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Alleged Links Between Rwanda and DRC Militant Group: Who Dictates the Next Steps?
The conflict in the Eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has entered a new phase as negotiations in Kenya resulted in a cease-fire in late November. However, the longevity of this peace is likely dependent on decisions made in neighboring Rwanda. Moreover, it appears that international support for Rwanda’s longstanding Kagame regime may be waning as a result of its alleged actions as a critical actor in this conflict.
Rwanda and M23
The Congolese government has repeatedly alleged that the recent revival and success of Mouvement du 23 Mars’ (M23) in the Eastern DRC following its near-defeat a decade ago is due to the support the group receives from Kigali. This link has also been suggested by more impartial actors.
A recent report for the UN Security Council, which was leaked to the international media, highlights these alleged links. The report states that M23’s latest operations in the DRC, which were launched from Rwanda in November 2021, included the Rwandan military providing “troop reinforcements” for some operations, “in particular when these aimed at seizing strategic towns and areas.” For example, M23 insurgents and Rwandan troops “jointly attacked” a DRC army base in Rumangabo on May 25. Other experts have highlighted the long-range weapons and other military gear that M23 is currently utilizing, “it’s likely (that) these would have been supplied by a well-organized army, which is why Rwanda security services are suspected of supporting M23.” Some M23 senior commanders have also previously served as members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
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The United States has also recognized Rwandan support for M23. “State support of armed groups is unacceptable, and we reiterate our concern about Rwanda’s support to the M23,” said US State Department spokesperson Ned Price in late October. Moreover, a November 18 joint statement by the US and the Great Lakes Special Envoys of Belgium, France, and the UK included the phrase, “all support to non-state armed actors must stop, including external support to M23.” Although Rwanda is not specifically mentioned in this statement, the State Department’s previous statement on the matter strongly implies that it was intended for Kigali. The US Congress is also targeting links between Kigali and M23: in July, Senator Robert Menendez announced that he intends to support the suspension of security assistance to Kigali due to Rwanda’s human rights record and role in the DRC conflict.
The Rwandan government has denied any links or support for M23. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has publicly proclaimed the need for M23 to cease its operations in the Eastern DRC but has also blamed Kinshasa for the violence. “The primary reason for this persistent crisis is the failure to implement the many agreements that have been reached at various levels, and at various times, in past years,” he said during virtual remarks at a meeting of the East African Community in late November.
Kagame: Almost Three Decades in Charge
Paul Kagame, 65, and his Rwandan Patriotic Front were re-elected for a new seven-year presidential term in 2017 and he will have been in power for three decades by 2024. It is likely that Kagame will run for another term thereafter.
Since coming to power, President Kagame has successfully portrayed Rwanda as a sea of stability and development in an otherwise troubled region. However, the reality is quite different as Kigali has cracked down on opposition groups and individuals in an effort to maintain power. Organizations such as Freedom House have repeatedly highlighted Rwanda’s lack of political rights and civil liberties and the regime’s latest scandal reveals the tactics it uses to discredit prominent opposition figures. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, these tactics include the filing of false charges and abuse of the Interpol red notice arrest warrant system.
While human rights-related criticism has not deterred global powers and extra-regional players from working with and partnering with Kigali, the Kagame regime’s renewed support for M23 and its violent and destructive operations in Eastern DRC may signal a tipping point in its relations with the West. A precedent was already set in this regard in 2012 with London halting financial assistance to Rwanda “amid concerns about its role in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo”. This statement from the British government was specifically in reference to Rwanda’s alleged support of M23 against the DRC.
Can a Ceasefire Last?
A cease-fire was signed in Nairobi during negotiations that commenced on November 25: the agreement stipulates that M23 would withdraw from DRC areas and return to “their initial positions” by November 27. Meetings between Congolese government officials, civil society delegates, and members of armed groups who put down their weapons are also underway.
Although an end to the violence is undoubtedly a welcome development for many, it is unknown whether this ceasefire will be permanent or temporary. It appears that the latter of these outcomes is more likely, given that it is unclear if M23 has even signed the agreement. “M23 has seen the document on social media... There was nobody (from M23) in the summit so it doesn’t really concern us,” told Lawrence Kanyuka in a statement to AFP that has been widely reproduced in the international media. For this reason, it appears more likely that M23 is taking the current ceasefire as an opportunity to regroup. At the time of writing, there are new reports that some 50 people were killed by the M23 in Kishishe village, not far from Goma. In other words, the cease-fire may already be collapsing, thus the international community must scrutiny not only what M23 is doing on the ground, but which actors are providing support to continue its violent actions in Eastern DRC.
While Kigali has repeatedly denied its support of M23, multiple credible sources point to their complicity in the conflict. With Washington now criticizing Rwanda’s alleged support for M23, it is possible that a change in international support for Rwanda is currently underway. President Paul Kagame’s rule appears to lie at the center of this issue: after nearly three decades in power, it seems implausible that any military support for M23 would not be approved or supported by the long-time leader himself. Thus, it is possible that M23’s next actions – whether they respect the cease-fire or resume hostilities – will depend on Kigali’s orders.