Last Monday, hundreds of activists from citizens’ movements and youth groups in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), participated in an anti-Rwanda protest and accused Kigali of supporting the M23 rebel group in eastern DRC.
The demonstrators were asking for an end to diplomatic relations with Rwanda and the expulsion of its ambassador stationed in Kinshasa.
“It is the first time in 20 years that we have had our government named explicitly Rwanda as the aggressor in eastern Congo,” Maud-Salomé Ekila, an activist with Panzi Foundation and one of the protest’s organisers, told Al Jazeera. “So this was an open door for citizen movement to encourage them to continue to resist and take strong decisions.”
On the weekend, Kinshasa had summoned Rwanda’s ambassador and suspended flights from its neighbour “with immediate effect” after accusing it of supporting the M23 rebel group active in its eastern region.
“Suspicions are crystallising that the M23 has received support from Rwanda,” DRC government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Kigali, which had already accused Congolese security forces of firing rockets into its territory, said two Rwandan soldiers had been kidnapped on patrol and were being held by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – another rebel group active in eastern DRC.
“We call upon authorities of the DRC that work closely with these genocidal armed groups to secure the release of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) soldiers,” the country’s military said in a statement.
A historical tiff
Relations between both countries have been strained since the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as there was a mass inflow of Rwandans to eastern DRC.
However, that seemingly began to change after DRC President Felix Tshisekedi took office in 2019.
In April, the country was admitted into the East African Community, which includes Burundi, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. The seven states are also part of the broader International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
It was welcomed as a new opportunity for partnership between the DRC and its neighbours in the east. “Admission of DRC is seen as a chance to explore new trade dynamics”, Nelleke van de Walle, the project director for the Great Lakes region at International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.
Also beyond trade, it seemed like the groundwork for regional collaboration in tackling longstanding conflict in parts of the mineral-rich DRC, whose large size has provided fertile ground for dozens of rebel groups.
In the weeks after DRC’s integration, the body commenced negotiations at a summit in Nairobi with dozens of rebel groups in the eastern DRC – including the infamous M23 – to discuss the terms for an amnesty deal.
The group’s leadership is made up of members of the Tutsi ethnic group who say their aim is to fight against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia founded by Hutus who fled Rwanda. Some of them are reported to have been involved in human rights violations against the Tutsis.
The rebels had been incorporated into the Congolese army under a peace deal signed on March 23, 2009. In 2012, they mutinied, saying the deal had not been upheld and naming their group the March 23 (M23) Movement.
UN investigators have previously accused Rwanda and Uganda of supporting the M23. Both countries, which intervened militarily in the DRC during two regional wars 20 years ago, deny supporting the group.
A new episode
The current diplomatic spat seems to have been triggered by fighting between DRC forces and M23 on several fronts in North Kivu, a conflict-torn province which borders Rwanda – and the detention of the Rwandan soldiers.
The rebel group had been present on the first day of talks in April, but the Congolese delegation demanded and obtained its expulsion after news of renewed fighting in the Rutshuru territory, North Kivu.
Analysts say tensions between both countries began heightening incrementally prior to all these events. “Tensions between DRC and Rwanda reignited because of the former’s increased bond with Uganda and Burundi by allowing the countries to conduct operations on Congolese soil”, van de Walle said.
Last November, following deadly bombings in Uganda’s capital Kampala, Tshisekedi had allowed Ugandan units to cross into North Kivu in pursuit of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel coalition whose largest faction has sworn allegiance to the ISIL (ISIS) group. The ADF, formed in 1995, first set up camp in western Uganda before moving into the DRC.
By the end of 2021, Burundian soldiers had reportedly marched into the DRC to battle the RED-Tabara rebel group.
Consequently, Kigali feared “it will lose influence there; both economic and strategic”, said van de Walle, “since both Rwanda and Uganda have always had an interest in mineral reserves in eastern DRC”.
To be friends or foes again?
On 8 February, in response to the Ugandan and Burundian forces launching separate military operations in the DRC, Kagame gave a 50-minute speech to the Rwandan parliament, decrying a threat to the country’s security emanating from the DRC’s Kivu provinces.
He cited alleged connections between the ADF and the FDLR, a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 genocide, a longstanding foe of Kagame – and the M23.
In his native Kinyarwanda interspersed with English, Kagame said the danger was great enough that he was considering deploying troops to the eastern DRC without Tshisekedi’s approval.
“As we are a very small country, our current doctrine is to go and fight the fire at its origin …”, Kagame said. “We do what we must do, with or without the consent of others.”
The result is the current diplomatic dispute between the neighbours.
Senegalese President Macky Sall, who chairs the African Union, has called for dialogue between the countries and urged Angolan President João Lourenço, the chairperson of the ICGLR, to head peace talks.
Analysts say the onus is on Kagame to find ways to douse tensions ahead of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting being held in Kigali later this June.
“The gathering of representatives from 54 countries is meant to be an opportunity for Kagame to flex Rwanda’s soft power as an exception to the political instability and economic decline in East Africa — and to show off his international stature,” said van de Walle. “So it wouldn’t be in Kagame’s interest to let things escalate if he has all these things happening.”