-barred defence of her government on August 29.
She said blaming Rwanda for the problems in eastern DRC was a “well-worn narrative”, and said those viewing Congolese “Kinyarwanda-speaking former rebels in mutiny against old foes — that has made the case against Rwanda so superficially plausible and, to some, utterly compelling,” were seeing events in the region through a “narrow and outdated ethnic prism.”
Ms Mushikiwabo said that the DRC thrives on pushing the blame-Rwanda-for-DRC-problems line because it “entirely shifts focus away from the deeper systemic and governance issues they face”.
In other words, the Kinshasa government is sleeping on the job and needs to face up to its failures.
After outlining what Rwanda had done to help stabilise eastern DRC, Mushikiwabo then threw everything, including the kitchen sink, at Steven Hege, who headed the UN Group of Experts on DRC that started all the diplomatic fires.
She accused Mr Hege of failing to allow Rwanda give its side of the story, and that when he and his team visited Kigali, he avoided mentioning anything about Rwanda’s involvement in eastern DRC, the subject that was to form the mainstay of his report.
She said Mr Hege’s views of Rwanda, post-genocide politics and the FDLR belonged “on the extreme fringe.”
“Hege regards the Rwandan government as illegitimate foreigners — Ugandan Tutsi elite is his phrase — in language eerily familiar to survivors and students of the genocide,” she said.
In what was probably an awkward moment for the UN, the Rwanda foreign minister asked how a man who had advised that the FDLR should only come to the negotiating table once “international opinion sours on the Rwandan regime” should have been allowed to lead a Group of Experts that had achieved exactly that.
Without an answer from Kinshasa, or a comeback by the Group of Experts, it was probably not surprising that Britain cut some of its losses.
But even Mushikiwabo’s performance did not raise as many difficult questions as an interview by Rwanda’s Defense Minister Gen James Kabarebe in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.
In the interview with leading Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman, Gen Kabarebe alleged that a Congolese intelligence chief found him in a hotel room and asked for forgiveness for fabricating lies about Rwanda backing M23 rebels in order to cover Kinshasa’s weaknesses.
Rwanda’s security establishment is notoriously secretive, and when elements in it open up to outsiders, they tend to be economical with what they say.
Gen Kaberebe’s interview is unusual both in its length, and in what it reveals about Rwanda’s various dealings with the Kinshasa government, and the goings-on in the rebel-infested and mineral rich eastern expanse.
Even if they are remotely true, the cynicism of the political players in DRC, and the dysfunction of the Kabila government, are shocking.
Kabarebe alleges that President Kabila was put under pressure by the international community to arrest Gen Bosco Ntaganda, the M23 leader who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
However, while Kabila raised with Rwanda the possibility of co-operating to arrest Ntaganda in eastern DRC, he did not follow up.
The Rwandan general suggests it could be because Kabila was close to Ntaganda, and they were business partners.
He alleged that a planeload full of gold that was intercepted in Goma not too long ago, belonged to senior Congolese officials and possibly Ntanganda — and Kabila knew about it.
He said while the international community was demanding the arrest of Ntaganda, part of the Monusco force of 20,000 with tanks, helicopters, and Special Forces were located in Goma, next to Ntaganda. The UN and M23 officers, he said, “played tennis [together], they frequented the same clubs, the same bars and restaurants.
Why couldn’t they take charge of [Ntanganda’s] arrest, why would they ask us to do it? We made it clear that the arrest was not our responsibility, as it was a Congolese officer very close to President Kabila, with whom they had done business together.”
Kabarebe also alleged that the Congolese army allows free passage for the rebels Kinshasa is blaming Kigali for supporting, and that Monusco is inept and in bed with insurgents: “Monusco has been in Congo for more than 10 years, and it has not solved anything. It does business with the FDLR, conducts trade in gold, coltan,” he said. He portrays the DRC state army as a shambolic force that “cannot fight in conditions in which they are. They could not even kill a rat...”
Unsaid in all the political boxing, is that Kabila probably needs a troubled eastern DRC. Kabila, who grew up and studied in Tanzania, is considered a Swahili speaker who is not true grit Congolese. His mother, some claim, is Tutsi. He was a soldier in Museveni’s NRA.
Like they did with his father, conservative Congolese nationalists consider him an usurper, and a Rwandan and Ugandan puppet.
This cloud of illegitimacy always hangs over Kabila’s head, and becomes more pronounced during elections. In the last polls, he and veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshiksekedi, who leads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), got locked into a bitter fight to the end.
Tshiksekedi, from the southwestern Kasai-Occidental, is regarded by the old Kinshasa elite as a more authentic Congolese item. Tshiksekedi rejected Kabila’s victory in the violence-wracked election as stolen, and even tried to set up a parallel government.
Commentators have said that any meaningful political settlement or accommodation between the Kabila government and eastern dissidents, would not go down well in Kinshasa or the west of DRC, and would be portrayed as an underhand deal to give his fellow “Swahili speakers” power.
On the other hand, a rebellion in the east that seems to challenge his power, actually allows him overcome his “Congolese authenticity deficit” and rally nationalist sentiment around him as the defender of the nation. Thus the real proxy for Kabila in eastern DRC is Rwanda.
On one hand, because of its own security concerns, Rwanda will disrupt rebels in the region. But also, for as long as it stays there, Kabila can portray it as a hegemonic Tutsi occupier and win support.
A clear Rwanda withdrawal, and a neutral monitoring force that can verify that Kigali and Uganda are not involved in eastern DRC, is probably something Kabila doesn’t want and will reluctantly co-operate with, if at all. That might partly explain why his government has been lackadaisical in its efforts to end the conflict in the east.
In many ways, Kabila has become a prisoner of his East African neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda. However, they too have become his prisoners, because a bad Kabila in Kinshasa is still better than a good radical from the west of the DRC.
Countries like Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, that have all dipped their toes into DRC’s political waters, have been its bane. But they are also its boon. Any international settlement that ignores that, will fail.
Author contacts: firstname.lastname@example.org & twitter@cobbo3
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