Strained DRC-Rwanda Relations Challenges Regional Aspirations

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a history of conflict. For instance, in the eastern part of the country, violence has been primarily perpetrated by militia groups since the 1990s. The most recent series of violence observed in the region can be traced to the rebel group March 23 Movement (M23), which carried out attacks on military positions on June 28, 2022. The armed forces of DRC have accused Rwanda of supporting the rebel group.  The Congolese government has also accused Rwanda of deploying disguised special forces officers into North Kivu Province, which is located at the shared Rwanda-DRC border.

The Rwandese government vehemently denies having any relations with M23 and has launched counter-accusations against DRC. Rwanda has accused the Congolese army of firing within the Rwandese sovereign territory, and fighting alongside the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is an armed group run by ethnic Hutus who fled Rwanda following the 1994 genocide and were allegedly involved in the atrocities during the genocide.

Attacks by M23 have resulted in devastating consequences for the civilians who are caught in the middle and have led to the decision by the East African Community (EAC) to deploy an East African regional force to DRC. This effort will exclude Rwandese troops as per DRC’s wish not to host the state’s troops in her territory, and the suspension of bilateral relations between DRC and Rwanda.

Strained DRC-Rwanda Relations

DRC and Rwanda have a shared history that is characterized by strained diplomatic ties. For instance, during the Second Congo War (1998 to 2003), one of the deadliest conflicts since the Second World War, Rwanda, and DRC combatants fought on opposite sides. However, a shift occurred in 2019, when President Felix Tshisekedi of DRC was elected president. The Tshisekedi administration was open to improving relations with Rwanda which was not widely popular in DRC.

This fostered hope for the establishment of strong bilateral diplomatic ties between the states, especially with DRC’s admission into the EAC. However, diplomatic relations between DRC and Rwanda have been deteriorating following the accusations by DRC. Tensions between the two neighbouring countries have been characterized by the cancellation of all flights by RwandAir into DRC and the recent protests led by activists mainly youth groups in Kinshasa, calling for the end of diplomatic ties between the two states. There has also been a public outcry in DRC calling for the expulsion of the Rwandese ambassador to DR Congo. Commenting on the recent events, President Tshisekedi reiterated that while the Congolese government is interested in peace, it should not be interpreted as weakness by its neighbours or an opportunity to provoke them.

A Threat to Regionalism and Pan-Africanism?

The resurgence by M23, a rebel military group based in eastern areas of the country, and the resulting violations against human rights in eastern DRC have attracted regional interest. EAC member states, during a meeting of the military chiefs of the EAC in Nairobi on June 20, 2022, agreed to deploy an East Africa regional force – excluding Rwanda, to deal with the threat that M23 poses in DRC. This was after Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta called for the involvement of EAC in pacifying Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu Provinces. EAC’s mission is to widen and deepen economic, political, social, and cultural integration in order to improve the quality of life of its people. Sustainable development cannot occur without peace, hence EAC’s interest in the stability of DRC.

The willingness of other member states to help DRC to deal with M23 enhances collective security in the region, and it creates precedence for other security threats to be dealt with through regional efforts. However, the exclusion of Rwanda should not be overlooked. As per international law, the Congolese government has sovereignty over their territory and to whom they permit entry, but this affects EAC’s effectiveness. In retrospect, a lack of trust and a clash between heads of states led to the collapse of EAC.

Currently, DRC also has complicacted relations with Uganda, which has been an ally of Rwanda. Even if the EAC does not collapse as it did before, it will be largely incapacitated if these three states continue to experience tensions. The key to regionalism through economic blocs, which is focusing on the political interests of a particular  region, is cooperation and coordinated implementation. This is highly unlikely to occur if DR Congo, Rwanda, and by extension Uganda, continue to feud.

Economic blocs such as the EAC are not just a chance to foster regionalism through economic integration. They are also a means by which greater political integration can be realised. In Africa, the idea of a united African state is closely linked to the ideals of Pan-Africanism. As propagated by Kwame Nkrumah, the key to the enhancement of African economic and political equality is integration. EAC’s effectiveness also relies on the development of shared ideals and a sense of singular identity among the civilians of the member states. Currently, the tensions among these states have transcended the political sphere and there is increased pressure from the public for DR Congo to sever diplomatic ties with Rwanda.

Longevity of EAC

It is crucial that the threat posed by M23 and all other militia or rebel groups in eastern DRC are dealt with through collective security. It is equally as important, for the sake of regional unity and the future of regional cooperation in the EAC bloc, that the diplomatic ties between states are enhanced through the promotion of cooperation. Both President Tshisekedi and President Kagame have previously put aside disputes for the sake of peace. In order to encourage this to happen once more, the dispute between DRC and Rwanda needs to be mediated at the regional level, through the EAC as President Kenyatta is currently attempting or the African Union (AU). This will be key in delivering justice and preventing further souring of relations between the heads of states and their citizens.

Raudhat is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute.

Photo: Civilians have been fleeing the fighting between Congolese soldiers and M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo Credit: Moses Sawasawa/AP/Picture Alliance)

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