Can Blinken Bring Peace in Eastern Congo?
The U.S. secretary of state is urging Kigali, Kinshasa, and others to stop backing militias in the region—but a lasting peace deal remains elusive.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Kenya’s new president faces an economic challenge, protests in Somaliland threaten the region’s peaceful status, and Burkina Faso’s military confronts new accusations.
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Blinken Navigates Complex Rwanda-Congo Tensions
During his three-nation tour of Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the leaders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to cease backing armed groups within eastern Congo.
Authorities in Congo and United Nations officials say Rwanda’s military is backing a renewed insurgency by the March 23 Movement, known as M23, a primarily Tutsi rebel group fighting the Congolese government in North Kivu, Congo.
Is Rwanda backing M23? According to Blinken, there are “credible reports” that Rwanda has supported M23. An unpublished report by U.N. experts confirmed the presence of Rwandan armed forces in M23 camps. It follows comments in June by top U.N. official Bintou Keita, head of the U.N. force in Congo, who warned that coordinated attacks by M23 rebels could soon overpower the mission’s capabilities.
M23 leaders demand the implementation of a 2013 pact known as the Nairobi accord, which would grant fighters amnesty from alleged war crimes and reintegration into the Congolese army—but the Congolese government has declared the group a terrorist organization.
Why the FDLR matters. Historical grievances between Congo and neighboring Rwanda stem in part from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. Kigali claims Congo is supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an eastern Congo-based mainly Hutu rebel group that includes some perpetrators who were involved in the Rwandan genocide.
Mistrust has deepened among neighboring countries as over 100 militias operate in eastern Congo. Analysts say Congo’s neighbors have for years used those armed groups as proxies to gain influence and profit from the smuggling of Congo’s vast mineral wealth, which includes diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and coltan.
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi allowed troops from neighboring Uganda last year to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)—a Ugandan rebel coalition based in eastern Congo and, according to U.S. intelligence, is affiliated with the Islamic State. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni also accused Kigali of using M23 to hamper its battle against the ADF. Analysts believe Museveni is using the resurgent conflict as a pretext to control his own economic interests in Congo while Burundi has covertly done the same while fighting RED-Tabara, a Burundian opposition group based in eastern Congo.
“Any support or cooperation with any armed group in the eastern DRC endangers local communities and regional stability, and every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others,” Blinken said. Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta responded to Blinken’s remarks by insisting that “Rwanda is not the cause of long-standing instability in eastern DRC.”
In Kigali, Blinken also raised Washington’s concerns over the detention of permanent U.S. resident Paul Rusesabagina, a critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the protagonist of the Hollywood hit Hotel Rwanda, who was sentenced to a 25-year prison term for “terrorism.” In a letter addressed to Blinken last month and seen by Foreign Policy, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would place a hold on security aid to Rwanda unless its government improves its human rights record.
Aloys Tegera, co-founder and director of research at the Pole Institute, a Goma-based think tank, believes Congolese tolerance of the FDLR is the chief driver of conflict in the region. “The FDLR in northern Kivu is a real threat to Rwanda, a real threat to Congolese Tutsi communities in the DRC. That is the reality, and M23 have built their own rationale around that,” he told Foreign Policy. “One of the problems which allows FDLR to be still a problem in the region is also the lack of leadership on the side of the Congolese government.”
An invisible refugee crisis. The violence has caused what the Norwegian Refugee Council called the world’s most neglected refugee crisis in 2021. More than 5.5 million people remain internally displaced in Congo while the world’s attention has been focused primarily on Ukraine.
Alleged attacks on civilians by M23 forces have fed anti-Rwanda protests and xenophobic violence against Congolese Tutsis. Support for the Congolese army has grown, making demilitarization in the region extremely difficult. Kenya-led talks in April revived a proposal for a regional force by the East African Community, but Congo says Rwandan troops cannot be included, and there has been no date set for the deployment of troops.
Further complicating peacekeeping efforts are ongoing protests against the U.N. peacekeeping mission there, which Congolese citizens in the area accused of failing to contain the violence despite operating in Congo for 22 years.
Although Blinken’s mediation is unlikely to end tensions in eastern Congo, he can claim one small victory: Kinshasa and Kigali agreed to resume direct talks.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Aug. 17, to Saturday, Aug. 20: Parliamentarians within the Economic Community of West African States are to discuss the mechanisms for peace, security, democracy, and good governance at a meeting held in Banjul, Gambia.
Monday, Aug. 22, to Friday, Aug. 26: Health ministers from 47 countries meet for the 72nd session of the World Health Organization’s Regional Committee for Africa in Lomé, Togo.
Wednesday, Aug. 24: Angola holds a general election.
What We’re Watching
Kenya elections. Deputy President William Ruto is Kenya’s president-elect after taking 50.49 percent of the vote and narrowly beating fifth-time contender Raila Odinga, who won 48.8 percent. The announcement was delayed after four of the seven members of the electoral commission refused to endorse the result “because of the opaque nature,” of the proceedings said Juliana Cherera, vice chairwoman of the commission, in a televised briefing.
Chaos erupted at the vote-tallying center as Odinga supporters stormed the podium amid allegations of vote-rigging. Odinga on Tuesday said he would challenge the results through “all constitutional and legal options.” He did so in Kenya’s last election, prompting a decision by the Kenyan Supreme Court to rerun the vote. In his acceptance speech, Ruto thanked his rival, Odinga, and promised to work with all leaders “so that we can fashion a country that leaves no one behind.”
Ruto’s win means that the country will not get its first woman deputy president in Martha Karua, who was Odinga’s running mate. However, there have been more women elected as governors and in Kenya’s Senate.
Ruto faces myriad fiscal challenges: Debt has soared, he will need to revive a slow economy, and he will be expected to continue infrastructure projects that are likely to push up foreign debt while looking for ways to ease the impact of an ongoing drought.
Burkina Faso junta. Rights groups in Burkina Faso have accused the army of killing more than 40 civilians in the north of the country. Victims’ bodies had been found on the road between Taffogo and Bouroum blindfolded with their hands tied. The the Burkina Faso-based Observatory of Human Dignity said, “Nearly all the victims were Fulani”—a mainly Muslim ethnic group of pastoralists that jihadis have targeted for recruitment amid farmer-herder conflicts.
Burkina Faso’s military has been struggling to contain Islamist violence that has forced some 1.9 million people to leave their homes and in part led to the military’s takeover in January, when coup leader Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba vowed to recapture rural areas from armed groups. Burkina Faso’s army has denied targeting civilians, but this month, authorities admitted to accidentally killing an undisclosed number of civilians during an airstrike near the village of Pognoa.
Somaliland elections. More than 100 people have reportedly been arrested and at least three people were killed in protests that started on Thursday in Somaliland—a breakaway region of Somalia. Somaliland is due to elect a new president in November, but opponents called for protests over fears that Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi will seek to delay the elections and attempt to stay in power beyond his mandated term. Opposition parties claim that there has been a lack of proper preparation for the upcoming elections.
Protests in Sierra Leone. A curfew imposed following clashes with security forces has been lifted in the country. Demonstrators burned police stations and at least six police officers and 21 civilians were killed in protests last week that took place in opposition strongholds in the north and west of the country. The protests were ostensibly about the high cost of living as President Julius Maada Bio blamed the opposition and “shadowy forces in the diaspora” for the violence while replacing some senior military officials and reshuffled others. Alfred Peter Conteh, the interim chairperson of the opposition All People’s Congress, acknowledged administrative infighting within his own party but said his party had no involvement in the disturbance.
Tech and Culture
Congolese oil. Blinken’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo led to an agreement on a joint working group to examine Kinshasa’s proposals for fossil fuel extraction in conservation areas. Local environmentalists are fighting Tshisekedi’s announcement to auction off oil and gas exploration blocks in vast areas of land, including in Salonga National Park and Virunga National Park—Africa’s oldest national park that’s home to much of the world’s last remaining mountain gorilla population and is an important carbon sink.
The Congo Basin is second in size only to the Amazon, and environmental defenders have been fighting against oil expansion in Virunga for decades.
Washington will need to tread carefully. Intervention by the U.S. government will be welcomed by local activists, but any attempt to force Kinshasa to back down could be reframed by Congolese officials as an attempt to keep Congo’s economy underdeveloped. Indeed, Congolese Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula recently made a reference to the history of exploitation by foreign companies in his country. Congolese ministers forecast the country could produce up to a million barrels of oil worth $32 billion a year, more than half of Congo’s GDP.
African Super League. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) launched a new 24- team Super League competition at the federation’s general assembly in Arusha, Tanzania. CAF President Patrice Motsepe said the new league would offer a prize money of $100 million—more than five times what the current CAF Champions League winners take home. The competition is scheduled to begin in 2023 and has the backing of FIFA. According to Motsepe, each of the 24 clubs would receive $2.5 million at the start of the inaugural season to help prepare for the tournament.
Chart of the Week
Odinga and his supporters are disputing Kenya’s election results, in which Ruto won by a small margin. Four of Kenya’s national electoral commissioners who distanced themselves from the final tally said the results when adding up the percentages amounted to over 100 percent but only by 0.1 percent.
What We’re Reading
Charming the opposition in Uganda. In African Arguments, Michael Mutyaba examines why Uganda’s oldest opposition party, the Democratic Party, has allied itself with President Yoweri Museveni. Mutyaba argues that Museveni’s wooing of potential rivals is “more a reaction to growing opposition than an element of considered strategy.”
Kenya’s troubled railway. Nairobi’s Chinese-funded railway became a hot topic in election debates. In the New York Times, Abdi Latif Dahir uncovers why the rail line—which cost $4.7 billion to build—has become associated with debt and mismanagement as well as the subject of criminal investigations over corruption.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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