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Conflict in the Kivus: The Start of Africa's Second World War?

Fighting in the DRC will lead to much human suffering, but it seems unlikely to escalate into full-blown, interstate conflict.
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A battalion of the Congolese Army in the DRC. Photograph by Staff Sgt. Jocelyn A. Guthrie, US Air Force.

If we’re to believe recent official statements and high-level media appearances, there is barely a single country interested in anything other than peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda dubiously claimed that no-one has worked harder to end conflict in the DRC than Rwanda, while the Ugandan government has charged headlong into the role of peace negotiator. Suspicious of neighbours' meddling, the DRC’s donors have mustered as much hand wringing as has been seen in a decade.

Yet, as always, the politics is complex and multi-layered, and the reality is a far cry from a rosy world of responsible states working as one to eliminate pernicious insurgencies.

Earlier this year, a new rebellion calling itself M23 joined the growing group of rebel factions operating in or near North and South Kivu, two eastern Congolese provinces. With M23’s strong ties to Rwandan-backed elements in FARDC, the DRC’s military forces, battles lines were immediately drawn between Kinshasa and Kigali. Since then a blizzard of accusations and denials has dominated central African diplomacy.

Fortunately, however, this does not mean full-blown, interstate conflict akin to the Second Congolese War – or ‘Africa’s World War’ – from 1998 to 2003 is about to break out. This is because, simply put, it is unclear there is much incentive for further external actors to involve themselves in the conflict. Rather, it appears likely that international indifference will lead to the conflict’s stagnation. There is no doubt much human suffering to come, but not from another continental conflagration.

Rising in the East

Rwanda, the DRC’s neighbour and regional military hegemon, is committed to stirring up trouble to serve its strategic interests. Despite President Kagame’s recent appearance on the BBC to deny supporting the M23 insurgency, there is overwhelming evidence that the Rwandan state is aiding and supplying the rebels. The United Nations Group of Experts has found Rwandan-supplied weapons, intercepted official communications, spoken with witnesses, interviewed some 80 deserters from the rebellion (31 of them Rwandan), and talked to active M23 and other military leaders.

Worryingly, this evidence indicates that Rwanda has helped position the M23 into overlapping alliances with other ‘negative forces’ such as the Raia Mutomboki alongside an array of political and military hangers-on such the Forces for the Defence of the Congo (FDC) and Nduma Defence of Congo (NDC). Perhaps most surprisingly, the Group of Experts found evidence that the Rwandan government remobilised ex-members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – alleged genocidaires and sworn enemies of the Rwandan state – to join the rebellion.

Against such claims, the Rwandan government has called the report “biased and devoid of integrity”. The content of their denials, however, are thin. ‘Counter-evidence’ consists mainly of statements and official minutes of meetings, all stage-managed by political and military brass. Meanwhile, the government dismisses accusations the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence provided M23 with logistical and financial support by claiming he is simply too busy to trouble himself with helping the rebels. By way of contrast, the UN document verifies each finding with five independent sources and although there is every likelihood it contains inaccuracies, the weight of the evidence undoubtedly favours the Group of Experts; Rwanda’s backing is central to M23’s slow march to Goma.


However, although thousands of civilians are already suffering from these developments, there are good reasons to believe that the fighting will not escalate into another continental conflict. For one, the structural factors that did much to bring the war in the 1990s – state decay in DRC (then Zaire), the end of Cold War zones of influence, and the rising tide of democratisation – no longer obtain.

Moreover, when Kagame’s new government first interloped in the region in late 1995 (much as it does today), there were millions of Rwandan refugees waiting as genocidaires re-armed in the camps. Now such a security threat is non-existent.

Unlike in 1995, this year’s significant scaling-up of Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC is most likely motivated by a heterogeneous mix of interests. The government does have genuine security concerns about various rebel groups, but it also wants to expand control of North and South Kivu’s resource wealth and pursue regional ambitions with the prospect of a broader zone of influence, among other factors.

Satisfying these interests only requires enlarging the Rwandan protectorate in the eastern provinces, with the most ambitious of goals ending at Kivutian secession from the DRC. But even this would not require a change of government in Kinshasa; if the rebels take Goma (as they are currently threatening to do), it is entirely possible Kagame will quit while ahead. Having won the space to let its security forces roam free, collect revenues from the mineral trade, and project its influence beyond its borders, Rwanda may choose to avoid the diplomatic problems associated with forcing regime transition in a sovereign state.

After all, it was precisely this over-reach that scuppered Rwandan ambition between 1999 and 2003. Already responsible for President Mobutu’s demise, Rwanda reinvaded the DRC to install a favoured candidate in Kinshasa only to see Angola and Zimbabwe rush to the country’s defence. The offensive stalled, the war dragged on, immeasurable global goodwill faded, and left to fester were many of the same problems that continue to trouble the Kagame administration today. Shrewd strategists in Kigali are unlikely to make the same mistake again.

Neither help nor hindrance

This logic crumbles if the DRC’s neighbours line up behind Rwanda to help topple Joseph Kabila’s government and partake in the benefits. However, this is unlikely. Whereas several governments used the war in the 1990s as an excuse to battle their regional nemeses, most of these proxy wars have ended. Sudan is too busy with its own internal conflicts, for example, while Angola’s security interests in the Congo died in 2002 with Jonas Savimbi, the former leader of the infamous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. In short, few countries today have security threats that can be ameliorated by taking part in renewed conflict in the DRC.

Some of these dynamics are evident in the DRC’s failure to round up support at meetings of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a regional body representing 11 countries. Earlier the group deployed former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo as Special Envoys to investigate the gathering storm of Congolese insurgencies. But efforts to convince member states to contribute troops to a monitoring force or provide rhetorical support against Rwanda have fallen on deaf ears. No-one wants to touch the conflict.

Uganda may be one exception: the Allied Democratic Forces – a rebel group opposed to the Ugandan government – continues to pester President Yoweri Museveni. And, having recently patched things up with Kagame, the two presidents could collaborate on the M23 to mutual benefit – as they have with the multiple rebellions they co-sponsored in the 1990s. However, the ADF more closely resembles an annoyance than a threat to Museveni, and his troop commitment already extends to conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, and elsewhere. Adding to this overstretch are Uganda’s new oil sites to which Museveni has assigned extensive military protection. And even should he wish to deploy troops to the DRC, Uganda is facing a generalised budgetary crisis, exacerbated by recent human disasters.

A common narrative sees Museveni involving Uganda to get a hand in the Congolese honeypot, paying for such a foray with the DRC’s plentiful natural resources. Yet when Uganda and others (notably Zimbabwe) lusted for riches in 1999, the minerals were ripe for the plucking and more easily re-exportable onto world markets; now they are a hot-button issue for donor agencies and already for the most part inaccessible, captured in Rwanda’s tight grip over Kivutian trade. Threatening donor funds and incurring Kagame’s wrath trump the remote possibility of resource wealth.

Sideshows in New York

Ironically, much recent attention has the conflict has focussed on states which happen to have the least influence on the ground: Western donors. Humanitarian and diplomatic communities are attempting to up the stakes of Rwandan meddling, but these efforts fall far short of impinging on Kigali’s plans.

There seems little that the West can do to pour cold water on the affair. Donors focus on peace-building, striking temporary pacts among competing warlords. These efforts in the Kivus often actually give rise to a weaker Congolese army and more insurgencies for it to fight. Additionally, as Séverine Autesserre argues, elite negotiations even at their best do little to resolve the thousands of localised conflicts that fuel the broader war.

Another option presents itself in financial sanctions. Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US have all recently interrupted aid flows on which Kagame’s government is utterly dependent. However, while such decisions are a major symbol of changing attitudes, donors are still firmly behind the Kagame administration, clinging to its image as a successful, if heavy-handed, reformer. The American cuts represent less than one-tenth of 1% of the roughly $250 million given to Rwanda annually. Such a loss is unlikely to slow the march of the M23.

Even if American reticence evaporated, however, and the West decided to move decisively against Rwanda, Chinese and Russian influence would likely block any attempt to punish Kigali through the UN Security Council (beyond issuing vague warnings). Meanwhile, despite the use of UN gunships against the M23 rebels, the DRC is getting nowhere in its attempt to expand the mandate of MONUSCO, the UN’s regional peace-keeping mission. Its cost is already an exponential $1.4 billion per annum, and even if Kinshasa could convince the UN to go through the long and complicated process of a mandate change, few countries would readily maintain their troop presence on the more dangerous frontlines.

Finally, unilateral action from a Western power is nearly unthinkable. All that remain are stern words and the most innocuous of sanctions.

The silver lining?

Despite its best efforts – and the 17,000-strong MONUSCO notwithstanding – the international community will remain mostly out of the Kivutian equation. It is possible that one of Kabila’s neighbours sees an opportunity in the conflict, but such a course is ultimately unlikely. And while Rwanda has the potential to change all this by pressing forward to capture Kinshasa, there seems little reason to do so, given Kigali’s strategic interests.

It seems likely that the fighting will continue for some time yet while the rest of the regional actors remain on the outside looking in. Leftovers from Africa’s World War continue to motivate power politics in the Great Lakes, but it is unlikely that they are about to bring a sequel. Kigali’s fortunes may rise, but Kinshasa is not about to fall.

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Can you say what you mean by 'negative forces'. The inverted commas have an unclear implication. Whilst their methods lead to an unnecessarily high human cost, Raia Mutomboki appear to have a justified role in filling a security gap left by redeployed FARDC troops. They also appear more effective than the FARDC in fighting the FDLR. Also to say the threat from the FDLR is "non-existent" is false. The Banyamulenge still face harassment and violence on a daily basis. Much of this from the FDLR.Also do you really think Kinshasa will lie down if Goma is taken? Whoever is behind any possible secession attempt is likely to see strong opposition from the FARDC. If they can enlist the help of a neighbour, with mining inducements, conflict could easily escalate. I fear many coutries may use the possibility of a neutral force (after the Khartoum agreement) to install their own troops in the region with a legitimate facade.