Congo's risky push to crush rebels

Rwanda's Army moved deeper into neighboring Congo Sunday as part of a surprise deal last week to root out Hutu rebels. But when will Rwanda's troops leave?

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/File
Nabbed: Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was captured in neighboring Rwanda last week.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

With the arrest of Congolese rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda last week in Rwanda, Congolese President Joseph Kabila would seem to have what he wanted from his surprise deal with Rwanda, inviting the Rwandan army in to help him clear out unwanted rebel groups.

General Nkunda, after all, had led a four-year rebellion against Congo's military in the name of protecting his Tutsi ethnic group against attacks from other ethnic militias, especially the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu rebel group accused of launching the 1994 genocide against Tutsis. And earlier this year, Nkunda raised the stakes, promising to topple Kabila's government.

But if the price for removing one enemy, Nkunda, meant inviting in another enemy – the well-armed nation of Rwanda – into Congolese territory, why did Congo agree to the deal?

The answer appears to be a mixture of desperation, personal animosity, and incompetence. Given the history of Rwandan interventions in Congo, Kabila's people may pay the price for this deal for months and years to come.

"It seems that Kabila and his entourage were really nervous, and they had to do something big," says Guillaume Lacaille, a Congo expert for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. Kabila has a history of making bold deals, particularly after his military options have run out and his own hold on power is threatened.

In December 2007, the Congolese Army launched an offensive against Nkunda that failed utterly, Mr. Lacaille says, and Kabila immediately initiated the Goma Peace Process to end the fighting and bring Nkunda and other smaller rebel groups to the negotiating table. Following the collapse of the Congolese Army after Nkunda's forces marched toward Goma in November, Kabila is now making a bold move: declaring a truce with his former enemy in order to weaken Nkunda's forces.

"It's a sign of a lack of long-term political vision," says Lacaille.

An incredibly rich country full of export-quality hardwoods, diamonds, gold, uranium, tin, and a high-tech-ready metal known as coltan, Congo also has one of the weakest armies in Africa, full of underpaid and undertrained troops, many of whom have been absorbed recently from ragtag rebel groups.

This fateful combination of wealth and weakness have made it an attractive site for plunder, both by former colonial European nations and by Congo's own better-armed neighbors in Africa, including Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. In 1997, a joint operation by Ugandan, Rwandan, and Burundian troops helped Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila (Joseph's father) to overthrow the long-time dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko.

When Rwandan troops refused to leave, allegedly because of their interest in Congolese mines, President Kabila turned on his Rwandan sponsors and launched a second Congolese war from 2000 to 2003. The Rwandans retreated, but a sympathetic militia of ethnic Tutsis, led by Nkunda, soon took their place, and Congo alleges that Nkunda's forces were a proxy force to keep Congo unstable and weak.

A decade of war killed a staggering 5.4 million, according to UN figures, and nearly 200,000 Congolese remain displaced from their villages. The joint offensive by Congo's Army, Rwanda's Army, and Nkunda's former National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), now commanded by indicted war criminal Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, is likely to displace and even kill more civilians. Nine Rwandan militiamen were killed and one Congo army soldier was wounded over the weekend, said Congolese military spokesman Capt. Olivier Hamuli.

For Rwanda, the current operation is a chance to finally root out the Rwandan Hutu militia known as the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which is composed mainly of people who sought refuge in the jungles of Congo after carrying out the mass murder of some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.

Rwanda has said the joint operation will last only two weeks, but the members of the FDLR have settled in Congo and intermarried with locals since 1994. Moreover, the FDLR is expected to melt back into the jungle rather than fight against the better-organized Rwandan and Congolese forces, so rooting them out won't be easy. "Rwandans have been telling everybody who wants to listen ... that all they need is to be allowed back in [to Congo] to finish the job," says regional analyst Jason Stearns. "Now they have the chance, and if they don't do it, it's going to be very embarrassing for them."

Rwanda sees the roughly 6,500 fighters in the FDLR as an existential security threat. "They have continued their genocidal project on the other side of the border," Joseph Nsengimana, Rwanda's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council in late December.

Not everyone believes Rwanda's motives are as transparent as its government is making them out to be, however. UN staff who work to disarm the FDLR say the group is hardly a major military threat. Gerard Prunier, a regional analyst and historian, says Rwanda is likely as motivated by the spoils of war as it is routing the spoilers. "No one is afraid of the Hutu attacking Rwanda. The FDLR is quite incapable of doing it," Mr. Prunier says. "It's about control of the mines…. Kill these guys, take the mines, sign a contract with [Congo's government], and share the loot. That is called peace. Peace comes like this: When you find mutual interests, you can work together."

Global Witness, an independent natural resource watchdog, says the group has no evidence suggesting Rwanda is after minerals. Still, spokesperson Mike Davis says history gives reason to suspect last week's troop movements may be motivated in part "by a desire to secure a larger slice of the cake."

Mr. Davis says the FDLR controls numerous mines and trade routes and is known to tax exports heavily. Rwanda is an active part of the international trade routes that make Congo one of the top exporters of tin in the world, he says.

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