Could DR Congo declare war on Rwanda?

Ishara Bahati Yassin, 20, an internally displaced Congolese from Kibumba, works at his motorbike washing bay business, in Munigi, near Goma, North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, December 7, 2023. REUTERS/Djaffar Sabiti

Polls concluded on Wednesday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with millions of voters participating in general elections following intense and at times violent campaigns amid the ongoing conflict against the M23 rebel group. Some regions were scheduled to vote on Thursday, making these elections a crucial test for the DRC, which has experienced minimal peaceful power transfers due to years of instability.

The Arguments

An interesting moment occurred on Tuesday when the incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi, seeking a second five-year term, addressed supporters in Kinshasa during his final campaign event. Expressing frustration, Tshisekedi proclaimed, “I’ve had enough of invasions and M23 rebels backed by Kigali. If you re-elect me and Rwanda persists, I will request parliament and Congress to authorize a declaration of war. We will march on Kigali. Tell Kagame those days of playing games with Congolese leaders are over.” This incident highlighted the escalating tensions between the DRC and its smaller neighbour, Rwanda.

Various opposition candidates, such as former Katanga governor and wealthy businessman Moise Katumbi, oil executive Martin Fayulu, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning gynecologist Dennis Mukwege, are competing for the presidency. Like his counterparts, President Tshisekedi has pledged to address the insecurity. However, he attributes the deteriorating security situation largely to Rwanda, which Kinshasa believes is supporting the M23, formed in 2012 by a group of mutinous soldiers. Throughout the campaign, Tshisekedi consistently criticized Rwandan President Paul Kagame, accusing him of having “expansionist aims” and drawing parallels with Hitler.

On Tuesday, the president’s remarks raised concerns about the possibility of full-scale conflict with Rwanda if he were to be re-elected, heightening fears of destabilization in East Africa. While some analysts suggest that President Tshisekedi’s rhetoric may be more about stimulating nationalistic sentiment to garner votes in the DRC, where anti-Rwandan sentiments have grown, experts caution that the consequences of such strong language could be severe. The anti-Rwanda rhetoric, though appealing to the Congolese public, may lead to post-election challenges in regional diplomacy.

The Facts

Despite Tshisekedi’s attempts to maintain cordial relations with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, strained ties intensified with the resurgence of the M23 in 2021. The DRC alleges Rwandan support for the rebels, a claim supported by a United Nations Security Council committee of experts. Rwanda denies the accusations and accuses Kinshasa of backing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an armed group that has attacked Rwanda and operates in the DRC.

The resurgence of the M23 in November 2021 has contributed to heightened violence in the volatile eastern region of the DRC. This mineral-rich area is home to over 100 armed groups, including the M23 and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), all fighting for control and ruthlessly attacking civilians. The violence has displaced around seven million people, with dozens losing their lives.

Efforts to end the conflict, involving the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO and regional soldiers from the East African Community (EAC), have been deemed ineffective, leading to their withdrawal. Tshisekedi now relies on the planned deployment of forces from the Southern Africa Development Community bloc (SADC).

Many Congolese in affected provinces express fatigue with the prolonged war and desire lasting peace. Some criticize Tshisekedi for failing to secure the provinces, while others advocate for giving him more time to address the issues. Analysts note that Tshisekedi faces a strong but fragmented opposition and is employing a confrontational approach with Rwanda to regain popular support among the 44 million voters.

The historical tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali trace back to the 1990s, during the second Congolese war, and are intertwined with the current conflict.

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