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The long-running militia rivalries and accusations of foreign depredations in eastern Congo have flared again with dangerous consequences for the region
Trust between the Congolese and Rwandan Presidents Félix Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame has slumped to its lowest ebb for three years. Tshisekedi accuses Kagame of backing the M23 militia as a means of looting minerals in eastern Congo, warning the crisis could lead to all-out war. A hastily organised summit between the two leaders, hosted by Angola's President João Lourenço, offers little more than a short breathing space.
When Tshisekedi came to power in 2019, his stated priority was to bring to heel the dozens of armed groups that were spawned over decades of conflict in the country's east. However, his plan to outsource that task to his neighbours Uganda and Rwanda, both of which have a long history of plundering eastern Congo-K, appears to be one of the principal factors in stoking the return of the Tutsi-led M23 rebellion, previously backed by both countries. Diplomats in the region worry that M23's return could unleash prolonged instability, just as Islamic State is also gaining greater influence.
After its defeat in 2013 at the hands of Congo-K's army and UN troops, M23 split into two factions, which were respectively given refuge in Rwandan and Ugandan military camps. In the years that followed, the group's current leader Sultani Makenga, then part of the faction based in Uganda, prepared the group's reunification and return to Congo-K, while Kigali and Kampala ignored extradition requests for him and other M23 leaders for alleged war crimes. At the end of 2016, Makenga then moved back into Congo-K's North Kivu province and set up a military base in the volcanic tri-border area facing Uganda and Rwanda, from where he recruited new elements, including young Tutsi men from refugee camps in both countries.
In November last year his forces sprang into action, capturing swathes of territory in North Kivu. Since March the group has stepped up its operations, raiding a Congolese military base, downing a UN helicopter and teeing itself up for a possible attack on Congo's eastern city of Goma. Kinshasa's government, which has paraded Rwandan soldiers it says it captured during battles with M23, accuses Rwanda of backing the rebels, which Kigali denies. Kagame counter-accuses the Congolese army of now working with Hutu rebels of the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), some of whom were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide which saw hundreds of thousands of Tutsi slaughtered. Angry mobs in Kinshasa and across the east now prowl around looking for Tutsi to lynch, giving the M23 further cause to justify its military campaign.
This all marks a serious deterioration in relations between Kinshasa and Kigali. Just a few years ago in 2019, Tshisekedi had invited Rwandan troops to attack the FDLR, which they did, killing a number of its leaders. As Rwanda stepped up those operations, its intelligence services briefed diplomats in the region that the security services next door in Uganda were quietly providing support to the FDLR as well as to members of a Tutsi-led Rwandan opposition group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), to stymie Kigali's influence in eastern Congo-K (AC Vol 62 No 5, Nowhere to hide). By that time, Rwanda had already closed its border crossing with Uganda at Gatuna, with political tensions between the two countries spiralling.
Rwanda's government was further outraged in November 2020, when Kinshasa agreed to a deal giving Ugandan engineering company Dott Services majority shares in a joint venture with Congolese parastatal Société Aurifère et Industrielle du Kivu et du Maniema (Sakima), a company with rights to mine gold in Maniema province. Dott Services is widely believed to be linked to President Yoweri Museveni's brother Salim Saleh (aka Caleb Akandwanaho). That deal with Sakima came alongside another agreement giving Dott Services the contracts to rehabilitate more than 220 kilometres of roads connecting North Kivu to Uganda, a direct threat to Kigali's commercial interests and its influence over the illicit economy in trafficked Congolese minerals.
Kigali would subsequently press Kinshasa into signing a contract with Dither Ltd, a firm widely believed to be linked to Rwanda's military, to refine gold produced by Sakima, setting Rwandan and Ugandan interests in Congo-K on a collision course. Since M23's rebound, Kinshasa has cancelled Dither's contract, as well as other bilateral agreements.
Following suicide bomb attacks in Kampala last November, attributed to the Islamic State-aligned Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group also present in North Kivu, Tshisekedi acquiesced to thousands of Ugandan forces then deploying into the province, under Operation Shujaa (AC Vol 62 No 24, Kampala bombings linked to Islamic State). The deployment irked Kagame, who sees the move as a foil for additional protection for the activities of Dott Services. When the M23 attacked the border town of Bunagana in March, Ugandan troops stepped in to protect the staff and assets of Dott Services. Meanwhile, Kagame has voiced scepticism over the efficiency of the operations, while his intelligence services say the ADF has started recruiting elements from the Hutu community, including those suspected of FDLR links.
Diplomats in the region fear the M23's resurgence in Congo-K's North Kivu province could provoke a greater security crisis in the Great Lakes. The head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo-K, Bintou Keita, says the group has started ramping up its firepower and may surpass the ability of the UN force's 12,000 troops to defend Congolese territory. Congo-K's army is also rapidly deploying troops from other zones to contain the M23 threat, leaving security vacuums elsewhere, including in areas where those redeployed troops were once fighting the ADF.
Security officials in Kigali and Kampala accuse each other of sponsoring elements within the ADF to inflict more terror attacks against each other. Rwandan investigations into a foiled ADF bomb plot in Kigali last year revealed that some of the dynamite captured from the alleged perpetrators was sourced from Kyoga Dynamics, a joint venture between the Ugandan military and a Chinese engineering company. Investigators researching the ADF also say that its links to Islamic State, which appears to be trying to spread its influence from Congo to Mozambique via East Africa, are tightening.
Congolese officials are starting to believe that Uganda may once again also be providing the M23 some measure of support, rather than seeing the group as being completely pocketed by Kigali. After the M23 seized the border town of Bunagana on 13 June, it now gets to tax cross-border trade flowing between Uganda and North Kivu. Some UN officials on the ground in North Kivu say that there is evidence that following a recent attack near Bunagana, some M23 units exfiltrated out of Congolese territory through Uganda on their way to Rwanda.
In the midst of M23's rebound, Kenya's outgoing President, Uhuru Kenyatta, appears to be pushing hard to deploy his country's troops into eastern Congo. Sources close to State House in Nairobi tell us that since the Kampala suicide attacks, Kenya's intelligence services have started to play closer attention to security matters in eastern Congo, especially given an increasing reported prevalence of Kenyan recruits who are joining the ADF. They suspect some of these men are working with other jihadi groups in Tanzania who have also been sending fighters from East Africa into Mozambique, where authorities have been battling an Islamist insurgency since 2017.
Since Congo-K's entry into the East African Community in March, Kenyatta has hosted two rounds of consultations involving regional heads of state in Nairobi, the first one in April and the second on 20 June (AC Vol 63 No 10, Kenya sponsors risky anti-militia plan). At the June meeting, presidents Kenyatta, Museveni, and Kagame, accompanied by Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye and Salva Kiir of South Sudan, finally agreed that a joint force would enter Congo-K in late July or August and go against all armed groups that refuse to lay down their weapons.
Should the deployments take place, Kenyan forces are likely to deploy in the thick of the action in North Kivu, and come up against not just the M23 and FDLR, but a number of Hutu and other ethnic groups from the Hunde and Nyanga communities. Burundi's forces, which, according to UN investigators, already deployed into South Kivu in recent months, will be given the task of neutralising armed groups in that province. Operation Shujaa will likely remain in place. Tshisekedi is said to have approved the concept of operations, so long as Rwanda's forces are kept off the battlefield. However, these operations still throw up uncomfortable questions.
Some suspect that if the Kenyan deployment happens, Rwanda and Uganda would allow the exfiltration of the M23 out of North Kivu, letting Kenyan forces focus on fighting other armed groups, including the FDLR. 'This may well be the plan,' says one African Union diplomat privy to internal discussions. Observers in the region dread what Burundian forces might get up to in South Kivu. Burundian forces often work hand in glove with ethnic-Hutu Imbonerakure militia, and together are likely to use local Congolese militia allies to target their main enemy, RED-Tabara, a Burundian Tutsi rebel group operating in South Kivu.
In the meantime, Tshisekedi's predilection for using foreign forces to deliver against one of his core political promises is causing internal discord within the army. Some of the senior command, we hear, question his reliance on Uganda and Rwanda, and believe the East African initiative will open further Pandora's boxes. Meanwhile, Tshisekedi is coming under increasing pressure from Western diplomats to embark on major reforms to Congo-K's army, which by all accounts operates as a criminal cartel whose officers often collaborate with the very same armed groups they are supposed to fight against.
Tension brews over who might succeed Museveni
Rwanda's poor relations with Uganda have been tempered by intensive efforts by President Yoweri Museveni's son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who serves as commander of Uganda's land forces. Muhoozi has frequently tweeted praise of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, accompanied by tweets condemning rebels from the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC).
The warming ties have rankled others within Uganda's military, who see Muhoozi's ties to Kagame as part of a strategy to consolidate his position as his father's successor (AC Vol 63 No 9, Muhoozi's coming out party). We hear Muhoozi's uncle Salim Saleh disapproves of his political pretensions and his relations with Kagame. Saleh, who runs a parallel military network to Muhoozi, is widely believed by Rwandan officials to be a business partner of Rwandan exile Tribert Rujugiro, who heads the RNC and runs a tobacco plantation in Uganda's West Nile region.
Recent drama in the Ugandan military has raised the tensions to the fore. While Uganda's chief of military staff Wilson Mbadi attended last month's Nairobi summit, his deputy Peter Elwelu told the media that Uganda's army had been placed on 'class 1 standby', the highest form of alert. The news came amid confusion in the military, following tweets by Muhoozi insisting that its Operation Shujaa – aimed against Islamists in Congo-Kinshasa – was being put on hold, in contradiction to an official statement from the Ugandan military.
We hear that during this time, Muhoozi had also been trying to replace two divisional commanders, Sam Kawagga and Joseph Balikudembe, controlling the central and eastern regions of Uganda, but these orders were then reversed by Mbadi and Elwelu on Museveni's orders.
In the days that followed, Ugandan media reported that Museveni had ordered Muhoozi to stop tweeting on national security matters. Diplomats in Uganda, however, worry that Museveni and Saleh could find it hard to force Muhoozi to permanently stand down, given that the President's son runs has built up a powerful loyalist network in the army, as part of efforts by his father to coup-proof himself.
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