Goma — What began in April as a localised mutiny by soldiers in the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has escalated into a diplomatic fall-out between the DRC and its diminutive but powerful neighbour Rwanda, which is accused of backing the rebels.
As tensions mount between Kinshasa and Kigali, the United Nations has, after a delay of weeks, released the controversial full findings of an investigation into Rwanda's alleged involvement. Meanwhile, loyal Congolese army soldiers and the mutineers are engaged in running battles in a conflict that seems on the brink of exploding into full-blown war.
Is Ntaganda in charge?
The mutineers are led by General Bosco 'The Terminator' Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ntaganda deserted the army with soldiers loyal to him last April fearing arrest for charges of crimes against humanity committed in the second Congolese war. He and his troops were forced from their old heartland of Masisi in late April, just as another group of mutineers calling themselves M23 sprang up.
The mutineers were former members of the Tutsi-led and Rwanda-backed rebel group National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), which had integrated into the army under a peace deal struck on March 23, 2009. M23 - a reference to the March 23 signing of the deal - has been calling for the proper implementation of those peace terms, and has insisted that it has nothing to do with Ntaganda and his personal crusade to avoid ICC arrest. M23 says its leader is General Sultani Makenga, a rival of Ntaganda's since 2009.
However sources in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, now report that Makenga and Ntaganda are working together, and indeed that Ntaganda is coordinating the M23 operations from their base in the chain of volcanic hills near the convergence of the Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan borders. These sources indicate that their rapprochement may have been inspired by Rwanda, a suggestion that has gained credence in the last month as evidence of Rwanda's influence mounts. Analysts have often pointed to Rwanda's controlling influence in the Kivus, which contains valuable minerals.
In late May, the BBC reported having seen a UN report that included interviews with M23 deserters who said they were recruited in Rwanda and shipped over the border to fight alongside the rebels. Soon afterwards, Human Rights Watch corroborated those stories. Lambert Mende, the Congolese Information Minister, also accused Rwanda of aiding M23.
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign minister, called Mende's statement "regrettable", adding that "Rwanda should not be used as a scapegoat to distract and deflect attention away from DRC's domestic problems".
Think Africa Press has now gathered further evidence suggesting Rwandan support for M23. In Goma, there are a number of former M23 fighters who have either deserted or been captured, and are being held by the Congolese army and in the repatriation programme camp at MONUSCO's (the UN's mission in the DRC) base.
Former M23 fighters told Think Africa Press that they had been recruited in the Rwandan towns of Kinigi - Ntaganda's birth town - and Ruhengeri by men offering around $100 a month for an unspecified job. They were then forced into a truck and driven into Virunga National Park, which sprawls across Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, and in which the M23 positions are located.
Recruits claimed that they had to hand over their phones and identity cards, and were told that they were to carry some materials for an hour before returning to collect their belongings and their pay. Instead, they were marched for hours across the park, finally arriving at the M23 positions. Here, some were made to construct huts or help with chores, while others were given brief combat training before being sent to the front.
"We were told not to return [to Rwanda], instead to stay with M23 and join the rebels," one Rwandan M23 deserter told Think Africa Press on the condition of anonymity. "There was no way we could refuse; we accepted. We had to do three operations before I decided to escape."
Sources in Rwanda indicated that recruitment is being driven by high-ranking figures in Kigali. These individuals are using demobilisation networks to contact former fighters who have returned to civilian life. Many are former members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu group in violent opposition to Kigali's largely Tutsi leadership. Ex-FDLR fighters can face problems reintegrating into Rwandan society and many are unemployed.
Controversy at the UN
The UN's Group of Experts on the DRC reacted to these developments by adding an addendum, investigating suggestions of Rwandan support for M23, to its most recent report. The publication of this addendum was blocked for weeks by the UN Security Council, with opposition apparently led by Rwanda's ally the United States and, in particular, by the American UN ambassador Susan Rice, a long-standing supporter of Rwanda. Atoki Ileka, the DRC's ambassador said "efforts by any Security Council members to try to avoid publication of the findings are shameful".
Late on June 29, the addendum was finally published, with copies already having been leaked to journalists and analysts. It makes bad reading for Rwanda. The report claims to have found evidence of "direct assistance in the creation of M23 through the transport of weapons and soldiers through Rwandan territory" and "direct Rwandan Defence Forces interventions into Congolese territory to reinforce M23". This would suggest that Rwanda has been violating UN Security Council resolutions banning the supply of weapons to armed groups in the DRC.
It is also suggested that Rwanda asked for "impunity" for Bosco Ntaganda, and that former CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda, supposedly under arrest in Rwanda, has been mobilising support for M23. If true, this puts Rwanda's Western backers in an awkward position. Rwanda has long received considerable financial and strategic support from the West; in 2012/13 donors will contribute nearly half a billion dollars to Rwanda's budget, while US President Barack Obama reiterated American support for Rwanda in a recent speech on the anniversary of the 1994 Genocide. Evidence of direct Rwandan support for an ICC-indicted criminal like Ntaganda will make it difficult for countries like the US and UK to continue backing Kigali's actions.
Escalation of the conflict?
What happens next will depend largely on Rwanda's reaction to the UN report. If, in the face of evidence that it is supporting M23 and any subsequent international criticism, Kigali continues to reinforce Ntaganda and his men, then the current localised fighting may descend into war. Without Rwanda's support, it is difficult to see how M23 can successfully take on the Congolese army.
M23's own rhetoric has certainly escalated recently. Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama, M23's spokesman, told Think Africa Press: "we are upset by the Congolese government's fraudulent election and failure to improve the living conditions of the Congolese people; we want to chase the government in Kinshasa from power. We are calling for a revolution." He insisted that Rwanda was not supporting M23, saying that theirs is "a Congolese affair".
Evidence, however, points to Rwanda once again involving itself in an apparently Congolese insurrection. Rwanda, for its part, claims the UN addendum is "one-sided" and "based on partial findings", but has also made repeated statements about anti-Rwandan violence in the Kivu provinces, possibly laying the ground for a future 'protective' incursion. These are ominous signs of dark days to come in eastern Congo. All eyes are now on Rwanda, waiting to see what it will do next.
Peter is a freelance journalist working in east and central Africa, with a particular concentration on eastern Congo. He has written for various international media outlets, including the Guardian, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Africa Confidential. His focus is on African politics and on natural resource governance and management. He is based in Kampala, Uganda. Follow him on twitter @PSJones01