Déjà vu in Central Africa
For the last several weeks, M23, a new rebel group made up of former soldiers from the Congolese army, has engaged in battles with army forces in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), forcing more than 250,000 people to flee their homes. Although Rwanda denies it, there is compelling evidence that M23 is receiving support from the Rwandan army (see this BBC story detailing a leaked report from a United Nations expert panel).
Rwanda supporting Congolese rebels (while subsequently denying it) is something that happens every few years. While common, this support often has devastating consequences. In 1996-1997, Rwanda (along with Uganda and Angola) backed Laurent Kabila as he overthrew kleptocrat-in-chief Mobutu Sese Seko, who had presided over the Congo’s near complete collapse during his more than thirty years in power. In 1998, Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebels launched a rebellion aimed at overthrowing Kabila, but this time Angola (along with Zimbabwe and Namibia) came to Kabila’s aid, leading to what is often called “Africa’s First World War.” In 2005-2007, Rwanda supported (although later turned against) Laurent Nkunda as he sowed terror through eastern DRC. The M23 rebellion is in its early stages, but it’s a good bet that it will involve substantial human rights abuses against the people living in the area around the conflict.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked Rwanda and other states to stop supporting M23. Despite this international condemnation, how far the international community is willing to go to pressure Rwanda remains unclear. For years Rwanda has been viewed very favorably by the US, other powerful states and international aid agencies, in spite of the government’s authoritarian tendencies (there are elections, but political opposition is essentially not allowed) and accusations that the Rwandan army and its allies are committing substantial human rights abuses in eastern DRC. Why is Rwanda viewed so favorably?
One reason is that the Rwandan government has demonstrated itself committed to economic development and stability, and opposed to corruption. It is hard to overstate how devastated Rwanda was in July 1994, after the famous genocide that resulted in at least 500,000 deaths. A country with a population of about 9 million had at least 2 million refugees, millions more internally displaced persons, and its roads, schools, and courts had been destroyed in the genocide and civil war. In the eighteen years since the genocide, however, Rwanda’s economy has grown rapidly. This growth has lifted over a million people out of poverty, expanded access to electricity and education, and led to decreases in infant mortality and general improvements in health.
A second reason is that Rwanda does have legitimate security concerns in eastern DRC. Rwandan rebels use ungoverned areas along the border as refuge, including individuals who participated in the Rwandan genocide. These groups, when possible, launch attacks designed to de-stabilize Rwanda and commit violence against Congolese of Rwandan descent living in the area.
A third reason is that international actors continue to feel guilty (and rightly so) for failing to try to stop the 1994 genocide. There is a legitimate academic debate about whether quick and decisive international action could have stopped the genocide in its early weeks, as many people argue. What is clear, however, is that the international community reacted to the outbreak of genocide by withdrawing, rather than intervening. International actors are hesitant to criticize Rwanda’s government at least in part because of guilt over their inaction in 1994.
All of these are legitimate issues, but the potential for widespread conflict in eastern DRC again is one that the international community must pay attention to. Frantz Fanon famously said, “Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is the trigger. If that explosive trigger bursts, it’s the whole Africa that will explode.” In 1996-2003, that trigger did burst, with devastating consequences for the DRC and many of its neighbors. Guilt about failing to prevent one tragedy cannot be used to justify allowing another one.