Rwanda's Congo policy is in trouble. Donors have reacted strongly to UN evidence that Rwanda is supporting Congolese rebels. Once an exemplar of post-conflict reconstruction, Rwanda has been increasingly criticised for internal repression and external meddling.
Donor support has hitherto been steadfast, despite private misgivings. But it seems patience is running out among Rwanda's key international partners. President Paul Kagame faces a difficult and dangerous choice.
Allegations of cross-border adventures have surfaced regularly since the formal withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the DRC in 2002. Most significant was that 2006 emergence of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) of Laurent Nkunda, led by former Rwandan-backed rebels. The CNDP defied the Congolese government for three years, with support from Rwanda. So when a new rebellion emerged in early 2012, led by dissident elements of the CNDP, the hidden hand of Rwanda was widely suspected and swiftly revealed, documented in detail by a UN Panel of Experts.
Although patterns of Rwandan involvement are well-established, the severity of the international reaction is new. It poses a dilemma for President Kagame. Rwanda is dependent on external assistance to drive an ambitious programme of national transformation, reshaping the economy, and recasting Rwandan identity in national rather than ethnic terms. This is not just a development imperative. For some in the Tutsi-dominated elite it is the solution to Rwanda's murderous ethnic binary, as wealth and expanded horizons erode old patterns of identity politics.
But there is a contradiction at the heart of this vision. It is imposed from the top, closely controlled by a highly-centralized government, and will take decades to realise. In the meantime, the government maintains iron control, allowing no dissent or political competition. This generates resistance from inside and outside the regime, increasing government dependence on its security apparatus. The military and intelligence agencies wield huge influence, and so far Kagame has maintained their loyalty.
This loyalty comes at a price. More hawkish than the reformers driving Rwanda's development, senior military figures see opportunities in the wealthy territories of the DRC, as well as threats from regime dissidents taking root in the DRC's weakly governed spaces. Some may be loyal to Congolese Tutsi who fought with them in the Rwandan civil war. They prioritise hard security over democracy or development, and have little regard for the views of the international community. Keeping their loyalty may explain Kagame's willingness to risk so much in the DRC.
Sphere of influence
Thus Kagame faces a choice. Continue a security-led Congo policy at the cost of international support, or risk alienating a pivotal internal constituency. He will hope not to have to take it. He will doubtless look to smooth over the current crisis, rebuild diplomatic relationships, and maintain a covert influence in Eastern DRC. It is a gambit that has worked well in the past.
But it may not do so now. The world watches closely. The Congolese government has succeeded in rolling back the influence of Rwandan-backed rebels, who have been unable to maintain their position in the absence of large-scale external support. Threats to Rwandan security from the remnants of the forces that fled to the DRC after the 1994 genocide have faded to the point of near-irrelevance. President Kabila of the DRC, newly re-elected but politically weak, no longer needs to accept a deal on Kigali's terms, and may seek to shore up his position in Kinshasa by driving a hard bargain. If Kagame wants to maintain Rwanda's position in Eastern DRC, it will out in the open and stripped of diplomatic cover.
So Kagame may finally have to lay his cards on the table. The hand he shows will have lasting consequences in Rwanda and across the region. Reduced Rwandan influence in Eastern DRC might allow sustainable peace to emerge, to the incalculable benefit of Congo's long-suffering population and the wider region, and would let Kagame rebuild his relationship with donors. But it would bring short-term risks, particularly splits in Rwandan security services and the military. Coup plots have been rumoured over the years, despite the seeming-solidity of Kagame's control. The dangers of regime fracture are real.
Conversely, continued Rwandan intervention in Eastern DRC would bring less immediate risk to Kagame. Short-term security would come at the risk of losing the support of the donor community. Without external assistance, the long-term vision of a de-ethnicised, outward looking Rwanda would become increasingly difficult to realise. The prospects of an opening-up of Rwandan politics would recede, leaving the elite dependent on authoritarian control and the continued dominance of the military over civil society.
Kagame has long been an enigma to observers of Rwanda, unable to reconcile his impressive development achievements with the abuses of his regime, or judge whether, in the final analysis, he is a moderniser or hardliner. His answer to the Congo dilemma will go a long way to answering the question. It will also be pivotal to defining the future of his country and the wider region.
Ben Shepherd is Associate Fellow in the Africa Programme of Chatham House.