How DR Congo conflict could ignite regional war

Un GR de Kabil tira sur une foule de partisans de l’opposition.

Un GR de Kabila tira sur une foule de partisans de l’opposition a kinshasa.

By Andrew M. Mwenda / The Independent

The likely implications of Ntaganda’s flight

On Monday March 18, former leader of the Congolese rebel movement CNDP, Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, appeared unexpectedly at the United States embassy in Kigali to hand himself over to the Americans. He was smarting from a military defeat at the hands his erstwhile ally and now rival, Sultan Makenga, who heads the M23 rebel movement in eastern DRC.

After walking through Virunga National Park that covers the border areas of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, he drove to Kigali most likely from Ruhengeri unnoticed by Rwanda’s security forces. Rwandan officials were taken by surprised when they heard from the Americans about Ntaganda’s appearance in their capital seeking extradition to The Hague where he is wanted for war crimes.


The previous day, March 17, the ramp of Ntaganda’s defeated army had entered Rwanda seeking refugee alongside their political leader Jean Marie Runiga. Rwanda placed Runiga under house arrest as it prepared to hand over the 700 combatants with him over to the UN as refugees.


The recent flare-up in the fighting in Congo has taken the international community by surprise as well. For more than a year, the international community bought tall tales by the UN “panel of experts” that there was no rebellion in Congo but a Rwandan invasion of the country. The M23 was seen as a Rwanda proxy and American and European journalists wrote stories of how its troops were actually from the Rwandan army. Thus, when M23 broke into rival factions and began a ferocious internal fight, the international media went speechless. They could not reasonably claim that this was a fight among different battalions of the Rwandan army.

Regional confusion

The internal fighting within M23 has also thrown the regional efforts to end that conflict in confusion. At the beginning of March, Presidents Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and Jacob Zuma of South Africa had a meeting in Luanda, Angola. During the meeting, Zuma and Kabila argued that SADC should move its forces to fight the M23 rebels. Zuma, sources say, is convinced that M23 is the disguised hand of Rwanda. But Dos Santos objected saying that he knows the problem of DRC is more than Rwanda and M23. It has a lot to do with internal problems in Congo.

“Comrades,” Dos Santos reportedly told his colleagues, “even us [Angola] have many problems emanating from DRC. Many guns are being trafficked from DRC into our country. Criminals and potential terrorists are crossing as well. So it would be wrong to say that the M23 problem is caused by Rwanda. Kigali may have contributed to it but it is not the source of the problem. The root cause is the inability of Kinshasa to govern most of its territory.”

Dos Santos advised that rather than send forces to fight rebels inside DRC, SADC should help Kinshasa find a negotiated settlement with them – “in order to achieve internal social integration.” He said Luanda has been deeply involved in the problems of Congo for nearly 40 years and most of this time as a victim. This time, he added, Angola will not contribute troops to fight Kinshasa’s wars – a solution he said cannot work.

“But if you comrades feel strongly that we intervene militarily we must,” he added perhaps sensing unease on their faces, “then in the spirit of SADC Angola will contribute money but not troops to that effort. And I would advise that all of us help our young brother here find a political, not a military solution.”

Sources close to Luanda say that Dos Santos held his position firmly even in the face of pressure from Zuma as Kabila watched in silent wonderment. Finally, and in spite of his advice, SADC went ahead to recommend deployment of troops inside DRC to fight “wrong elements” (read M23). The countries to contribute to this force are South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique. This is a potentially explosive decision.

Presidents Zuma and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, informed sources say, do not see eye-to eye with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on DRC. Kikwete’s vision is reportedly blurred by internal failures of his government. Under him, Tanzania has seen unprecedented corruption and failure to deliver basic services to the people. The situation is not helped when he is constantly reminded of Kagame’s success in the little neighbor, Rwanda.

Zuma and Kagame’s relations meanwhile are not good either. First, the South African president has been under the influence of Bill Masetera, a former intelligence chief under Thabo Mbeki and close friend and ally of Rwandan dissident generals Kayumba Nyamwasa and Patrick Karegyeya. To make matters worse, in a meeting of AU in Addis Ababa in 2011, Kagame is said to have directly interrupted Zuma’s speech in defense of then Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi by saying he had seen “money bags been moving around” to pay off various heads of state to support Gadaffi. Zuma did not take this accusation lightly and it added insult to injury.

It is in this context that two of the three countries sending troops to DRC have an axe to grind with the country accused of sponsoring a rebellion. Regional military experts say that the South African army may be good in equipment and training but is weak in experience. This is even more pronounced when it comes to fighting a counter insurgency in a country that is densely forested, with a bad terrain, and speaking a language alien to the South Africans. The Tanzanian army, on the other hand, while well trained but not-so-well equipped has not seen action in 30 years. Secondly, the TPDF has never fought a counter insurgency.

“The South Africans and Tanzanians are preparing to deploy in DRC with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence of success against M23,” a well placed regional expert on regional security told The Independent on condition of anonymity, “But they are underestimating the capabilities of M23. These people have been fighting in the jungles of eastern DRC for over 18 years and know every nook and cranny of their area. They have also accumulated considerable experience. So, mark my words: They are not going to be a walkover as the South Africans and Tanzanians would like the think.”

Therefore, experts say that the likelihood that the Tanzanians and South Africans may get badly clobbered by M23 is very high. And if this happens: then what?

“It is very possible the Tanzanians and South Africans will not believe that they have been beaten by M23,” the expert told The Independent, “They are likely to suspect it is Rwanda fighting them. And if this is the case, and depending on the level of humiliation that may be inflicted on them, they, especially Tanzania, may decide to attack Rwanda in retaliation. Then you will have an international war – the unexpected outcome of an ill-thought out intervention in Congo.”

Internal M23 fight

Or may be not. For the last two weeks as the armies of Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania trained and prepared to deploy in DRC, M23 began a ferocious internal war against itself. The forces of Makenga began pitched battles with the forces commanded by Ntaganda.

In the murky jungles of rebel infested DRC, it should not surprise anyone that Ntaganda is resurfacing at this point. Informed sources say, Runiga, has in fact been an Ntaganda stooge all along.

M23 has for long had factions. Although M23 officially claimed that they had nothing to do with Ntaganda, he left behind a wing, also known as the Kimbelembele that paid allegiance to him led General Baudouin Ngaruye. These were always in constant but invisible friction with the the pro-Nkunda wing, the Kifuafua led by Sultani Makenga.

Sources on the ground say the intra-M23 battles have been ferocious, brutal and bloody – worse in their sheer mercilessness compared to anything Congolese have seen in battles against Kinshasa – a family feud turned nasty.

Last week, Ntaganda matched his forces from Runyoni and attacked Makenga’s camp at Cyanzu. He also attacked Makenga’s troops in Rumangabo where the main M23 armories are. This forced Makenga to call upon two of his forward battalions north of Goma in the area of Kirimanyoka to come and reinforce Rumangabo. He also called his forces based around Rucuru to come reinforce Cyanzu. This withdraw by these battalions from these towns led the FDLR, the forces of the former Rwandan army that committed genocide in 1994, to occupy all the areas near Rucuru and Rugari. The FDLR in the presence of MUNSCO later handed over Rucuru and Kiwanja to the Congolese army.

However, having repelled the Ntaganda attack, Makenga now moved his forces and encircled Rucuru until he forced them to withdraw before he could annihilate them.  The Congolese obliged – showing that even when M23 is fighting itself, the Congolese army is unable to take advantage of the situation and make counter offensives that can stand.

The new developments have thrown the international community, its activist arm led by human rights organizations, and its propaganda arm led by the international press, into disarray. For a long time, the international community refused to recognise M23 as a domestic Congolese problem with grievances against Kinshasa. Instead, they insisted M23 was actually the Rwandan army itself. Tall tales of large movements of troops crossing the border from Rwanda into DRC were relayed to the world. Added to this were allegations that large quantities of arms and ammunition were being transported from Kigali to Goma to support the operation.

Shock and shame

A report by a UN “panel of experts” that many informed people saw as little more than a shoddy and poorly written work of fiction was given Biblical status.

The belief that M23 was the hidden work of Kigali was so widespread that obvious facts were ignored. Even when Kabila fired his chief of staff for selling arms to the rebels, the human rights community and its propaganda arm, the international press, refused to report the matter as it would have undermined the credibility of their claim that it was the Rwandan army fighting in DRC and supplying itself the weapons. So powerful was the desire to find Rwanda guilty that nearly every international donor began cutting aid to Rwanda.

The fighting among the different factions of the M23 has taken the entire UN system, its human rights allies and the international press by shock and surprise. Without Rwanda to play the role of villain, the triumvirate is now confused. With tens of thousands getting displaced, thousands of refugees flocking into Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with hundreds dead anddying, there is only a murmur in the international press about the evolving humanitarian crisis in eastern DRC. The problem is that the international community has no one to blame this time.

Informed sources say the current feud within the ranks of M23 is both unfortunate and sad given that Tutsi citizens of DRC face an existential threat from Kinshasa. The leaders of Congo have been openly calling upon different communities in the eastern region to exterminate all Tutsi in that region. Therefore, M23 emerged with strong and legitimate grievances, which the international community through the UN sought to suppress by shifting the blame from Kinshasa to Kigali.

However, from the beginning, this newspaper reported that Kigali was anxious and uncomfortable with M23. Although it shared their legitimate fears, strategists in Kigali felt that Congolese Tutsi are too undisciplined to work with. Sources close to Kagame have always said the president thinks the leadership of Kinshasa and the rebels are all ideologically bankrupt. He has also said this in an open address to the Rwandan parliament. Given his strong views on this matter, it was unlikely that Kagame was the man to throw in his lot with M23.

Besides, Rwanda is aware that although it can influence M23, it does not have control over it. For example, one of the factors behind the current infighting in the rebel group is clan politics and rivalries. Ntaganda is from the Bagogwe clan alongside Baudouin Ngaruye. Meanwhile Makenga is also from the same Bagogwe clan but grew up in Rucuru among Banyejomba clan of former CNDP leader, Laurent Nkunda. Ntaganda has always seen himself as a rival to Nkunda and enjoys large support among the Bagogwe. This meant that Makenga could never rival him for support in the clan which made him court the Banyejomba. Ntaganda has since used his identity to wrestle control from Makenga.

Signs of that M23 would have a fight have always been there. Makenga and Ntaganda have never been friends. When Makenga began M23, he made it clear he had no intention to protect Ntaganda from the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In fact, at the time M23 was formed, Ntaganda who had moved through the Virunga Park was close to Makenga forces. They ignored him. Knowledgeable sources say that among Makenga’s troops were many officers and soldiers who had previously been under Ntaganda’s command and therefore loyal to him. Makenga needed time to consolidate his position.

However, the turning point in M23 came when Runiga became president of the movement. His first action was to negotiate an alliance with Ntaganda. Sources say that Runiga, who is not a Congolese Rwandese but a Mushi, saw that Ntaganda had a following among the M23 troops and had a lot of money and is backed by a strong clan. Makenga, on the other hand, had made Runiga president because as a Mushi and a bishop, he had the stature and following that would expand the political base and appeal of M23 among other Congolese communities. He is well spoken, educated and therefore presentable.

However, when M23 took Goma, the region asked him to leave. In fact Museveni invited Makenga to Kampala where he formally told him that if he needs help from the regional leaders to present his grievances, he needs to withdraw from Goma. Makenga agreed. However, Runiga did not want to leave Goma because he thought it was giving them great political leverage. He called a press conference and put forth a set of political conditions before they could withdraw. He had not consulted Makenga who interpreted it as the hidden voice of Ntaganda.

This was the first and major disagreement between Runiga and Makenga. Runiga was now challenging Makenga claiming he was the supreme political leader. He also promoted Col. Baudoin Ngaruye (now in a refugee camp in Giseyi) to Brigadier General – the same rank as Makenga. Nyaruye is very close to Ntaganda. Makenga saw this as Ntaganda taking over M23.

When Makenga returned from Kampala, he wanted to arrest Runiga. However, after a lot of political negotiations he abandoned the idea. But the battle-lines had been drawn and it was only time before the two sides would flex muscles in eastern Congo.

The specific point of departure between Runiga and Makenga emerged from the direction of  negotiations in Kampala.

Makenga, sources say, felt the negotiations should be narrowed down to focus on breaches of the 2009 agreement that led to the M23 rebellion. He focused on ethnic persecution and attracted other ethnic groups to his agenda.

Runiga, as a politician wanted to broaden the demands to governance. He saw that the broader platform would attract more support among non-Rwandan Congolese who feel oppressed by Kinshasa.

These inter and intra clan and factional rivalries meant that Rwanda could not actively support any of the groups in eastern Congo except at the price of being dragged into what was potential chaos.

Courting Museveni

Therefore, from the beginning of this conflict, and if the international community was genuinely committed to solving the problems of DRC, it needed Rwanda’s aid. However, ignorance and prejudice combined with self-interest to push the international community into isolating Rwanda. Without Kigali to cajole and threaten M23, the Tutsi insurgents in DRC were a time bomb.

Meanwhile Kinshasa was always only happy to find an international scapegoat for its own internal failures and Rwanda was a perfect one. However, Kinshasa knew all too well the domestic dynamics – and therefore Kabila kept direct personal contact with both Ntaganda and Makenga, calling each one of them by phone regularly.

Sources say that through this interaction, Kabila was able to skillfully exploit historical animosities between the two men and their clans – trying to woo both by bad mouthing the other. Congolese intelligence may be corrupt and incompetent in almost everything under the sun but it is efficient in one thing – spreading rumours. Thus, sources say, Congolese intelligence led each side (Makenga and Ntaganda) to believe that the other was working with Kinshasa to clinch a deal behind the other’s back. This increased internal suspicions, which fed into historical clan rivalries. However, what Congo lacks in military and political capacity it may achieve in diplomacy.

Since 2011, when relations between Uganda and Rwanda significantly improved significantly, President Museveni and Kagame have been viewed as natural allies. Museveni is the lead mediator on the conflict in Congo. As new alliances are forged, it appears Rwanda’s enemies might want isolate Kagame even from Museveni.

There is a risk if some parties play on their previous animosities to draw the two leaders apart by taking positions that may favour Kampala but hurt Kigali.

When Museveni lost his father, Kagame was expected to fly to Uganda for the funeral. He did not and sent condolences sparking speculation.

Meanwhile, Kikwete flew directly from Addis Ababa to Rwakitura to attend the funeral. Later Kabila flew from Addis Ababa as well to Kinshasa before flying to Rwakitura to lay a wreath on Mzee Amos’ Kaguta’s grave, apparently, sources claim, on the instigation of Kikwete. In the end, observers say, the big security picture in the region could be decided by small matters such as these.


One thought on “How DR Congo conflict could ignite regional war

  1. Kabila has to deal with leadership problems rather than running after UN to solve congo’s problems.

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