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Reception in Africa

Why do tensions between DR Congo and Rwanda persist?

The atmosphere between Kinshasa and Kigali is explosive, with the two governments trading blame once more over brutal rebels. Experts say the longstanding dispute will persist until past issues are resolved.

Motorcycles carrying people and their belongings on a road patrolled by soldiers

Civilians have been fleeing the fighting between Congolese soldiers and M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Hundreds of houses in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo are abandoned, their owners long gone.

Thousands more in the territory of Nyiragongo, near the North Kivu capital of Goma, have now fled their homes, as fighting between the Congolese army (FARDC) and M23 rebels continues.

They emptied their homes, taking mattresses, jerrycans, kitchenware, sheep and goats, and took off in the direction of the border with Uganda. Most are hopeful that their escape to Uganda is not permanent.

"We shall just stay around the border, and when the fighting takes a pause we go back to our gardens and harvest food for our children," says Pascal Muto, a father and husband.

"We fear living in camps because they are congested and lack sufficient food, water and medicine," he tells DW.

Tension on the increase

Renewed fighting between military forces and the rebel group M23 erupted on several fronts last week in North Kivu, along the border with Rwanda.

The latest attacks have led to increased tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali. The two countries are trading blame over the poor security situation in the region.

People fleeing with clothes, sleeping mats on their backs

People flee fighting between Congolese forces and M23 rebels in North Kivu

Last week, Rwanda said that several civilians were injured in cross-border shelling of its territory by the Congolese military.

Kigali also accused the DRC of backing Hutu rebels it said had abducted two of its soldiers.

But the Congolese army said the soldiers had been trespassing on its soil and had been detained by locals. 

Kinshasa suspended flights to the DRC by Rwanda's national carrier RwandAir in retaliation and summoned Kigali's ambassador. The DRC accuses Rwanda of backing M23.

The rebels last month attacked two Congolese army positions near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda and advanced on nearby towns. Hundreds of people staged an anti-Rwanda protest in Kinshasa on Monday.

Rwanda under fire

"Our forces are not fighting M23," says Pierre Kisunzu, a livestock farmer, who also fled the DRC and is now in Uganda.

"They are fighting Rwandan forces. Rwanda is the one destabilizing us and we are tired of this. DRC has joined the East African Community. The regional leaders should intervene," he says.

Congolese soldiers on a pick-up truck

Congolese soldiers are frequently being attacked by M23 rebels

Kisunzu is not alone with his claim.

"We ask our government not to remain in this lethargy, it must understand better than anyone else that we are being attacked by Rwanda because the M23 is still sponsored by Rwanda," says John Banyene, a civil society leader in North Kivu.

"This is not the time to go to other dialogues either, because we have held enough of them without results. Our government must be responsible," Banyene tells DW.

In Goma, civil society representative Marrion Ngavo believes that the military presence along the border with Rwanda should be reinforced.

"The civil society of the city of Goma urgently asks the Congolese government to secure the city of Goma by closing the borders with Rwanda until the end of hostilities," she says.

The Congolese opposition group Bloc Patriotique Credible du Peuple (BPCP) supports the idea.

BPCP spokesman Augustin Bisimwa says that it would be a good time for the DRC to break diplomatic ties.

"The government should expel the Rwandan ambassador to Congo and immediately return the Congolese ambassador to Rwanda," Bisimwa says.

Why the explosive atmosphere?

According to Felix Ndahinda, a researcher on conflict and justice in the Great Lakes region, Rwanda also has its reasons for accusing DRC of not doing enough.

"It's a very well-known fact that the DRC does host groups, which Rwanda considers terrorist groups. For that very reason, Rwanda has done quite many interventions in eastern DRC directly, sometimes even through the authorities, claiming security concerns," says Ndahinda.

Man holding ammunition

Who is supporting the M23?

Some rebel groups relocated to the DRC when the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front took over in Rwanda in 1994.

"And those have never been disarmed and have always been constituted a real threat to Rwandan government,", says Ndahinda. "So until those rebels are either fully demobilized or fully disarmed, I guess there will always be a security issue between the two countries."

However, the insecurity in the border region is not a matter of Congo and Rwanda alone, Ndahinda underlines.

"More than 120 different militia operation have been documented in that region. There are quite a number of those who origin from Rwanda, but a number of those are also from Kinyarwanda-speaking people from eastern Congo who are Congolese for all purposes. But disarming all of those groups is very difficult."

The M23, which is largely an ethnic Tutsi group, is opposed to the government that came to power in the DRC in 2012 and seized control of Goma.

The army and United Nations forces dislodged the M23 from Goma and many of rebels fled to Rwanda and Uganda before the signing of a 2013 peace agreement.

But they have since returned  to stage attacks, saying the DRC government has failed to honor a 2009 agreement under which rebel fighters were to be incorporated into the army.

Kinshasa has designated M23 a terrorist group and excluded it from the peace talks being held in Kenya with other militia groups that are active in eastern DRC.

Roger Lumbala

The head of the M23 Congolese rebels, Roger Lumbala

Peace talks exclude some rebels

"At least the narrative in Rwanda today is that the M23 is still contained in Rwanda, far from the border", says Ndahinda. "That faction was actually admitted to the talks in Nairobi, but the faction, which is in Uganda, seems to be the one active."  

Ndahinda believes that part of the latest escalation in violence stems from the exclusion of the M23 faction from the talks in Nairobi.

"And one accusation is that the Congolese authorities are picking some of the groups rather than adopting a way of approaching the different groups," the researcher says. "That might be indeed quite dangerous."

The M23 has threatened to continue the violence until Kinshasa respects the agreements they jointly signed. 

"This time we will go all the way, especially since we are claiming our most legitimate rights," says Major Willy Ngoma, the military spokesman for the M23.

"We spent 14 months negotiating in Kinshasa and as soon as we returned, the FARDC [Congolese military] started to attack us. We are simply asking the Congolese government to be an appropriate interlocutor. Everything we said during the negotiations, we must respect."

Kombibild Felix Tshisekedi und Paul Kagame

The President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi and Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame

Reasons for tensions lie in the past

The DRC and Rwanda have had a tumultuous relationship since the mass arrival in the republic of Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Some of those accused of the killings have since set up militias in eastern DRC.

In 2019, relations had improved after Felix Tshisekedi became the president of DRC, but the resurgence of the M23 has reignited tensions.

But according to Ndahinda, the reason for the ongoing tensions lie in the past. "Those security issues have lasted more than 30 years. The collective grievances are the identity narrative — who belongs, who does not, the autonomy language and so on," he says.

"The population with Rwandan, Ugandan or Burundi origin have always been considered as recent immigrants, and that is a dynamic which is internal to Congo, which has never been solved."

On Sunday, African Union chair Macky Sall called for "calm and dialogue for a peaceful resolution of the crisis with the support of regional mechanisms and the African Union."

A day later Sall, who is president of Senegal, confirmed that he had brought President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Felix Tshisekedi of DRC in touch on the phone with a view to resolving the current impasse.

George Okachi, Nety Zaidi Zanem and Hawa Bihoga contributed to this article.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen