When a UN Group of Experts (GoE) report found that Rwanda was supporting rebels fighting a deadly conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a number of countries including the U.S. and Britain cut or suspended foreign aid in protest.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame steadfastly denied supporting the Congo militias that have been wreaking havoc along the Rwanda-Congo border, but the evidence was strong enough to convince even some of Kagame’s biggest supporters that Western powers needed to send a message of disapproval.
That didn’t include Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Buffett and Blair argued against the move, contending that reducing aid to Rwanda would just cause more harm than good to the unstable Great Lakes region of central Africa.
“Cutting aid does nothing to address the underlying issues driving conflict in the region, it only ensures that the Rwandan people will suffer — and risks further destabilizing an already troubled region,” Blair and Buffett wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article.
This was followed by a report from the Howard G Buffett Foundation making the same points. The report went further by questioning the reliability of the GoE – the group that originally reported evidence the the Rwandan government was supporting rebels in the eastern DRC.
It’s worth noting that the Buffett Foundation report was written by unknown authors and using unnamed sources.
The Buffett Foundation report attacks the UN experts and then makes the case that pointing fingers is counterproductive. Says the report: “Our Foundation is not interested in apportioning blame for what we view is a fundamental failure in the GoE process in 2012….”
“We will let the report – and the information on our website – speak for itself,” replied the foundation’s chief of staff, Ann Kelly when asked about the unnamed contributors.
Lake Partners Strategy Consultants and the Crumpton Group LLC are listed as organizations that worked with the Buffett Foundation on the report, but they too were unwilling to talk about the report or how they reached their conclusions.
So I spoke with regional experts about the report, both on and off the record. A consensus emerged. The Buffett Foundation report is simply inaccurate, they told me.
Despite its imperfections, the UN GoE report provides sufficient evidence to show Rwanda’s connection to the armed rebels in the DRC – enough to justify a suspension of foreign aid by foreign supporters like the US and Britain.
Many East Africa experts say Rwanda’s support of armed rebel groups in the DRC continues to destabilize the region and sap resources for reform. The actions by the international community and the ongoing UN peace talks and framework provide an opportunity to engage in meaningful change for the DRC, they say. Ensuring its success means preventing rebellion and holding all supporters accountable, these experts told me.
Meddling in the DR Congo
Rwanda has not been able to escape allegations that it is meddling in the DRC. Former Rwandan ambassador to Washington Theogene Rudasingwa explained to Newsweek in a January article how the Rwandan government extracted money out of the DRC.
“After the first Congo war, money began coming in through military channels and never entered the coffers of the Rwandan state,” says Rudasingwa, Kagame’s former lieutenant. “It is RPF money, and Kagame is the only one who knows how much money it is—or how it is spent. In meetings it was often said, ‘For Rwanda to be strong, Congo must be weak, and the Congolese must be divided.’”
In mid 2012, an addendum to the report by the UN Group of Experts (GoE) uncovered evidence of Rwanda supporting rebels in the Eastern DRC. The evidence collected by the anonymous group of experts found that the M23 rebels benefited from coordination with and support from the Rwandan military. Further, the report cited that the level of support went all the way up to the Rwandan Defense Minister.
The UK reacted promptly by withholding £16 million in aid promised to Rwanda. Outgoing international development secretary Andrew Mitchell released the controversially released the money in September causing controversy in the UK. However, his replacement Justine Greening announced the suspension of £21 million in planned budget support for Rwanda at the end of November.
Military aid totaling $200,000 was withheld by the United States when the information first emerged in July, but sanctions stopped there. Human Rights groups joined members of Congress in December imploring the Obama Administration take further steps to place pressure on Rwanda. Germany held back €21 million in planned aid and the EU suspended €70 million in planned budgetary support.
“This is not a matter of aid stopping because of advocacy efforts,” explained Aaron Hall, Associate Director of Research for the Enough Project. “Aid stopped because there was credible information from state intelligence reports that showed these connections are real and that Rwanda was in violation of the U.N. Arms Embargo on Congo and implicated in destabilizing a neighboring state.”
A reliance on aid likely affords Rwanda the opportunity to spend money on arming and supporting the M23 rebellion, said academic Laura Seay in a blog post responding to Blair and Buffett’s FP article.
Blair and Buffett also ignore the fact that having so much aid support frees up other resources for the Rwandan government to use in its military adventures in the Congo. Were Rwanda not wasting money on supporting the M23, Kigali would be able to fund many of the excellent development initiatives that were previously funded with aid dollars.
For a country that relies on foreign aid to account for over 40% of its budget, the cuts represent significant action by the international community. According to experts that I spoke with, the disruption in aid flows is encouraging Rwanda to withdraw its support for the M23 rebels and is participate in the regional peace framework.
The aid cuts are having a direct economic impact. The Rwandan finance ministry revised its GDP growth expectation down from 7.8% to 6.3%, reported the Economist.
Too Much Finger Pointing?
The Buffett Foundation report makes clear that it does not have interest in assigning blame.
“Our Foundation is not interested in apportioning blame for what we view is a fundamental failure in the GoE process in 2012; we will leave the point-counterpoint on questions of fact to others,” says the only bold section in the report’s introduction.
It calls for the cooperation between regional, state and international actors in order to resolve the many problems that exist in the DRC. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has taken a similar tactic when asked about the issue of Rwanda’s involvement in the M23 rebellion.
“The blame game doesn’t help anyone,” said Kagame to Christiane Amanpour when she confronted him about Rwanda’s involvement. “It’s not just an issue of M23 or one other problem. It’s a number of problems that are together that we need to sort out.”
Former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer made the same case to Al Jazeera saying, “I think the key issue here is to look forward and see how to resolve this. The pointing of fingers has never helped to resolve the crisis in the Great Lakes region.”
According to the Buffett Foundation report, the GoE place too much attention on the role of Rwanda and not enough on the systemic problems in the region. Hall from the Enough Project counters that the GoE fulfilled its mandate to track illegal arms trafficking and trade to rebel groups.
Jason Stearns, Director of the Rift Valley Institute’s Usalama Project, agreed, adding, “It does place most weight on the M23, but I think that is fair, given that this rebellion was the largest source of instability in the region in 2012. But the GoE does spill a lot of ink discussing criminal networks within the Congolese army, as well as support to other armed groups.”
Stearns added that there are questions to be raised about the lack of collaboration with the UN peacekeeping mission and the governments of Uganda and Rwanda. However, the Buffett Foundation does nothing to carry out a ‘serious’ evaluation of the UN’s report.
Additionally, the Buffett report points to the breakdown of the relationship between the GoE and the governments of Rwanda and Uganda is taken as evidence of the GoE’s deficiencies.
“It is not significant who was first to withdraw cooperation. The failure in process undermines the credibility of the findings, limiting potential policy prescriptions that could reduce violence in the Great Lakes region,” wrote the authors.
Stearns says the breakdown of the relationship may have been tied to the fact that the GoE uncovered information that Rwanda and Uganda did not like. Journalist David Aronson took a stronger tone in accusing Rwanda for the breakdown in its relationship with the GoE.
“[T]here’s zero doubt about who broke off the relationship between the GoE and the Rwandan government. The Rwandans did,” wrote Aronson in his blog.
The Way Forward
The attempt to discredit the Group of Experts (GoE) report and shift the conversation away from Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC seems to be working.
Donors are responding by channeling aid through non-government actors. Greening announced at the start of March that £16 million in UK aid money will make its way to humanitarian groups working in Rwanda rather than the government. Germany also reversed course and unblocked the $26 million it suspended in 2012.
Critics of the Buffett Foundation report do agree that the causes of instability in the DRC are multifaceted and require a host of solutions.
“The Congolese government has certainly played a very negative role in the conflict, often arming armed groups and failing to crack down on criminal networks within its own security forces,” explained Stearns.
That means that any lasting peace deal will require engagement from a diverse sets of interests with the Congolese government.
“It appears as if the government in the first line is not interested in reforms. The non-existence of any meaningful security sector reform approaches tells the tale,” said Christoph Vogel, Mercator Fellow on international affairs.
“I have not witnessed any peace effort in DRC so far, that has tried to – either by carrots or sticks – seriously embrace political elites that have been engaging in incitement, funding, or protection of illegal and armed activity in the DRC.”
The Buffett Foundation report attempts to shift the blame away from Rwanda and on to the problems of governance and security in the DRC. Congolese experts argue that the continued rebellions make it impossible for such reforms.
“[I]gnoring Rwanda’s role in the Kivus as a source of conflict will make the situation worse, not better. And continuing to fund a government that spends its own resources on rebels who rape women and conscript child soldiers is unconscionable for most taxpayers in donor states,” blogged Seay.
A UN led regional framework was signed in Addis Ababa by the eleven African countries, including the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, in February. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stressed the importance of the countries respecting the sovereignty of their neighbors in an apparent reference to the GoE report.
“It is equally imperative that the DRC’s neighbors respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity by preventing external support to armed groups, which is a violation of international obligations,” she said.
Despite the challenges, there is a feeling of optimism in response to the UN framework. With neighboring countries participating and the global community engaged it appears that now is the time to take permanent steps towards peace.
“There is a unique opportunity given the engagement locally, regionally and internationally to change the security situation in the DR Congo through the UN framework,” says Hall.