KINSHASA — The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have agreed to a proposal for a neutral force to be stationed along their border. The agreement, signed by the presidents of the two countries on Sunday, says the proposed force would help to eradicate the Congolese rebel movement, the M23, and other armed groups in the region.
The proposal was put forward by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, an inter-governmental body for 11 countries including Rwanda, Congo and other neighboring states.
It is not clear which of these countries would supply troops for the neutral force, nor where the money would come from, although the African Union has said it would be prepared to help.
Rwanda’s foreign minister has said the agreement is not the solution, but part of the solution to the M23 rebellion, which started in April and which Rwanda denies supporting.
The M23 rebels are led by ethnic Tutsi commanders who for many years have had strong links with the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda.
A Congolese Tutsi community leader, Edouard Mwangachuchu, says that the agreement is a good sign and suggests the M23 war can be settled by negotiation. "I think the Congolese government is working very hard to finish this war, by negotiation, and I think if Rwanda cooperates with the government, this war will end," he said.
The M23 rebels take their name from an agreement they signed with the DRC government on March 23, 2009, in which they agreed to integrate with the army and to turn their political wing, then called the CNDP, or National Congress for the Defense of the People, into a political party.
They say they started the M23 rebellion because the March 23 agreement was never properly implemented.
Senator Mwangachuchu helped to negotiate that agreement in 2009 and is currently the president of the CNDP. He admits that the agreement was not fully implemented but says that the M23 leaders should have talked this through with the government instead of starting a new rebellion.
Mwangachuchu says that everything still needs to be negotiated and he suggests that the 2009 agreement could still be a basis for talks between the M23 and the government. "They could just go back and go over the things that the agreement says. So they could say we have [agreed] this and it did not happen," he said. "At that time we could go back and review all the agreement and fix the things that were not done."
Controversial points in the agreement are likely to include the return of some 53,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees from Rwanda and the future deployment of Tutsi soldiers in the Congolese army. It is not clear how many of those refugees have returned, and the Tutsi soldiers from the CNDP have for years resisted being deployed away from the Kivu provinces, their home region.
Another Congolese Tutsi leader, Senator Moise Nyarugabo, says some Tutsi soldiers have difficulty fully integrating with the army because they face discrimination from other communities.
"I think this is one reason why some soldiers from the Tutsi community are not ready to go very far from the Kivu - it’s such kind of discrimination. Even some soldiers are afraid to go far from where they can protect themselves," said Nyarugabo.
Tutsis in Congo have never been victims of a genocide as the Tutsis were in Rwanda, but they have faced expulsion from certain areas. They have nevertheless been more successful in business than other communities, and their large land acquisitions over the the years and during recent wars have caused resentment.
Hostility to Congolese Tutsi also stems from the fact that many of them have been close allies of the Rwandan army in Congo’s recent wars. Several times, Rwanda has supported rebellions in eastern Congo on the grounds that it still faces a threat from the remnants of Rwandan Hutu forces which fled the area after the 1994 genocide.
Senator Mwangachuchu says the great majority of Tutsi soldiers in the Congolese army have not joined the M23, which was thought to have only a few hundred fighters, but in the past two weeks has defeated much larger Congolese army forces.
It is widely believed that the trigger for the M23 rebellion was the judgement by the International Criminal Court against the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was found guilty of conscripting and using child soldiers. One of the M23’s leaders, Bosco Ntaganda, is co-accused with Thomas Lubanga and faces an ICC arrest warrant.
It’s thought he started the rebellion because he was afraid of being handed over to the Hague.
Senator Nyarugabo said he was not happy with the way the ICC had been doing its job since it had only convicted one person, Thomas Lubanga, in 10 years.
"And the only charge they got him on was recruitment of child soldiers in the army. Do you know how many armed groups in Africa are recruiting child soldiers? Almost all of them," explained Nyarugabo. "I’m sorry, personally I am not very proud of that international justice. Sometimes I have the impression they are just doing some politics."
But Nyarugabo also said that recruitment of child soldiers should be discouraged and Bosco Ntaganda should have to take responsibility for his acts.
Nyarugabo insists that the Tutsi community should not be stigmatized as rebels. He points out that many of them are fighting against the M23.