Analysis | Why Congo and Rwanda Are at Each Other’s Throats


Violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is escalating and fears are mounting of a wider conflict in what has long been one of Africa’s most volatile regions. President Felix Tshisekedi accuses his counterpart in neighboring Rwanda, Paul Kagame, of supporting a rebel group known as M23. Kagame denies the allegation and counters that Tshisekedi’s inability to control events in his own country poses a security risk to Rwanda. The acrimony reached new heights in late January, when Rwanda’s army shot and damaged a Congolese fighter jet that it says violated its airspace. An intensification in violence would further slow the development of Congo’s resource-rich east and exacerbate poverty in one of the world’s poorest places.

1. What is the fighting about?

Rwanda says its biggest concern is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, one of more than 120 armed groups that are active in eastern Congo. The FDLR was created by ethnic Hutus from Rwanda with links to the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in their country, during which at least 850,000 people died, mostly ethnic Tutsis. The M23 says it’s fighting the FDLR to protect Congolese Tutsis who face discrimination. Congo’s army has occasionally worked with the FDLR, whose ranks have been decimated over the past decade, to fight M23 and other adversaries. Rwanda and United Nations experts say this is happening once again. Tshisekedi’s administration argues that what Rwanda is really interested in is Congo’s bountiful minerals, and any other issues raised are merely a smokescreen. While all-out war is considered unlikely, neither side appears ready to back down.

2. What’s happening with Congo’s resources? 

M23 isn’t directly involved in the mineral trade in eastern Congo but other armed groups are. UN reports also show Rwanda has long profited from the region’s natural riches, which include forests and pasture land. The US and European Union have branded Congo’s gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten as conflict minerals. That’s supposed to make it harder for armed groups to benefit from their trade. But the efforts have had limited success. These minerals often transit through Rwanda and nearby Uganda, according to UN experts. 

3. What about cobalt and copper? 

Supplies haven’t been affected by the fighting. Congo accounts for about 70% of the world’s cobalt and is the third-largest producer of copper. Those minerals — crucial ingredients for electric vehicles and batteries — are mined in the southeastern Katanga region, which is far from the conflict zones and has been mostly at peace for more than two decades. Copper and cobalt aren’t classified as conflict minerals. 

4. What are the politics?

While Congo is almost 90 times bigger than Rwanda and is far more populous, Rwanda has emerged as the more politically stable of the two and its formidable military has added to its regional clout. Kagame’s authoritarian leadership style and refusal to brook opposition has, however, scarred his reputation and alienated a number of his peers. Some Congo experts say the flareup in tensions may be partly related to Rwandan concern about Uganda expanding its interests in eastern Congo. Uganda has long been the main processing hub for smuggled Congolese gold, according to UN experts. In recent years, Tshisekedi has welcomed both Ugandan contractors into his country to build trade routes and Ugandan troops to fight rebel groups, encroaching on territory where Rwanda has been a key political power broker.

5. How bad could this get?

More than 521,000 people have been displaced by clashes between the Congolese armed forces and M23 over the past year, according to a Jan. 19 UN situation report. M23 continues to expand its control over key towns in eastern Congo, committing massacres and forcing residents to flee, according to the UN, which has also implicated the Rwanda Defense Force in covert cross-border operations. The UN, which has thousands of peacekeeping troops in Congo, has joined the US and others in voicing serious concern about deteriorating humanitarian conditions. Kenya and Angola have sought to mediate an end to the fighting. There hasn’t been a full-scale war in the region since Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo in 1998 after they fell out with its then-president, Laurent Desire Kabila. That triggered a conflict that drew in several other African nations and claimed millions of lives before a peace deal was agreed to in 2003.

6. Could this year’s election in Congo be derailed?

Congo has presidential and parliamentary elections set for Dec. 20. The government has said there won’t be a delay, while warning that the ongoing conflict could hamper voter registration in the east. Despite Tshisekedi’s attempts to blame the insecurity on Rwanda and M23, other groups with no links to Rwanda are responsible for much of the violence and upheaval, and his inability to maintain stability could undermine his chances of winning a second term. Congo has more displaced people than any other country in Africa — more than 5.6 million — mainly due to conflict. Tshisekedi’s opponents are aware of his vulnerability and have sought to turn security into a campaign issue.

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