Deployment to the DRC: The Rwandan Dilemma

10 MINS READApr 16, 2001 | 05:00 GMT

After years of fighting Africa's most complex contemporary war, the armies of six nations disengaged on March 29 and allowed U.N. observers to deploy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These observers will have to operate against the backdrop of ruined infrastructure and competing claims on the country's valuable mines. But U.N. observers will likely face their most severe challenge in the east. There, Rwandan forces will have a hard time withdrawing. The Rwandans' local allies have reason to turn on them. And Hutu rebels in the region could threaten the Rwandan regime's survival.


U.N. troops have begun their deployment to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Contingent upon the complete disengagement of the estimated 60,000 foreign troops, the deployment marks the first substantive step toward ending the country's nearly three-year-old war. The six warring nations involved in the DRC agreed to the disengagement during a summit in Zambia.

Efforts to end the war have become increasingly complex, reflecting the conflict's multidimensional nature, its shifting alliances of local forces and invading armies and their myriad demands. But the comparatively simple motivations behind the war will dictate the terms of its end. Five of six nations involved are motivated by greed: a grab for land and resources. Even supposedly neutral nations, such as South Africa and Belgium, will seek to continue to literally extract wealth.

Rwanda is the glaring exception to this equation. Unlike the other players, the Rwandan government has consistently been driven by security concerns. The government in Kigali has pursued the conflict as an extension of Rwanda's ethnic struggle between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-led government. The recent withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the town of Pweto in Katanga province indicates the approximately 30,000 Rwandan troops were spread too thin to carry out their core mission: preventing Hutu raids across the Rwandan border, some 450 miles away.

Unlike the other invading armies, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (APR) has a troubled and increasingly strained relationship with its local rebel allies. A split is probable between the rebels' former leadership, which still commands loyalty from its fighters, and the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Simultaneously, the Rwandan forces' chief concern - some 60,000 Hutu rebels, known as the Interhamwe - show no evidence they will stop fighting.

Fighting will continue in the southeastern provinces where Kinshasa's allies, the Interhamwe, the Mayi Mayi and even Burundi rebels will see the deployment of U.N. forces as an opportunity to secure weapons and supplies. But the threat of Hutu action will make it difficult for Kigali to call its troops home.

The Six-Sided War
The conflict is a labyrinth of political alliances between no less than six nations and as many as 10 local groups. On one side are more than 20,000 Angolan, Namibian and Zimbabwean soldiers allied with 60,000 government troops fielded by the government in Kinshasa, though these have steadily deserted.

On the other side is a tenuous alliance between Rwandan forces and an estimated 6,000 Ugandan troops. Ugandan forces have succeeded in setting up a friendly government in the northeast under the Congolese Liberation Front (CLF), led by Jean Pierre Bemba, reports Ugandan daily New Vision. The Rwandans provide support, in the form of logistics and intelligence, and direct the 25,000 fighters of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), a conglomerate of ethnic groups headquartered in Goma, on the Rwandan border.

The government of the DRC on April 16 called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in order to seek economic sanctions against Rwanda, accusing the government of delaying its redeployment of forces. The request follows a setback in the peace process over the weekend when rebels from the RCD barred nearly 120 U.N. peacekeepers from deploying in Kisangani.

The war has been a fairly straightforward effort to seize the valuable assets - bauxite, cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold and timber - of a vast nation, about the size of Western Europe, which has become increasingly difficult to control for successively weak central governments. The 1997 collapse of the Mobutu government's secret police force unleashed a clash of the country's 200 ethnic groups, and outside interests seized the opportunity.

Even countries not directly involved in the war have powerful economic interests. Belgium and South Africa are partners with Rwanda in the RCD-controlled company SOMIGL, reported Agence France-Presse. The company makes coltan, an alloy of columbium and tantalite used for high-temperature-resistant metals in armaments and aeronautics. Coltan exports from the DRC are estimated at more than 10,000 tons or 10,000 million kilos per month with an estimated world market value of $250 per kilogram.

The new president, Joseph Kabila, is weaker than his father. The current Kabila government appears to have moved toward a peace settlement to preserve itself and appease senior officers in the military, worn out by a war of attrition. These officers and civilian elites appear to be driven by self-preservation; upon the January 2001 death of the late president, Laurent Kabila, Ugandan and Rwandan forces might have launched a combined offensive to capture Kinshasa and win the war.

True Intentions
The government in Kigali has not publicly stated its distrust of the Kabila government's true intentions. But there are clear signs the Rwandan government does not believe Kabila is committed to peace. As a result, the Rwandans are offering Kabila the opportunity to demonstrate his intentions on the battlefield, while taking only measured steps toward a withdrawal that continues to ensure Rwanda's security interests.

For example, the recent Rwandan withdrawal from the border town of Pweto was a politically important gesture. Having fled the battlefield and suffering desertions, Kinshasa's troops were in no position to retake the town. Yet Rwandan forces did not merely withdraw the 9 miles required by the Harare cease-fire agreement; the Rwandan troops withdrew some 124 miles. The withdrawal also underscored the Rwandans' primary interest: By operating closer to their border, they could better secure it against Hutu attacks.

From Rwanda's perspective, Kabila is an enigma and a potentially dangerous one. At 29, he is inexperienced and the loyalty of elites and military leaders is questionable. He is rootless in the context of Kinshasa's shifting politics, speaking neither the official language, French, nor the more commonly spoken Kingala. And there are rumors about his true origin. Speculation in Jeune Afrique, a Paris-based weekly, claims Kabila's parents were Rwandan and his mother subsequently married the late president.

The president, from a Rwandan perspective, is likely a puppet, with the strings pulled at various times by the Angolans, the Zimbabweans, the Kinshasa elite and the military. Angolan and Zimbabwean troops reportedly secured the capital for Joseph Kabila's January inauguration.

The Hutu Question
Kabila has not launched the combined operations of government forces alongside the Interhamwe - Hutu irregulars - against the Rwandans that marked the summer of 2000.

But Kabila is constrained by circumstance, as opposed to being clearly dedicated to peace.

His military, driven by desertions and dissent, is not the same one that served his father, before reported disputes and his death. The combat effectiveness of DRC forces is unclear, but human sources in Africa indicate the army is in disrepair. There are still disputes, factionalization and front-line troops, lost to casualties and desertion, have been replaced with inexperienced children and teenagers. The 60,000-strong army is in transition, however.

The Rwandan Hutu refugee population has no reason to buy into the peace process now unfolding. Since they are not Congolese, they are not part of the inter-Congolese dialogue and will not be part of any unity government. Neither are they to peaceably return to take power in Kigali. In fact, since the cease-fire agreement, fighting has intensified in South Kivu, a southeastern province, according to South Africa's News24.

The fighting here is an attempt to push back Rwandan forces. Fighting south of Bukavu, on the border, during January and February was a bid to dislodge Rwandan forces from the area, which is a base of operations for Rwandan forces and a convenient jumping off point for rebel Hutu raids into Rwandan territory.

The presence of these Hutu forces was the reason Rwanda invaded the eastern DRC in the first place. From Kigali's perspective, the chief objective of the war remains unsecured, particularly if Kinshasa's intentions toward helping the Hutu forces remain cloudy.

Rwanda ultimately has no compelling reason to withdraw its forces. While Rwandan forces are worn out by the war, the government can continue to fund its effort, based on revenues from mines in South Kivu and North Kivu provinces.

In addition, there is reason to believe the Rwandans are getting outside assistance: Last fall, two Rwandan military helicopters appeared in Swaziland, in South Africa, local officials told a BBC reporter. It appears the damaged aircraft were bound for repairs in South Africa, officially neutral in the DRC's conflict.

Evidence of a Potential Split
Compounding problems for the Rwandan government is evidence of a rift that may emerge inside the political leadership of the Rwandan-backed rebels, the RCD.

Last October, Kigali reportedly sent a delegation of high-level government officials to Goma, the RCD capital, to accept the resignation of the group's president and two vice presidents, according to Reuters. The group's president, Emile Llunga, was replaced by Adolphe Onusumba, a 35-year-old doctor who previously acted as the RCD's foreign minister.

Kigali was likely trying to tighten its hold on local rebel allies. But there are signs the move may backfire, both within the RCD and elsewhere. Where Llunga enjoyed considerable loyalty within the ranks of the RCD's combatants, Onusumba has only limited military training.

The way Llunga was replaced, as well, suggests the move was heavy-handed and could reinforce the view of Onusumba as a puppet of the Rwandan government. Already, senior ethnic Congolese members of the RCD have complained the group's leadership contains too many Rwandan Tutsis, according to human sources in Africa.

Onusumba has not been well received abroad, either. In March, he traveled to South Africa and spent four days waiting to meet with South African President Thabo Mbeki, according to Agence France-Presse. It is unclear whether Onusumba ever gained an audience with Mbeki. In contrast, however, Jean Pierre Bemba, leader of the Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Front, met with Mbeki March 3.

As pressure grows for the war's end, the interests of Rwanda's allies will begin to diverge from Rwanda's interest. With a peace deal, there is no hope of taking Kinshasa by force - a stated goal of the RCD. Even the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, intended to draw up a post-war DRC, does not really offer the RCD rank and file very much. Only top leaders will take part - and the top leadership is clearly manipulated by the Rwandan government.

An outright withdrawal by Rwandan forces would be problematic; they need their allies to secure their western flank. A split with the RCD would make such an operation complicated. The group's factionalization, say in a leadership squabble, would also hamper a Rwandan withdrawal. Such a possibility is not far-fetched; the RCD has split before and sent a splinter group into the arms of the Ugandan government in 1999.

A reoccurrence could again turn some of the rebels toward Uganda in order to ensure a flow of weapons into the country while securing an avenue for trade to the outside world. The Ugandan government's aims are economic and it could easily be enticed to assist splinter elements of the RCD in an effort to gain the economic assets now under Rwanda's control. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni would be happy to fight the Congolese down to the last Rwandan.

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