Nov 7, 2022 - World

Rebel offensive in eastern Congo threatens key border city

People displaced by the M23 offensive at an informal camp in Goma. Photo: Alexis Hugeut/AFP via Getty Images

As a renewed rebel offensive in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo nears the largest city in the region, Kenya is sending in forces and the DRC and neighboring Rwanda are exchanging tense accusations.

The big picture: Resource-rich parts of eastern DRC — more than a thousand miles from the capital, Kinshasa, and largely outside the government's control — have for decades been havens for illicit mining, proxy conflict, and rebel groups like the March 23 Movement (M23), which took control of several villages over the past two weeks.

  • The fighting this weekend came within 25 miles of Goma, a major city that sits on the DRC's border with Rwanda. One shopkeeper in Goma told AFP last week her children were refusing to go to school out of fear an assault could begin at any moment.
  • Human Rights Watch estimates that 186,000 people have fled their homes since the spring due to the fighting. That number could swell quickly if it reaches Goma.
  • The DRC accuses neighboring Rwanda of arming and supporting M23, as did a recent UN report. Rwanda denies that and accuses the DRC of harboring a Rwandan rebel group, the FDLR, that includes alleged perpetrators of Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Kinshasa denies that.

Zoom in: "Of course people are scared" that the violence will reach them, says a wildlife conservationist who lives outside Goma on the Rwandan side of the border. "But they don’t have a choice. You have to wait and see what’s going to happen."

  • Axios spoke to the conservationist shortly after Rwanda accused a DRC military plane of violating its airspace. While he said such reports alarm people along the border, he’s less worried that war will break out between the two states than that the climate of hostility and proxy violence will spark further conflict within communities, between different tribes and ethnicities.
  • “War in the Central Africa region has always been the hell of wars,” says the wildlife conservationist, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. Two brutal conflicts in Congo between 1996 and 2003 left millions of soldiers and civilians dead, as did the genocide in Rwanda.

The latest: The foreign ministers of the DRC and Rwanda re-committed to dialogue to de-escalate the crisis during an urgent meeting Saturday in Angola. But then came Monday's alleged airspace violation, which Kigali called a "provocation," but Kinshasa said was an accident.

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron have both met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi in hopes of lowering tensions, but Washington and Paris are playing supporting roles with leaders on the African continent taking the lead, a senior U.S. official tells Axios.
  • Kenyan President William Ruto announced last week that his government was sending 900 troops to be based in Goma as part of a new East African regional force. Burundi and South Sudan say their troops will also take part, and Uganda already has forces in eastern DRC targeting an ISIS affiliate called ADF.
  • The DRC is also seeking to recruit new soldiers to fight M23, and an army spokesperson claimed Monday that 2,000 had joined in Goma alone.
A recruitment drive for the DRC military in Goma. Photo: Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

The UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC is the second-largest in the world but has faced fierce local resistance over its inability to protect communities. The day before Kenya’s announcement, protesters in Goma set fire to UN vehicles.

  • While troops from Tanzania and South Africa were able to retake territory from M23 during an intervention in 2012, "the Kenyan force could get bogged down in many of the same difficulties the UN force has faced: difficulty making any progress on the ground, rapidly turning into a hostile reaction from the population," says Richard Moncrieff, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
  • It remains unclear whether or how the new regional mission will seek to collaborate with the larger UN force.
  • A spokesperson for M23 said in a statement on Thursday that the group welcomed the Kenyan deployment and blamed the recent violence on the Congolese army. Rwanda offered to join the peacekeeping force, but the DRC objected.

Between the lines: Rwanda allows the M23 to operate along the Rwanda-DRC border "in a supportive environment with a safe back line," according to Moncrieff.

  • Like Rwanda, the group — which was formed in 2012 by mutinous Congolese soldiers — is led by ethnic Tutsis. Some powerful Rwandans also have commercial reasons for backing the rebels, Moncrieff says.
  • Most of the gold mined in eastern DRC is smuggled out of the country, much of it to Rwanda and Uganda. Both countries deny any role in the illegal gold trade, though experts say both export far more gold than they produce domestically.
  • The many rebel groups active in eastern Congo often exploit the region's mineral wealth in order to fund their operations.

State of play: It's unclear why M23 launched a major new push late last month after a relative lull in the violence. The group has previously accused Kinshasa of failing to implement a 2013 peace agreement.

  • The embassies of Rwanda and the DRC in Washington did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication.
Rwanda President Paul Kagame (L), Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi (R) and Angola President Joao Lourenco attend talks in Luanda, Angola, in July. Photo: Jorge Nsimba/AFP via Getty Images

While the land border between Rwanda and DRC is relatively short, it was one of the busiest in Africa in terms of daily crossings prior to the surge in violence this year.

  • "I used to cross on the weekends for a beer, but now I’m no longer doing it," says the Rwandan wildlife conservationist.
  • Some of the many local businesses that relied on cross-border trade have shut down, he says.

What's next: While Rwandan and Congolese officials occasionally exchange allegations and harsh rhetoric, both sides say they're committed to dialogue.

  • Still, Moncrieff doesn't believe the political environment is ripe for a major agreement, particularly with Tshisekedi seeking re-election next year in a climate of anti-Rwanda sentiment.
  • There were large anti-Rwanda protests one week ago in Goma.

Meanwhile, French officials have tried to convince Kigali and Kinshasa to focus on their shared threat from the ISIS affiliate ADF rather than fighting each other.

  • The ADF was founded in Uganda in the 1990s and pledged loyalty to ISIS in 2019. It has carried out a number of high-profile attacks in eastern DRC over the past several years.
  • One French official told Axios that if the group is able to continue to gain strength it could become the "next Boko Haram," a reference to the extremist group that is based in Nigeria but has a presence across West Africa.
  • While the wildlife conservationist outside Goma says ADF does pose a threat, "people aren’t talking about it anymore. They’re only focused on M23."
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