One of Congo’s biggest eastern cities fell to a powerful rebel force on Tuesday, Nov. 20, in a war that may redefine the region but has produced little political action by the United Nations, the United States, and international powers that heavily support neighboring governments — notably Rwanda, a Western darling and aid recipient — that are backing the violence, according to U.N. experts. The fighting has displaced nearly 1 million people since the summer, and the battle for the city of Goma marks the latest episode of a long struggle by Rwandan-backed rebels to take control of a piece of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a struggle the rebels are now decisively winning. The fighting has also highlighted the ineptitude of the United Nations mission, one of the world’s largest and most expensive, charged with keeping Congo’s peace.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Saturday “to request that he use his influence on the M23 [rebels] to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack,” as the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief put it. And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius affirmed that the rebellion in Congo was supported by Rwanda, expressing “grave concern.” But the violence has only escalated since. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency session over the weekend, but its condemnation of the violence, demanding that the rebels stop advancing on Goma and insisting that outside powers stop funding the M23 rebels, have all simply been ignored. The Security Council announced it would sanction M23 but did not even mention Rwanda, the main power behind the rebellion. And even as the fighting has intensified, the U.N. mission in Congo has been making public pronouncements about new access to drinking water for people in eastern Congo — producing a surreal image of the war.
The well-equipped and professional M23 fighters, perhaps better armed and organized than any rebel unit in Congo in the past decade, put on a remarkable show of force over the weekend to move within a few kilometers of the provincial capital, Goma. The rebels not only withstood heavy shelling by U.N. helicopter gunships, but simultaneously gained ground and forced back the Congolese national army on two other fronts, according to reports. The Congolese army and U.N. peacekeeping forces subsequently stayed out of the rebels’ way, allowing M23 to capture large parts of Goma with virtually no resistance. In the end, some 3,000 Congolese soldiers, backed by hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers with air power, were unable to contain M23 forces numbering in the few hundreds.
This unprecedented military capability of the M23 rebels in a country of ragtag militias has led to many credible claims — backed by findings from U.N. experts — that Rwanda is providing weapons, soldiers, and military guidance to the rebels, with orders coming directly from Rwanda’s defense minister, Gen. James Kabarebe. Human Rights Watch says it has extensively documented Rwandan troops crossing into Congo to support the M23 rebels. Uganda, too, is accused of providing M23 with a political base, though on a request from the Congolese government it recently closed a key border-crossing point that had been helping to finance the rebels. Both Rwanda and Uganda are relatively ordered countries — in stark contrast to Congo — with well-entrenched authoritarian governments that receive significant military and financial aid from the United States and the West.
Such powerful backing means the rebels can deliver on their far-reaching threats. As Goma fell, M23 spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama told me that rebels intended to “capture a good part of eastern Congo,” including its other major city in the east, Bukavu. The rebels have demanded that Congo’s government negotiate with them — without specifying precisely what they want. But Congo has said it will only speak with Rwanda, “the real aggressor,” and not to a “fictitious” group that is serving as a cover. For now, the M23 rebels are regrouping in Goma. And there may well be a calm interlude in the war, as parties attempt to negotiate. But given the rebels’ history, at the back of their minds is likely an old dream — of a place of their own in eastern Congo — that has become distinctly more real with Goma’s capture.
The situation closely resembles another attack on Goma, four years ago, by Laurent Nkunda, a rebel also backed by Rwanda who led M23’s predecessor group and who told me that he hoped to create a new country in eastern Congo called the “Republic of Volcanoes.” Some 200,000 people had been displaced in that battle as fighting came right up to the city. In the end, Nkunda chose not to take Goma, and during the negotiations that followed his forces agreed to disband and join Congo’s national army. This spring, however, some of those same fighters declared that the Congolese government had reneged on its promises and formed the M23 rebellion.
M23’s and Nkunda’s forces have been accused of grave human rights abuses, including mass rape (in one instance, of some 16,000 women in one weekend in Bukavu), massacres, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Bosco Ntaganda, an M23 leader, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers. Congo issued an international arrest warrant in 2005 for Nkunda, citing war crimes, but he remains in secret detention in Rwanda, which has refused to hand him over to Congo.
Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebellion stems from a mix of historical sympathies and financial interests. The M23 is composed mainly of Tutsi fighters who represent a historically marginalized ethnic group in eastern Congo. Several leaders of M23 and its predecessor rebel group had fought alongside Rwanda’s now-president, Kagame — who, like many of his senior aides, is also Tutsi.
Then there is also eastern Congo’s immense mineral wealth, which Rwanda has illegally profited from for years since its invasion of Congo in 1996. Rwanda has made hundreds of millions of dollars — probably much more — by supporting rebel groups who control lucrative mines in Congo and by smuggling the minerals into Rwanda for export to world markets.
There is also history. Many Rwandans, including officials in government, believe that eastern Congo is a rightful part of Rwanda, taken away when European colonial powers carved up the continent in 1885 and made those rich, fertile lands a part of Congo. They see the M23 as righting this historical injustice, despite international laws to the contrary.
Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, highlighted such sympathies this summer when she began a private diplomatic meeting, on the topic of the M23 rebellion, with a map of ancient Rwanda that encompassed much of eastern Congo, according to several diplomats who attended the event. Her point was that the region’s history is complex, but it was only a logical step from there to assert that Rwanda exercised some right over Congolese land. Kagame, for his part, has remained oddly silent since the new surge of violence on his country’s border, though he has previously refuted all allegations that his country supports the rebels. And Kagame has so far, despite international appeals, refused to condemn the M23 rebellion.
The rebels, however, insist that their movement is purely Congolese. Kazarama, the M23 spokesman, told me that the M23 is combating “years of poor governance, a lack of public services, and constant insecurity.” When I asked where the M23 had obtained its sophisticated military equipment — the U.N. has noted that it possesses 120 mm mortars and even night-vision goggles — Kazarama said he had purchased them on the “black market in Dubai” and insisted that the weapons “had not come from Rwanda.”
Rwanda, though it receives vast amounts of aid from Western countries, has remained a decisive force in Congo’s destabilization. The vast majority of Congo’s territory, despite being mineral-rich and open to pillage by other neighbors, is relatively peaceful. But Congo’s border with Rwanda, its tiny neighbor, remains a flash point for new conflict.
In spite of the facts on the ground, Rwanda has a history of denial regarding its involvement in Congo. Throughout its 1990s invasion of Congo, Rwanda denied accusations of its presence on Congolese soil, even as photographs emerged of Kabarebe, Rwanda’s current defense minister and operational commander of that Congo invasion, in Kinshasa, standing beside Congo’s then-president, Laurent Kabila, whom Rwanda had helped put in power. For years, Rwanda also denied backing Nkunda’s rebel forces, only to rein him in and secretly detain him in Rwanda, where he remains today. And now, President Kagame continues — even angrily — to deny his government’s assistance to M23.
On Tuesday, as M23 rebels took control of Congo’s border with Rwanda — an event that should have caused concern — news agencies reported that Rwandan soldiers and policemen “did not seem particularly nervous and no significant reinforcements were visible.”
The international community has historically chosen to take Rwanda’s side in its vehement denials of interference in Congo, continuing to send almost $1 billion each year to Rwanda’s government, which depends for almost half its budget on foreign aid.
In July, however, several Western governments suspended foreign aid payments to Rwanda after reports emerged that it was arming the rebellion in Congo. The United States led the way, suspending a symbolic $200,000 in military assistance (a tiny percentage of its real support to Rwanda). But several of Rwanda’s biggest financiers — including the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, many of which channel money directly to the Rwandan treasury — have continued to gift and loan the government money and have refused to publicly condemn Rwanda’s support to the rebels, despite the mounting evidence.
In September, Britain, which had previously suspended its payments, reinstated 16 million pounds in aid to the Rwandan government. Britain’s former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, who enjoys a close relationship with Kagame and whose charity work in Rwanda has been praised by the president, was criticized as a “rogue minister” by British members of Parliament for signing off on that aid on his very last afternoon in office. Other countries, including the United States, have hinted that they will merely not make any “new” aid commitments to Rwanda, but that existing promises — which amount to several hundred million dollars — will continue to be delivered.
Simply put, the international community seems reluctant to apply pressure on Rwanda to help end the enormous humanitarian crisis unfolding in Congo. Western countries claim that putting pressure on Kigali could bring new instability to the region — despite the inherent absurdity in this argument, given Rwanda’s destabilizing influence in Congo both now and historically.
Aid donors also fear losing what they consider a model country for development in Africa — though such notions of development success are strictly economic. While Rwanda has reported striking economic growth since its 1994 genocide, its government is severely repressive and shows scant respect for fundamental human rights.
The latest attack on Goma also highlights the inadequacy of the 17,000-strong U.N. force, which is staffed mostly with soldiers from poor countries — in eastern Congo, mainly soldiers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — who are sent to such missions as a reward for good service at home. The U.N. per diems represent, for many soldiers, four times their regular army salaries. Peacekeepers often told me they were using their Congo stint to save up for a house or for their children’s education — they were “not in Congo to die.”
The U.N. has said that once the Congolese army had fled Goma, it did not stop the M23 rebels for fear of causing civilian casualties. French Foreign Minister Fabius has meanwhile called for a review of the United Nations mission in Congo, saying it was “absurd” that the rebels had been able to parade past the idle peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the Congolese and Rwandan armies have reportedly begun to bomb each other, in the first open hostilities between the countries in years.
The resumption of fighting this spring ended a few years of gradual progress in Congo’s east, in which relative stability had been established in the areas around Goma for the first time since 1996. The famous Virunga National Park had seen increasing numbers of foreign tourists keen on visiting the endangered mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. And Goma was enjoying a flurry of new construction, largely of multistory hotels.
What seems clear now is that the M23 rebels have made a decisive push to take over a part of eastern Congo. The Rwandan state also seems to be moving with conviction — not backing down from its support for the rebellion despite repeated international appeals. And the government has been emboldened by its recent successful bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, despite credible evidence even then that it was supporting M23. And now there is talk in the region of the emergence of a new quasi-country — a South Sudan-style annexation of mineral-rich territory in Congo.
A peaceful end to this conflict is now difficult to imagine, and it is Congo’s civilians who will suffer, as they always have, the most. It is highly unlikely that the M23 rebels can be reintegrated into the Congolese national army once again — trust has been broken by this conflict. But if the M23 are defeated, sentiments against the Rwandan-speaking minorities in Congo will become even more vitriolic and may well lead to more violence. The rebels, and Rwanda, are no doubt aware of their great gamble.