The threat of war with neighboring Congo simmers beneath the tidy surface of Rwanda’s capital, as the East African nation prepares to host the British prime minister and other world leaders for the Commonwealth summit next week.
Tensions between Rwanda, which has one of Africa’s most effective militaries, and Congo, one of the continent’s largest and most troubled countries, have flared along their shared border a few hours’ drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Kenya’s president has called for the immediate deployment of a newly formed regional force to eastern Congo to keep the peace.
Both parties have accused the other of incursions. If Rwanda wants war, “it will have war,” a spokesman for Congo’s North Kivu province’s military governor told thousands of protesters on Wednesday.
What’s at stake is as follows.
WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED?
Eastern Congo is under constant threat from dozens of armed groups vying for a piece of the region’s rich mineral wealth, which is mined for electric cars, laptop computers, and mobile phones. The M23, one of the most notorious rebel groups, resurfaced earlier this year.
The M23 launched an offensive against the Congolese military after accusing the government of failing to keep a decade-long promise made under a peace agreement to integrate its fighters into the Congolese military. The M23 took control of a key trading town, Bunagana, this week, sending thousands of people fleeing into neighboring Uganda and elsewhere.
Congo’s military responded by accusing Rwandan forces of “no less than an invasion,” claiming that Rwanda aided the rebels in their capture of Bunagana.
Rwanda has long been accused by Congo’s government of supporting the M23, which Rwanda denies. The accusations have surged again in recent weeks. Many M23 fighters are ethnic Tutsis, like Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Rwanda has accused Congolese forces of injuring several civilians during cross-border shelling.
TENSIONS: WHAT IS THEIR HISTORY?
Rwanda-Congo relations have been strained for decades. Rwanda claims that Congo provided refuge to ethnic Hutus responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Rwanda sent forces deep into Congo twice in the late 1990s, joining forces with Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila to depose the country’s longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Rwandan forces in Congo were widely accused of hunting down and killing ethnic Hutu people, including civilians.
According to rights groups, millions of Congolese died during the conflict, and the consequences are still felt today. Rape has left many women with scars and trauma.
Eastern Congo is still divided along ethnic lines at times. The region’s history of insecurity, shaky governance, and vast distance — more than 1,600 miles — from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, have discouraged investment and left some basic infrastructure, such as roads, in disrepair or nonexistent.
Congo and Rwanda have long accused each other of supporting rival armed groups in eastern Congo, a volatile region and major humanitarian aid hub. A UN peacekeeping force of more than 17,000 people is based in Goma, but a top official this week stated unequivocally that tensions with Rwanda and Uganda are not part of its mandate.
“That’s not why we’re here,” said Lt. Col. Frederic Harvey, the United Nations mission’s chief of liaison with Congolese military. “We are here to carry out our mandate, which is to protect the civilian population and maintain national integrity.”
M23 fighters briefly seized Goma, the region’s key city of over 1 million people, a decade ago. Many Goma residents are now pleading with the international community to intervene and help restore peace and stability. “Kagame, enough is enough,” one protest sign said on Wednesday.
Pope Francis had planned to visit Goma as part of a trip to Congo and South Sudan next month, but canceled the trip last week, citing doctor’s orders due to knee problems. The visit was intended to draw additional global attention to populations that have long struggled with conflict, even as this new one emerges.
With the rising tensions in mind, the six-nation East African Community — Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Tanzania — established a regional force earlier this year. The current chairman of the bloc, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, wants the force activated immediately and deployed to eastern Congo, citing “open hostilities” there.
Kenyatta also wants the eastern Congo provinces of North and South Kivu, as well as Ituri, to be declared a “weapons-free zone,” where anyone who is not a member of the mandated forces can be disarmed. Within hours, the president of Burundi, which borders both Rwanda and Congo, “warmly” welcomed his call.
Regional commanders of the member defense forces will meet on Sunday in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and the economic hub of East Africa.
The regional force was agreed upon by leaders from two countries that appear to be on the verge of war: Congo, the EAC’s newest member, and Rwanda, the largest African troop contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world.
However, Rwanda was the only EAC member to skip a meeting of regional armed forces heads earlier this month in Goma. On Thursday, Rwanda made no immediate response to Kenyatta’s call to action.
Congo, too, did not directly respond to the call to deploy the regional force, but government spokesman Patrick Muyaya welcomed Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s request for a cessation of hostilities and weapons-free zones.
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