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Congo-Rwanda Dispute Obscures Complex Undercurrents

Once again, the threat of renewed war has surfaced in Central Africa. More than three million people are estimated to have died of war-related causes the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, in the last decade. About 800,000 others perished in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Last week, Congo accused its neighbor Rwanda of invading its territory. Rwanda denies the charge, but has repeatedly said it has the right to hunt down ethnic Hutu rebels who fled to Congo after participating in Rwanda's genocide. The issues that contribute to the ongoing instability in eastern Congo are complex.

The United Nations has stopped short of saying that Rwandan troops have entered Congo, but says it has photographs that indicate a presence of forces that could be Rwandan.

Rwanda denies that its troops have entered Congo, but has warned that it reserves the right to protect itself from Hutu extremists. Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Murigande spoke with VOA this week. "We were kind of giving maybe last notice if nothing is done to put these forces out of business by dismantling them completely we would be forced to go into DRC and do it ourselves because we cannot be reduced to the role of counting the dead and burying Rwandans," he said.

Rwanda invaded Congo twice before - in 1996 and 1998 - saying it was protecting its own security by hunting down Hutu fighters.

Jason Stearns is a former United Nations demobilization officer who spent two years in eastern Congo making contact in the bush with Hutu fighters of the rebel Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR. He says although the rebels do pose a threat, it is not a significant one militarily to Rwanda. He estimates their strength to be between eight-to-ten thousand.

"They were significantly weakened over the last two years, first because their supply was cut off by Kinshasa and secondly because there was an internal crisis in the organization between the hard liners and the more moderates, which led to the desertion last year of many of high ranking officers, including the head of the organization," he said. "So they are both militarily as well as structurally weakened. And really they haven't been able to organize any sort of serious attack on Rwanda since 2001. And even when they did so in 2001 the result was that over one-thousand of them were killed and over one-thousand-500 taken prisoner. So if they were strong then, it's really hard to imagine in their weakened state now that they pose any threat."

Alison Des Forges, a veteran Central Africa researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, says there is no evidence of an imminent threat to Rwanda, such as massing troops or movement towards the border. "The Rwandans talked about a couple of shells that came over the border on November 15th and apparently they did indeed come over but no one is sure at this point who shot them or why they were shot - there have been varying explanations given - and in any case they were never followed up. There has been no subsequent action, which makes it look like this was a one-off or accidental, in any case not deliberate, attack on Rwanda," she said.

Ms. Des Forges said the Hutu fighters in Congo actually pose a greater threat to Congolese, many of whom are of Tutsi origin. "That is an issue that the Congolese government and with the support of the U.N. peacekeeping force needs to deal with. But there are many such groups, not all of them Rwandans. So it is not just Rwandan Hutu combatants that are causing disorder in eastern Congo and this is indeed a serious problem but it is a problem that is well within domain of Congolese government," she said.

That has been a key complaint of the Rwandan government: that Congo has not lived up to its side of the peace bargain to disarm the Hutu fighters.

Mr. Stearns agrees. "It's really up to the Congolese army. The Congolese army up until now, it is absolutely true it has not lived up to that task. I think they had a meeting in Kinshasa and decided to renew efforts to take on these forces … Unfortunately, if Rwanda invades their attention will be completely distracted from that," he said.

Mr. Stearns, as well as the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts around the world, says the United Nations peace keeping force must have a more robust mandate in eastern Congo to forcibly disarm fighters, but he says this is unlikely. "The nations that are currently in the Congo - the Uruguayans, the South Africans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and some other nations - they will not want to have to carry out guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Congo. It will be a very messy matter. The U.N. until now all it has a mandate to do is to support the Congolese army, which not only has the mandate, but has the duty to protect its population and kick all foreign forces out," he said.

And, Mr. Stearns says Congo could be reluctant to disarm the Hutu fighters because it essentially amounts to turning on a loyal ally who helped a weak Congolese military fight against a five-year occupation by Rwanda in the east.

Congo accuses Rwanda of acting out of economic interests in mineral-rich eastern Congo. Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Murigande denies this. "The wealth of Congo is not on the street to be collected. It does not suffice to set your feet on DRC to access the wealth of Congo. It requires knowledge. It requires knowhow, it requires heavy investment," he said.

And so if Rwanda is not genuinely threatened by an organized Hutu military force, if it is not pursuing its own economic interests, then why else might it be interested in a presence in eastern Congo? Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch says the goal could be political. "The Rwandans have told the African Union that they intend to spend only about two weeks in the area and we have also heard that they're intending to do surgical strikes to get rid of this security threat," he said. "But there were Rwandan troops in eastern Congo for five years, some 20-thousand of them. And if during five years time they couldn't deal with this military issue it's hard to believe that in two weeks they're going to do it now. If they really intend to have a very brief presence in Congo it looks perhaps more like their objective is a political one. In other words, to demonstrate that they continue to be an important power in the area and that their political influence has to be taken into account, even within Congo and with its attempt to move forward to some form of elected government."

Elections are scheduled to be held in Congo next year. Analysts expect Rwandan allies in Congo to lose heavily in the polls. Congo is currently ruled by a coalition, transitional government.