Rwanda's drive into Congo has grim ring of familiarity

Rebel advance is yet another Rwanda invasion into neighbour's territory. This time, rich mineral resources appear to fuel the conflict

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 4:08am

History is repeating itself yet again in eastern Congo. Rebels supported by Rwanda are on the march. Civilians are fleeing. And higher powers appear to be taking sides.

Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have been at this stage before. First in 1996, then in 1998. Also in 2004 and 2008. The first two conflicts had their roots in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, but now the fighting is mostly over mineral wealth - including minerals used in the world's smartphones and laptops.

Congo is rich in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and tungsten. The provincial capital of Goma, which lies on the Rwandan border and which fell to the M23 rebel group on Tuesday, is a major processing point for minerals coming out of eastern Congo.

Rwanda insists it is not aiding the M23 rebels, though a United Nations' expert report written this year said Rwanda and Uganda were doing exactly that.

Many M23 commanders were formerly with the rebel group known as CNDP, which carried out the same military tactics, with Rwanda's backing, in 2007/08, experts say.

"I'm just getting a sense of déjà vu right now," said Carina Tertsakian, a Rwanda researcher for Human Rights Watch, who ticked off the five Congo-Rwanda conflicts. "On each of those occasions the Rwandan military has actively and significantly supported Congolese rebel groups who were extremely violent and committed very serious crimes against civilians."

What do the rebels - and by extension, Rwanda - want?

To acquire political, military and economic control over eastern parts of Congo, Tertsakian says. After peace talks, the rebels can land plum spots in the military and can end up controlling Congo's rich natural resources. Rwanda transships many of the minerals, taking a cut.

Land may also be at stake. Rwanda's 10 million people are densely congregated in the country's 26,340 square kilometres. Congo is almost 100 times bigger with a population of 60 million.

Thousands of Congolese soldiers and policemen defected to the M23 rebels yesterday, as rebel leaders vowed to take control of all Congo, including the capital Kinshasa.

"We are now going to Kinshasa. No one will divide this country," said Colonel Vianney Kazarama, the M23 spokesman, told a cheering crowd of thousands at a rally at Goma's Stadium of Volcanoes.

Kazarama said their next goal was Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province on the other side of Lake Kivu. He claimed the rebels already control the town of Sake, 27 kilometres from Goma on the road to Bukavu, and would soon take Minova, a lakeside town in South Kivu. More than 2,100 army troops and 700 police turned in their weapons, the rebels said, piling up their arms and ammunition in the stadium.

Rwanda has suffered little in the international community for its support of Congolese rebels over the years. Observers suggest the West has turned a blind eye because of guilt it did nothing to stop the 1994 genocide.

Amnesty International said in July that M23 rebels were using Rwandan recruits and weapons supplied by Rwanda. It documented violations of humanitarian law and human rights abuses.

The UN report, to be released tomorrow, spurred a negative international reaction. The US suspended its military aid - albeit only US$200,000 - to Rwanda after parts of the preliminary report were leaked. European countries followed suit, suspending humanitarian aid.

On Tuesday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to sanction the leaders of M23. But it did not name Rwanda, or Uganda, which is also accused by Congo of supporting the rebels.

The council demanded the M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, disarm and disband, and insisted on the restoration of the Congolese government authority in the country's turbulent east.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse


A timeline of the latest fighting in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo:

November 15: After a three-month lull, fighting resumes between the army and the M23 rebel group near Goma, with both sides accusing each other of having fuelled hostilities. Goma, the biggest city in the mineral-rich region which lies on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, is the capital of North Kivu province.

November 16: Refugees flock to camps near Goma.

November 17: A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping forces in the region says the M23 rebels have taken the town of Kibumba, 25 kilometres from Goma. UN forces deploy attack helicopters against the rebels. The UN Security Council calls for a halt to external help for the rebel group.

November 18: The rebels launch a major offensive near Goma, halting on its outskirts. Some 30,000 refugees flee from a camp at Kanyarucinya. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the world body's forces will stay in Goma.

November 19: The rebels issue an ultimatum to the government, warning that they will continue to fight unless the government opens talks within 24 hours. Kinshasa rejects their demands, saying the rebels are in fact controlled by neighbouring Rwanda.

November 20: The M23 rebels say they control all of Goma and nearby crossing points on the border with Rwanda. Sultani Makenga, who heads the rebel force, arrives in the city. DRC President Joseph Kabila calls on his compatriots to resist the rebels, then travels to Uganda for talks with President Yoweri Museveni.

Agence France-Presse