KINSHASA —The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) information minister says his country is at last being heard after 15 years of being ignored. Minister Lambert Mende was referring Tuesday to recent announcements by several countries that they are freezing aid to Rwanda over suspicions that it is supporting rebels in Congo, a move the DRC government has long been calling for.
The DRC information minister says that, for the first time since the country’s late president Joseph Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, Congo may have the diplomatic initiative.
Mende tells VOA his government welcomes the call by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for all countries in the region, including Rwanda, to help disarm the M23 rebels.
And he notes that the United States and a number of other countries have suspended or delayed aid to Rwanda amounting to several tens of millions of dollars.
"We have also heard that they have cut assistance to Rwanda," Mende said. "That’s been done by the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and others, like the African Development Bank. We think this is a signal that things are changing."
Observers agree it is a warning to Rwanda that if it has been helping the M23 rebels and if it continues to do so, the flow of aid might diminish further. But so far the amount that has been frozen is not that great, says Congo analyst Thierry Vircoulon, who works for the International Crisis Group.
"The aid that was suspended represents about three percent of the budget of Rwanda so it’s not a major blow for the Rwandan economy. But this is nevertheless a warning." he said.
Vircoulon predicts that the aid will be unfrozen in a few months’ time unless the United Nations group of experts on the Congo finds proof of Rwandan support to the M23 continuing during the rest of this year.
Could the M23 rebels keep going if support from across the border had to be hidden from the international community? Vircoulon thinks they might.
"The border is not easy to monitor, and it’s already pretty clear that the M23 is now recruiting locally, instead of from Rwanda and is actually making quite a lot of money now that they control the area of Rutshuru, so they don’t really need a constant supply from Rwanda," he said.
Mende argues however that the M23 would be weaker if they could no longer count on direct military support from Rwanda, and he insists the Congolese army could beat them.
That is why, he says, it is important to have an international, neutral force monitoring the border in a way that the current U.N. peacekeeping force is not mandated to do.
Heads of state from 11 Great Lakes region countries met in Kampala, Uganda last week and discussed the setting up of a neutral border force but did not decide on actually sending the troops.
Mende tells VOA that the DRC succeeded in persuading the heads of state that the neutral force should consist of troops from outside the region, possibly including U.N. peacekeepers.
"When Rwanda was lobbying to have only a regional force, we think Rwanda was trying to get assistance from its usual friends in such situations," he said. "Heads of state came to our position and they decided for an international neutral force."
But Vircoulon says the meeting was not a success and merely postponed the real decisions.
"Given the fact that there was no decision on the regional force I don’t really see where the success was," he said.
The degree of support for the DRC government from its other eastern neighbors is unclear. Mende does not deny reports that armed groups in Congo are getting help from Uganda and Tanzania as well as Rwanda.
"We have spoken with our neighbors Tanzania and Uganda and we are still investigating," he said. "They have told us the information was untrue but we are still investigating. It is a serious matter for us and we have not reached any conclusions about it."
The heads of state meeting in Kampala decided to create a committee that will come up with a proposition in mid-September about the neutral border force. Meanwhile there has been a truce between the M23 and government troops for most of the past week.
Thierry Vircoulon argues that since the neutral border force may be a long time coming, the international community should consider an arms embargo against Rwanda which would be easier to monitor.