US tells Rwanda to stop backing Congo rebels … again

Col. Sultani Makenga of the rebel forces formerly known as M23, now the Congolese Revolutionary Army.
Col. Sultani Makenga of the rebel forces formerly known as M23, now the Congolese Revolutionary Army.
Flickr, Pan-African News Wire

Now that the world has sufficiently celebrated the fact that British royalty is still able to procreate, perhaps we can turn to more urgent matters: Like DR Congo.

Given the drumbeat of bad news and eruptions of violence out of eastern Congo, it’s easy to think whatever is happening there is just more of the same – the same, chronic fights between DR Congo’s somewhat dysfunctional military (not to mention its government) and the variously named militias operating for any number of causes (including just pure criminality) in the region.

But in fact, things may be a bit different this time.

For one thing, the United States government is publicly reprimanding the government of Rwanda for its support of the most powerful and violent rebel army in eastern Congo, the M23.

That’s not the first time this has happened, however, and the typical response from Rwandan President (and former military general) Paul Kagame is to either not respond at all or simply deny Rwandan support for the M23. Almost nobody seems to believe the denials, but the net effect is to negate the entire discussion and wait for disinterest to set in.

What’s new is that the calls for Rwanda to stop supporting the Congo militia are not going away. And there are other signs.

Paul-Kagame-300x282What has long protected Kagame is that he is much admired by many in the West (Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Jeff Sachs and physician activist Paul Farmer among the admirers). That, and the fact that the country did get screwed over by the international community during the 1994 genocide. So it’s kind of easy for Kagame to simply shrug off Western chastisements or calls for policy changes.

The Rwandan President can be quite charming, convincing. On a visit to Rwanda in 2011, I had the opportunity to interview Kagame with a number of other journalists on a trip with the International Reporting Project. I noted three Rwandan journalists had been jailed during our two-week visit and that a number of human rights and press organizations view his presidency as fairly authoritarian.

Kagame very nicely explained to me that I was a typical naive American with ideals and outside views that don’t fit Rwanda’s reality.

Others have criticized my reporting, based on my very short visit and neophyte’s view of things, but I still think it’s fair to say Rwanda presents a dilemma for the humanitarian community. Yes, the tiny war-torn nation has made a lot of progress against poverty, diseases of poverty and on a number of development indices. But it is also not a place known for freedom of speech, vibrant political opposition or other basics of democracy. For example, see what happened this week to some Catholic protesters in Rwanda.

The reality, from Kagame’s perspective anyway, is that Congo hosts maybe a million or so people (mostly members of the Hutu community, which instigated the 1994 genocide and then lost the civil war) who are considered quite hostile to Rwanda’s interests – as defined by Kagame’s Tutsi-led government. Since the Congolese government is, well, kind of MIA in the eastern region, Rwanda (and Uganda) frequently feel a need to handle things themselves across the border.

This has been going on for some time now, but the international community appears to be getting fed up with it.

The US government’s repeated calls for Rwanda to stop meddling (violently) in Congo is one piece of evidence that we may be entering a new phase of not looking the other way anymore.

The United Nations also recently took the extraordinary step of sending troops to eastern Congo to militarily engage with the rebels if necessary – as opposed to the typical strategy of sending in the Blue Helmets to stand around or fire only in self-defense. As Voice of America reports, the UN troops have yet to engage. But they do have more aggressive marching orders this time.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • mikegolomb

    As you stated, one can’t blame Kagame for ignoring Western calls. Last time, European “intervention” prolonged the crisis, arguably contributing to the state of affairs today. The international community should be assessing localized situations according to regional contexts, should they chose to intervene. Not an easy mess to step into the middle of, but as we learned in the early 90s, it’s not a neatly polarized situation…

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