Border zones are by nature rather tense, unpleasant places, but the actual significance of any particular border is simply a reflection of the politics of the region. An incursion by soldiers into the Korean Demilitarized Zone or along the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, will have profound geopolitical consequences, while we would probably not be too perturbed if we learned tomorrow that some drunken members of the Guardia Civil had accidentally stumbled into France.
The Congolese-Rwandan border is one of those with tremendous geopolitical significance, which makes last week’s reports that Rwandan troops crossed over and killed five Congolese soldiers especially disconcerting news, even from a region most Westerners already associate with biblical scales of calamity. In no other part of the continent is the geopolitical situation so opaque, the nature of borders so porous, and the flow of displaced people so weaponized as in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The past two decades of turbulent Congolese history have been propelled by invasion, proxy warfare, interethnic strife spilling across arbitrary borders, and African statesman who have seen little interest in anything but a weak state in Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest, most resource-rich country.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide catalyzed two catastrophic wars in the DRC (then Zaire), the second of which was dubbed “Africa’s World War” due to the involvement of nine African nations and a death toll between 2.7 and 5.4 million. And in many ways, the Second Congo War never really ended—as evidenced by the United Nations’ announcement this past October that the humanitarian situation in the DRC constituted a Level 3 emergency, on par with Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
At present, roughly 120 armed groups operate in eastern DRC alone, necessitating the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, MONUSCO. The Congolese security sector is in shambles, with the fractious and corrupt Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) acting as a vehicle for political patronage for erstwhile warlords of questionable loyalty. The Congolese state is further weakened by a dearth of infrastructure within the vast country and the combined effects of neopatrimonialism, interethnic tension, and secessionism, all working together to undermine the nation’s social cohesion.
Meanwhile, the political situation continues to deteriorate over President Joseph Kabila’s desperate, illegal machinations to cling to power through the delaying of elections, dubbed Glissement (“slippage”) by Congolese. The longer this process goes on, the greater the opportunity for warlords with parochial politico-economic interests to rebrand themselves as national political figures. This has already happened in the fascinating case of the racketeer-turned-“liberator” William Yakutumba, and the trend shows signs of spreading. As the chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration in Congo recently noted, “Whilst initially some of these armed groups were in it for themselves—they would burn a village, and pillage, rape, burn and scorch the earth—it seems now that they have more of a political agenda.” It may seem absurd to suggest that an obscure militia operating in the jungle 500 miles from Kinshasa could overthrow the President, but such rebellions have historically been vehicles for the Congo’s neighbors to attempt regime change.
As seemingly intractable and remote as the DRC’s problems are, the United States has humanitarian, economic, and political interests in managing the multifarious conflicts within Congolese borders. For example, any conflict that spills over into Uganda or Burundi consequently affects multinational efforts against Al Shabaab in Somalia. More importantly, a reversion to widespread interstate warfare in Central Africa would undermine the fragile progress made in building up collective security mechanisms and diplomatic forums in Africa.
If the United States and its allies wish to ameliorate or at least contain the current insecurity in the DRC, they must first understand how deeply interconnected the country’s problems are with the wider geopolitics of the region—and how limited Western influence over relevant Congolese actors may be. Because the DRC’s crisis rebounds on its neighbors in such complex and often contradictory ways, we should ask ourselves if and how other African states may play a role in peacefully pushing the Congolese President aside—which demands a fresh analysis of the region’s most consequential stakeholders.
The Southern Powers: Zimbabwe, Angola, and South Africa
New leadership to the DRC’s south will play a significant role in determining if and how President Kabila exits the political stage. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has thus far tolerated Kabila’s election delays in large part because two of its most influential members, Zimbabwe and Angola, are long-time backers of Kabila. Robert Mugabe was one of the closest allies of Joseph’s father, the late President Laurent Kabila. During the Second Congo War, Mugabe and then-President of Angola Jose Eduardo dos Santos airlifted hundreds of troops into Kinshasa to defend Laurent Kabila’s fledgling regime from an onslaught of Congolese rebels and Rwandan and Ugandan forces. Throughout the course of the war, Mugabe provided between $260 million and $1 billion in military assistance to the fledgling regime in return for lucrative mining and timber contracts for Mugabe’s clique.
One of those cronies, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is Zimbabwe’s new president following a November coup that finally sidelined Africa’s most notorious nonagenarian dictator. Another is Major General SB Moyo, reportedly one of the key nodes in the coup plotters’ network, and Mnangagwa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. We should be under no illusions about the nature of the new Zimbabwean leadership. The country remains an effective one-party state under ZANU-PF, and Mnangagwa needs to ensure the loyalty of the party elites who helped him usurp the presidency.
Due to its own economic collapse, Zimbabwe significantly scaled back its role in the Congolese mining sector in the early 2000s, although there are rumors that Zimbabweans continue to serve in Joseph Kabila’s bodyguard. Mnangagwa is economically savvier and less of an international pariah than his predecessor, and is thus looking to jumpstart Zimbabwe’s economy with more foreign investment and international debt relief. Assuming Zimbabwe’s fortunes rise as the DRC’s decrease, we can expect Mnangagwa to look for ways to reinsert ZANU-PF into the most lucrative sectors of the Congolese economy. The question is whether he will see Kabila’s Glissement as a means of ensuring a trusted friend remains in power in Kinshasa, or as a foolish, unsustainable gambit which threatens Zimbabwean investments. Needless to say, Kabila would be foolish to put too much faith in a man Zimbabweans have dubbed “The Crocodile.”
Angola’s long-serving dictator, dos Santos, also left office last year, although in his case the decision was voluntary. Like Zimbabwe, Angola remains a militarized one-party state, and the new president, João Lourenço, is a general and former Minister of Defence. Angola’s interests in the DRC are largely economic as much of its oil, which accounts for over 90 percent of its exports, is located in Congolese waters or in Cabinda, an enclave separated from the Angolan mainland by a strip of Congolese territory. Angolan foreign policy is also heavily informed by historical considerations: For decades, enemies of the ruling MPLA party operated with impunity from the Congo, nearly overthrowing the regime on several occasions.
Angola has been a key backer of Kabila since the day he took office in 2001, even though Angola is also one of the prime suspects in the assassination of Kabila’s father—a testament to the often unscrupulous nature of regional politics. In 2006, Angolan troops flew to Kinshasa to defend the younger Kabila, this time as the President’s bodyguards were fighting troops loyal to warlord-turned-politician Jean Pierre Bemba following a contested election. Angola’s support has shown signs of waning of late, however. A new and terrifying conflict in the DRC’s previously calm south-central province of Kasai—prompted by Kabila’s ham-handed attempts to replace hereditary chieftains with political cronies—has led to a massive influx of refugees into neighboring Angola. The Angolan government has been understandably concerned by these developments, to say nothing of a number of massive prison breaks near the Angolan border, and reportedly played a role in pushing Kabila to accept the December 2016 San Sylvestre agreement with the opposition. Kabila has since reneged his end of the deal. Perhaps more than any of the Congo’s other neighbors, Angola needs a modicum of stability in the DRC. Unpredictable as Angolan foreign policy can be, we can safely assume that Lourenço will not back a losing horse in Kinshasa, and that is exactly what Kabila looks like these days.
Finally, South Africa has a new President who appreciates the importance of his country’s international standing better than the recently resigned Jacob Zuma. While South Africa has not traditionally played as significant a role in the DRC’s internal affairs as Zimbabwe or Angola, the country is a pivotal diplomatic force on the continent and has been a key broker in previous negotiations within the Great Lakes region. (Thabo Mbeki oversaw the 2002 Pretoria Accord between Rwanda and the DRC). South Africa is also the biggest player in the SADC. Where Zuma had tolerated Kabila’s Glissement for reasons both ideological (who are former colonial powers to lecture Africans on democracy?) and practical (Zuma’s nephew was named in the Panama Papers as a major investor in Congolese oil fields), Cyril Ramaphosa enters office looking to reclaim the nation’s role as a pragmatic arbiter of regional disputes. He will need to tread carefully: The issue of term limits is a very sensitive one in African politics these days, and he needs good relations with his neighbors as much as he does with the West. Still, subtle diplomatic efforts to push Kabila out the door could earn South Africa some much needed international goodwill.
The Eastern Front: Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda
To the DRC’s east, Burundi remains in the midst of a protracted crisis that at points has appeared dangerously close to civil war. For the past three years, President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, has stoked ethnic resentment in attempts to dismantle a broad-based, multi-ethnic coalition that challenged his decision to run for a controversial third term. Roughly 2,000 people have been killed (overwhelmingly by state security forces), another 10,000 arrested, and nearly 400,000 have fled the country, including to the DRC. UN and African Union efforts to resolve the crisis have stalled and Burundi has rejected African Union peacekeepers and observers. In September, at least 36 Burundian refugees were killed in clashes with Congolese security forces in South Kivu, sparking a diplomatic row between the two neighbors. Given the role Burundi’s internal conflicts have played in Congolese history (anti-Hutu pogroms in 1972 and civil war from 1993-2006 saw hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing into the Kivus, radically altering local ethno-political dynamics), any further fallout from Burundi’s upcoming elections and proposed constitutional amendment on presidential term limits is liable to spill into the DRC.
After Kabila, no men will probably be more influential in determining the future of the DRC than Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Both presidents have their separate interests, but their personal histories are intertwined and their worldviews reflect a similar hard-earned cynicism from years fighting in the bush. Kagame was Museveni’s chief of intelligence when the latter was a rebel commander in the 1980s. Several years after Museveni usurped the Ugandan presidency, Kagame invaded Rwanda with his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels, sparking a civil war with the Hutu extremist government in Kigali. In 1994, it was the RPF who ended the 100-day genocide by pushing the Hutu genocidaires into the Congo as the world stood watching. The repressive state model and militaristic foreign policy of post-genocide Rwanda is Kagame’s response to what he sees as the utter failure of democracy and international law to save his people.
Together, Kagame and Museveni have twice invaded the Congo, once gone to war with each other (over the conduct of the second invasion and control of the Congo’s natural resources), and to this day are both heavily invested in ensuring that perceived threats to their regimes are held at bay within the DRC’s borders, rather than their own.
Trilateral relations between the DRC and its two powerful neighbors to the east remain frosty, although they began to improve slightly in 2013. Kagame and Museveni have heretofore tolerated Kabila’s Glissement for their own practical purposes. Kagame won re-election for a third term last August after his party pushed for a constitutional amendment (ratified by popular vote) that eliminated term limits. Museveni has been in power since 1986, and his party recently voted to scrap presidential age limits to allow the 73 year old to run again in 2021, a move that sparked an angry brawl in the Ugandan parliament. Understandably, both leaders are reluctant to see either the African Union or Western powers take a hard line on electoral malfeasance in the DRC, lest it set a precedent for the rest of the continent.
Kabila’s relatively cordial relations with Rwanda and Uganda these past few years have been a historic aberration, and they look set to deteriorate as the situation in the DRC unravels. Uganda’s decision to moderate its meddling in eastern DRC was in response to supposedly significant progress against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)—a vaguely Islamist Ugandan rebel group—on the part of the FARDC and MONUSCO’s new Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a muscular peacekeeping unit with a more aggressive mandate. This progress was illusory. MONUSCO hastily cut its budget in 2017, leading to the premature closure of peacekeeping bases in ADF areas of operation.
Even prior to the budget cuts, Tanzanian soldiers in the FIB who I spoke with last year were pessimistic about the UN force’s ability to root out the ADF and had little praise for the FARDC’s efforts. This is the backdrop to the startling series of Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) airstrikes within the DRC last December that killed 100 ADF militants, as well as Museveni’s subsequent chastising of the United Nations. While these strikes were reportedly coordinated with the FARDC, the UPDF is unlikely to always be so courteous with their Congolese counterparts. With plans to increase oil production in western Uganda under way, Museveni will look to establish a buffer against the ADF in eastern DRC which could take the form of UPDF presence or Congolese proxies.
Another oft-overlooked dimension of Uganda’s strategic landscape is the resurgent conflict in the DRC’s northeastern Ituri region, along the Ugandan border. Tension between pastoralist Hema and agriculturalist Lendu bubbled over into open warfare during the Second Congo War, during which time the Ugandans alternately supported militias from both ethnic groups to counter Rwandan (and later Congolese) influence. Major operations by Lendu rebels resisting integration into the FARDC continued well into 2015, and FARDC soldiers I spoke with last summer confirmed that the area was one of primary concern for their commanders even though it had not been getting any international attention. Then Xinhua reported this month that 26 people had been killed in fighting between unidentified Hema and Lendu groups, and that some 34,000 people had fled into Uganda this year as a result of the violence. Given the high level of ADF activity in Ituri, the onset of a broader Hema-Lendu conflict will complicate Ugandan efforts in the region.
Rwanda’s strategic interests in the DRC are not so fundamentally different from what they were twenty years ago. Rwanda seeks to neutralize the FDLR rebels, whose ranks include many former genocidaires; prevent the emergence of new rebel movements that are strong enough to challenge the Rwandan state; and ensure Rwandan access to Congolese natural resources. Malleable leadership in Kinshasa allows Kagame to secure these interests, just as it allows Museveni to secure Uganda’s. If Kagame finds Kabila recalcitrant, he can weaken his hand through proxies. This is precisely what Kagame did in 2012, when Rwanda helped catalyze a mutiny-turned-rebellion, the M23 movement (which also received modest Ugandan backing). In a matter of weeks, M23 routed the FARDC and temporarily occupied the major eastern city of Goma, humiliating the Congolese leader.
The subsequent diplomatic scramble to prevent a Third Congo War succeeded in pushing Kagame to drop his support of M23. While some hopeful Western commentators heralded this as the beginning of a new chapter in Congolese-Rwandan relations, the reality of the situation was never so encouraging. Kagame had never intended for the rebels to overthrow Kabila. As former Tutsi rebels of the CNDP group who had recently been integrated into the FARDC, the M23 rebels were solely interested in maintaining their privileged positions in the politico-economic sphere of eastern Congo; they never numbered more than 2,500 and their social base was much narrower than previous Rwanda-backed insurgencies, meaning that they would have never managed to overcome the popular anti-Rwandan sentiment that dominates the Kivus. Furthermore, Kagame had no compelling interest in seeing Kabila overthrown in 2012 so long as Kabila continued to tolerate Rwandan smuggling in eastern Congo.
It is much more likely that Kagame was simply trying to maintain his influence in eastern DRC by weakening Kabila’s position, which had been growing slowly stronger since 2009. In Kagame’s eyes, M23 would not only serve as a bulwark against the FDLR, but a defection of Tutsi soldiers from the FARDC would erase any legitimacy the Congolese state once enjoyed among the Rwandophone population of the Kivus. Kagame’s eventual decision to sever ties with M23 was the result of intense international pressure, namely the Obama Administration’s withholding of U.S. military assistance to Rwanda, as well as the fact that the rebellion inevitably fell apart shortly after its inception due to conflict between its two leading commanders, Bosco Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga.
None of this suggests that Kagame has any desire to become what we might consider a responsible stakeholder in a regional order. On the contrary, the militaristic and interventionist mindset of the RPF vanguard still dominates Rwanda’s foreign policy. Kagame’s Minister of Defence since 2010, General James Kaberebe, is known in the Congo for his widespread use of child soldiers during the Congo Wars as well as his propensity for daring commando operations—including the 1998 Kitona Airlift that nearly toppled Laurent Kabila. Just months after the M23 rebellion ended, Kagame’s former chief of external intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, was found murdered in a posh Johannesburg hotel. In exile, Karegeya had secretly been advising South African and Tanzanian intelligence in their efforts to target M23 for the FIB. Kagame officially denied involvement in the assassination, but speaking on the matter to a domestic audience shortly thereafter, said “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it.”
With the advent of Burundi’s crisis in the spring of 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza, an erstwhile friend of Kagame’s until 2013 (when relations soured over the M23 rebellion), quickly began casting the blame for his country’s instability on Rwanda. It would have been easy to brush off such claims as little more than Nkurunziza’s efforts to split the Burundian opposition by stoking Hutu fears of a nefarious Tutsi dictator orchestrating the current unrest. Unfortunately, a report by a UN panel of experts in February 2016 found that the charges had some merit: Rwandan intelligence officers had indeed conscripted Burundian refugees, including children, and provided them with military training in the hopes of toppling Nkurunziza. As of yet there has been no RPF-style invasion and Nkurunziza remains in office, but the crisis in Burundi continues among high tensions with Rwanda.
None of this recent history can tell us precisely how Kagame will react to an increasingly unstable DRC. In some ways, the case for Rwandan intervention is weaker than ever, as the FDLR, traditionally the justification for Rwanda’s aggressive foreign policy, is a shadow of its former self. But insecurity allows insurgencies to rebuild. Nkurunziza’s government was also probably not an existential threat to Rwanda, yet this did not stop Kagame from assembling a nascent Burundian rebel force. Furthermore, after two decades of Rwandan interventions in eastern DRC, the various communities there have no shortage of grievances against Kigali. It seems the only way Rwanda has managed to stay on decent terms with any eastern Congolese community is through illicit trade. Even most Rwandophone Tutsi in the Kivus long for integration into Congolese society and see Rwandan backing as a scarlet letter.
In short, Kagame knows that most of the armed groups operating in eastern DRC are at best highly skeptical of Rwanda and at worst openly hostile. And, of course, last week’s deadly clash with FARDC troops 100 meters inside Congolese territory is further testament to how precarious the situation between the two neighbors is, as communication between the two armies is lacking while mutual distrust is in high supply. Finally, as a rule of thumb, one should never underestimate Paul Kagame.
A Way Forward?
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to the crises in the DRC so long as its neighbors continue to see little downside to a weak Congolese state. For one thing, the European Union and United States, despite their tremendous financial power and international standing, do not possess the same sort of leverage over the relevant Congolese actors, most notably Kabila, that other African states do. Nevertheless, some common ground for preventing a further deterioration of the situation exists, as a complete collapse of the DRC would constitute far too great a risk for neighboring states which are generally rather fragile in their own right.
Our best chance of ameliorating the situation, however slightly, rests on the various African stakeholders acknowledging that Kabila’s presidency is unsustainable, which seems to be clearer every week with new reports of growing chaos. The question then becomes what form any regional pressure on Kabila would take: diplomatic efforts in forums such as the African Union (of which Kagame is now Chairperson) and SADC, or the blunter tools of statecraft all too common throughout the region’s history: proxy warfare and invasion.
We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the fundamental failure of the Congolese state would be remedied overnight with new leadership, nor into believing that African nations will abandon their realpolitik if Western diplomats and NGOs deliver enough sanctimonious lectures about cooperation and development. But coordinating American diplomacy with regional blocs like the SADC and the East African Community (of which Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania are members) can help push for an orderly transition of power in Kinshasa and hopefully avoid another regional war.
Washington can make it clear that they would be happy to see Kagame use his new bully pulpit to pressure Kabila. Insurgencies might be what Kagame is best known for, but he is also a shrewd diplomat, a skillful negotiator, and a forceful personality (rarely do brutal dictators manage to charm audiences at Davos as successfully as the Rwandan President). Kagame would no doubt appreciate that if the African Union were to match existing U.S. and EU sanctions against Kabila’s coterie and send a high-level envoy to the country to engage the government and opposition, this would send a clear signal to the Congolese leader that he is running out of allies. Washington can also send out feelers to Pretoria to see if Ramaphosa is willing to take a harder line on Kabila than his predecessor. If South Africa ratchets up pressure within the SADC, Kabila will be in a very tough spot diplomatically.
Renewed international efforts to resolve the crisis in Burundi are also imperative. Unfortunately, Nkurunziza looks set to finish his illegal third term in office, if only because the East African Community (EAC) has decided it’s too late to challenge the 2015 election. The United States and the European Union—which have both slapped sanctions on four of Nkurunziza’s allies—should push the EAC to take a stand on holding legitimate elections in 2020. In the meantime, there is a pressing need to ensure the safety of Burundian opposition parties, namely by pushing Nkurunziza to dismantle the Imbonerakure, a pro-government youth militia eerily reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda’s Interahamwe, and pressuring the government to enforce the post-civil war ethnic quotas for the civil service and, most crucially, the army.
There is no guarantee, of course, that this strategy would succeed. The situation is too multivariable, U.S. leverage is limited, and the relevant regional players each have their own often conflicting interests, to say nothing of strategic philosophies molded by years of warfare. But efforts to resolve the crisis that narrowly focus on Kabila’s actions in isolation from the wider geopolitical context are certain to fail. So long as the state remains as fragile as it is, the Congo’s history will continue to be disproportionately shaped by outside powers. For those of us who are realistic about the country’s near-term prospects but nonetheless see a need for international efforts to ameliorate the growing suffering and anarchy, we must start by acknowledging this reality.