Fears that recent fighting in eastern DRC would spark a return to regional war appear likely to be realized, as longstanding animosity between DRC and Rwanda resurfaced this week in a major way.
Last Thursday, after intense fighting between the Congolese army (FARDC) and Tutsi militia led by General Laurent Nkunda, DRC’s envoy to the UN warned that a Rwandan attack in North Kivu was “imminent” and called on the UN Security Council to intervene. He accused Rwandan army soldiers of supporting Nkunda’s forces during Wednesday’s battle, in which Nkunda took control of a key military base. The next day, DRC’s foreign minister claimed that a Rwandan army officer had been captured in Rutshuru, near DRC’s border with Rwanda, and repeated accusations that Rwanda has been sending in troops to assist Nkunda and building up additional forces along the border.
Rwanda denies these charges and has levied accusations of its own against DRC’s government, claiming that FARDC has been fighting alongside the FDLR, extremist Hutu militia largely comprised of ex-Rwandan military and Interhamwe fighters who fled Rwanda after participating in the genocide against Rwandan Tutsis in 1994.
On Friday, a top aide to Rwandan President Paul Kagame accused MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC, of supporting an alliance between the Congolese government and the FLDR, claiming that MONUC’s provision of military and logistic support to FARDC is “equivalent to joining the alliance with those committing genocide” At the same event, several Rwandan senators called on their country to prepare for war with DRC.
The current crisis between DRC and Rwanda reflects longstanding tensions between the two countries, much of which has centered on the state of the minority Tutsi population in DRC. Congolese Tutsis make up about one to two percent of the total Congolese population, but have historically played a disproportionately prominent role in Congolese politics. This dominance has bred strong anti-Tutsi sentiment among many Congolese, who view Tutsis as proxy agents of the Rwandan government, assisting its attempts to maintain influence in DRC and control the country’s resources.
This week’s reports of Rwandan incursions into DRC are undoubtedly stirring up memories of Rwandan occupation during Congo’s devastating civil war. At the same time, the growing strength of General Laurent Nkunda, whose forces commit widespread atrocities against civilians, has rekindled anti-Tutsi sentiment in DRC. In Rwanda, Nkunda has been able to rally support by highlighting the increased vulnerability of the Tutsi population, and by invoking the 1994 genocide in connection with the activities of the Congolese government.
Some have argued that Rwanda’s and General Nkunda’s “playing the genocide card” has made many among the international community reluctant to speak out strongly against the Rwandan government. The international community—MONUC in particular—has also been criticized for failing to adequately speak out against the Congolese government for failing to uphold its commitments under several internationally-brokered agreements. As tensions escalate, it is clear that a renewed sense of urgency by the international community to hold all parties accountable is necessary to avoid a return to regional war.
-Nina McMurry, Congo Education Coordinator