Central Africa: Averting Proxy Wars in the Eastern DR Congo and Great Lakes

A map showing the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Nairobi/Brussels — Three Great Lakes states - Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda - are trading charges of subversion, each accusing another of sponsoring rebels based in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside powers should help the Congolese president resolve these tensions, lest a lethal multi-sided melee ensue.

What's new? Tensions are mounting in Africa's Great Lakes region among Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, all of which allegedly back insurgents based in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the same time, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi is considering inviting these countries into the DRC to fight groups they respectively oppose.

Why does it matter? Given their growing animosity, these three countries, if invited into the DRC, could escalate support to allied militias while targeting enemies. The DRC's neighbours have historically used militias operating there against one another. A new proxy struggle could further destabilise the DRC and even provoke a full-blown regional security crisis.

What should be done? Instead of involving neighbours in military operations, Tshisekedi should redouble his diplomatic efforts to ease regional frictions, building on a recent joint DRC-Angolan initiative and drawing on the UN, U.S., UK and France for support.

I. Overview

Intensifying hostility among states in the Great Lakes threatens a return to the regional wars that tore that region apart in previous decades. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, accuses Burundi and Uganda of backing Rwandan rebels active in the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) North and South Kivu provinces and threatens to retaliate for those groups' attacks on his country. In turn, Burundi and Uganda assert that Rwanda supports Burundian and Ugandan rebels in the DRC. At the same time, the DRC's new president, Félix Tshisekedi, has floated plans to invite Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to conduct joint military operations with DRC troops against insurgents sheltering in his country, a risky policy that could fuel proxy conflicts. Instead, Tshisekedi should prioritise the diplomatic track he has also launched, together with Angolan President João Lourenço, to calm tensions among his neighbours. The UN and Western governments, particularly those of the U.S., UK, and France should throw their weight behind his efforts.

Tensions between Rwanda and its two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda, have escalated over the past two years. In November 2019, Kagame, openly threatened to retaliate against his neighbours after an October 2019 raid in Rwanda by a North Kivu-based militia that he alleges is supported by Burundi and Uganda. For its part, Burundi claims that Rwanda backs Burundian rebels, based in South Kivu, that it asserts are behind recent attacks in Burundi. The Burundian and Rwandan governments have deployed troops to their mutual border. Kagame's longstanding rivalry with his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, has also taken a turn for the worse, with the latter accusing the former of backing DRC-based insurgents against Kampala. Both leaders have purged their security forces of officials perceived as too closely tied to the other, Rwanda has closed the main Rwanda-Uganda border crossing and Uganda has deployed troops to the DRC border. Mounting distrust among the DRC's neighbours carries grave risks for the DRC, given how their rivalries have historically played out in that country.

Tshisekedi, in office for barely a year, has put a welcome premium on diplomacy to ease tensions. Together with Lourenço, he facilitated discussions in July 2019 between the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents in Luanda. Tshisekedi has also worked to improve DRC's relations with Rwanda. At the same time, however, he has pursued a plan under which Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda would conduct military operations, under the DRC army's authority, against insurgencies sheltering in his country. This policy risks fuelling proxy conflicts in the DRC. Instead, the Congolese president should reinvigorate his diplomatic track, bringing in Burundi as well as Rwanda and Uganda. He should invite the UN's special envoy for the Great Lakes to oversee tripartite talks aimed at easing hostilities. The UN envoy should encourage Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan officials to share evidence of their rivals' support for insurgents in the DRC as a first step toward a roadmap for the withdrawal of that backing. The U.S., UK and France should use their long-time influence in the Great Lakes to press for de-escalation.

II. President Kagame Rattles the Sabre as Regional Tensions Mount

On 14 November 2019, Rwandan President Paul Kagame gave a blistering speech in Kigali, insinuating that Rwanda's neighbours were sponsoring cross-border attacks. Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for ministers and military officials, and visibly agitated, Kagame addressed Rwandan members of parliament in both English and his native Kinyarwanda. The country has been stable, he said, since his military takeover ended the 1994 genocide, but its security is once again in peril, this time from outside its borders. The president did not name those at fault, but his message was clear: Rwanda's neighbours were undermining the country's security and he was prepared to retaliate if need be. "The noises being made, from neighbouring countries ... there is not much that I can do about it", he said. "But anything crossing our border and coming here to destabilise us ... we have proven that we can deal with it. We will put you back where you belong. There is no question about it".

Kagame's speech came shortly after an attack on Rwanda launched from the eastern DRC. On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village, a hub for mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda's Musanze district. Rwandan officials and regional intelligence sources attribute the strike to the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred much of the Tutsi minority and many moderate Hutu during the genocide. Mounting evidence points to an alliance between the FDLR and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) rebels. The RNC, also based in the DRC, is led by Tutsi defectors from Kagame's government, allegedly including Kayumba Nyamwasa, who once was one of Kagame's most trusted generals but now is exiled in South Africa.

Kagame's speech was a reaction to the Kinigi attack and escalating tensions between Rwanda and two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda. Kigali suspects both of sponsoring Rwandan rebels, including the FDLR and RNC, in the eastern DRC. Rwandan officials say they have evidence of recent Ugandan support to the FDLR, whose fighters are concentrated in the DRC's North Kivu province. They accuse Uganda and Burundi of backing the RNC. Since 2017, RNC fighters have been based in strongholds on the remote plateau of South Kivu province, where they have allied with Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsi militiamen hostile to the Congolese army and Rwanda. Rwandan and DRC officials, as well as local sources, say some RNC fighters have moved from those areas to join up with FDLR units in Rutshuru territory in North Kivu, an area close to the Rwandan and Ugandan borders from which the attacks on Kinigi appear to have emanated. Rwandan authorities believe that Burundian intelligence officials and the Imbonerakure, the Burundian ruling-party youth militia, are embedded with RNC forces.

As Rwanda faces a mounting threat on its western flank, it is also concerned by recent attacks on its southern border with Burundi. Rwandan and DRC intelligence officials report that Burundi hosts FDLR splinter elements from South Kivu, which it has deployed to its border with Rwanda. In December 2018, assailants coming from Burundi launched an attack in the Nyungwe forest in south-western Rwanda, another tourist attraction and a popular weekend destination for Kigali residents. The attackers killed two Rwandan civilians and injured another eight. The Rwandan army has since saturated Nyungwe, aiming to reinforce its positions and reassure Rwandans and foreign diplomats alike that the forest is safe to visit. Following the attacks, Kagame resurrected an internal security ministry that he disbanded two years ago, appointing a former chief of defence as its head.

Authorities in Kigali point to the April 2019 arrest of Rwandan rebel Callixte Nsabimana to bolster their accusations of outside interference. Nsabimana, arrested by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau, a crime-fighting body, is a former RNC member who later became spokesperson of the National Liberation Forces, the armed wing of another Rwandan opposition group, the Mouvement rwandais pour le Changement démocratique (MRCD), which partly comprises FDLR splinter elements. During his trial, he pleaded guilty to ordering the Nyungwe attack and admitted receiving support from Burundi and Uganda. The MRCD, however, suggested in a press release that Rwandan intelligence obtained Nsabimana's confession through coercion.

UN reports partially support Kigali's claims of Burundian and Ugandan ties to Kagame's armed rivals. In December 2018, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which reports to the Security Council, concluded that the P5, a group of Rwandan opposition factions including the RNC, were working with rebels in the DRC with the aim of toppling Kagame's government. The experts reported that the P5 received weapons and other support from Bujumbura, a claim Burundian authorities denied. In the same month, two prominent FDLR members, the group's spokesperson Ignace Nkaka, known as La Forge, and its deputy intelligence officer Jean-Pierre Nsekanabo, were arrested at Bunangana, North Kivu, on the DRC-Uganda border. Both men were extradited to Kigali via Kinshasa. Interviewed by officials of the UN mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) in the Congolese capital before their extradition, they said they had met RNC members and a Ugandan minister in Kampala. A Ugandan official admitted to Crisis Group that the minister may have met La Forge and Nsekanabo, but in a private capacity.

For their part, Burundian officials accuse Kigali of supporting the South Kivu-based Burundian rebel group, RED-Tabara, a claim that Rwanda rejects. Founded in 2011, RED-Tabara is reportedly led by Alexis Sinduhije, a Tutsi opponent of the Hutu-dominated Burundian government whom the U.S. has sanctioned since 2015 for instigating "armed rebellion". On 22 October - two and a half weeks after the Kinigi attacks - RED-Tabara clashed with security forces in Musigati, Burundi, leaving at least a dozen dead on each side of the border; RED-Tabara acknowledged that it attacked first. On 16 November, assailants launched another assault on a Burundian military position. At least eight Burundian soldiers died in the firefight ten kilometres from the Rwandan border in the Burundian commune of Mabayi, Cibitoke province, and dozens more are missing. RED-Tabara has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility. On 6 December, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza accused Rwanda of staging the "cowardly" attack, a claim repudiated by Rwandan officials.

These attacks come as political tensions heat up in Burundi ahead of elections scheduled for May 2020. As Nkurunziza increasingly depends on the Imbonerakure to repress political opponents, Rwanda points to the youth militia's growing presence in the eastern DRC, including within RNC ranks. One Burundian official stated that if indeed Imbonerakure units have been deployed in South Kivu, then that would be a defensive move, given Rwanda's alleged backing of the attempted coup against Nkurunziza in 2015 and the subsequent flight of some putschists into South Kivu. The official noted that Nkurunziza is determined to forestall any attempt by Burundian rebels to draw on Rwandan support and attack the country in the run-up to elections. Burundi has also reinforced military deployments in Cibitoke following the November attack.

III. Rwanda's Dangerous Rivalry with Uganda

The rivalry between Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has long been among the gravest contributors to instability in the Great Lakes region. Animosity between the two men has sharpened dramatically in the last two years.

Competition between Rwanda and Uganda traditionally has played out mostly in the DRC, where both have sought to win influence and control turf. During the 1998-2003 inter-Congolese war, the two countries backed competing rebel factions in the eastern DRC and deployed their own forces into the country, with Rwandan and Ugandan troops battling for the city of Kisangani in 2000. After the war, rebel leaders supported by Kigali or Kampala won positions in Joseph Kabila's transitional government, as their respective fighters were formally integrated into the national army. Informally, however, rebel leaders retained some foreign ties and their command of former fighters within and outside the army.

Rwanda and Uganda have both backed rebellions in the DRC in the past twelve years. The first, in 2008, was led by the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), whose leader, Laurent Nkunda, was a Congolese Tutsi warlord who had been integrated into the Congolese army. UN investigators subsequently revealed Kigali's backing for Nkunda's forces, prompting Rwanda to withdraw its support and arrest Nkunda, who had retreated into Rwandan territory when his rebellion ended, largely due to the withdrawal of Rwanda's support in the face of international pressure. Kabila, then the Congolese president, again integrated many rebels into the army; elite army units that Kabila subsequently deployed to the hardest-hit conflict zones in the country often comprised former CNDP fighters. In 2012, some ex-CNDP units that had integrated into the army broke away, forming the M23 rebel group. This time, Rwanda and Uganda both backed the rebels. When Congolese and UN forces defeated the M23 in 2013, followers of one M23 leader, Bosco Ntaganda, fled to and surrendered in Rwanda, while many of those still loyal in spirit to the arrested Nkunda surrendered to Uganda.

Over the past two years, former M23 fighters from both factions have returned to the DRC, fuelling animosity between Rwanda and Uganda. In the run-up to the DRC's 2018 elections, fighters began infiltrating back and embedding themselves in local conflicts in the eastern DRC. Those hosted by Uganda accused their former comrades who had been in Rwanda of being Kigali's puppets - and vice versa. UN officials point out that Uganda has allowed the majority of the cohort of more than 1,300 former Congolese M23 rebels who had surrendered to Kampala to leave a military camp near the Ugandan town of Bihanga where they were housed. Some have turned up in hotspots in eastern Congo over the last two years. Although Kigali was once the M23's main backer, because this faction surrendered to Uganda, Rwandan intelligence officials believe that Kampala is now dispatching them on its own errands.

Moreover, representatives of Congolese insurgent groups, including ex-M23 cadres, operate freely in Kampala and meet regularly with Ugandan military officials, even as Uganda categorically denies supporting rebels in the DRC or plotting to destabilise either that country or Rwanda. These representatives travel back and forth to North Kivu and the troubled Ituri province in the eastern DRC. Ugandan officials say they are aware of the presence of armed group representatives and ex-M23 fighters in Uganda, but can only take action against those for whom they have evidence of involvement in plots to destabilise the region. Rwandan officials argue that Ugandan officials simply turn a blind eye to armed groups' activities and that the RNC itself recruits freely in Uganda.

For their part, Ugandan officials accuse Rwanda of supporting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel movement active in the eastern DRC. No independent body has verified the charge, but the accusations in themselves add to tensions. Uganda has beefed up border patrols and deployed the Mountain Brigade, a special army unit, to the Rwenzori mountains at the DRC-Uganda border, looking out over DRC territory that has been at the epicentre of ADF activity over the last few years.

Kigali and Kampala have both taken other steps that have contributed to escalating friction. Presidents Kagame and Museveni have purged their security services of officials seen as too closely linked to the other country. Ugandan authorities even arrested the country's former chief of police, Kale Kayihura, in June 2018, accusing him of working with other police officers and Rwandan agents between 2012 and 2016 to kidnap Rwandan dissidents in Uganda and deport them to Rwanda. Acrimony between the two countries reached a high in February 2019, when Kigali closed a commercially important border crossing amid mutual accusations of spying. In May and November, Rwandan security forces killed a small number of Ugandans and Rwandans accused of smuggling, drawing the ire of Ugandan officials who believe that the shootings were hostile acts between nations. Uganda has rounded up Rwandan nationals for detention.

Lastly, Uganda's role in Burundi has become a point of contention. Rwandan officials criticise Museveni for his failure as East African Community mediator of the inter-Burundian dialogue. They believe that Museveni has preferred to avoid stepping in forcefully to help resolve the crisis in the interest of preserving his relations with President Nkurunziza, whom he needs as an ally against Rwanda.

IV. Improving Rwandan-DRC Relations

If Rwanda's relations with Burundi and Uganda are ever more strained, its ties to the DRC, which in the past have alternated between discord and détente, have warmed, particularly since President Tshisekedi took office. But improved Rwanda-DRC relations could carry risks for the DRC's new president, potentially creating bad blood between him and Kampala.

Since the M23 rebellion ended in 2013, Kinshasa and Kigali have attempted to maintain cordial relations. During his tenure, former president Kabila made sure that his security services cooperated and shared intelligence with Kigali. Rwandan officials sought to reciprocate, stating in private that they would collaborate with DRC authorities to neutralise armed groups by covert means. The UN investigators' unearthing in 2008 and 2012 of evidence showing Kigali's support for the CNDP and M23 provided further incentive for Rwanda to demonstrate that it is cooperating. Rwandan officials still smart from the international outcry that ensued and want to avoid further accusations of backing rebellions in eastern DRC.

Under President Tshisekedi, Kinshasa has if anything tightened its embrace of Rwanda. Kinshasa has shown a newfound appetite to take on the FDLR and some of its splinter groups, which in the past the DRC's army has often supported as proxies against Kigali. For example, DRC military officials say that increased intelligence sharing has resulted in successful operations against an FDLR splinter group in South Kivu in late 2019, with hundreds of its fighters and dependents surrendering and repatriating peacefully to Rwanda in December.

Kinshasa's closer ties to Kigali ties have reportedly even entailed the DRC suppressing intelligence that suggests Kigali's continued involvement in that country. In private, some DRC officials say Rwandan security forces were involved in the killings of the FDLR's commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, in September, and a prominent FDLR splinter leader, Juvenal Musabimana, in November. Both died in murky surprise attacks in Rutshuru territory of North Kivu. But the DRC's military authorities, when announcing the deaths, asserted that Rwanda had played no role.

The DRC authorities' recent withdrawal of arrest warrants for the former M23 faction exiled in Rwanda further illustrates Tshisekedi's closer relations with Kagame. In a letter to the DRC's military prosecutor, the coordinator of the DRC government's national oversight mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF), a 2013 regional peace agreement signed by the DRC and other African governments, stated that ex-M23 combatants should be allowed to return to the DRC, amnestied and reintegrated into the Congolese army and bureaucracy, although the order has yet to take effect. This M23 cohort's leader, Bosco Ntaganda, was tried and convicted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in early November. The faction includes perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities that occurred during the 2012-2013 rebellion. (The status of the larger M23 cohort that surrendered to Uganda and now moves freely in and out of the military camp in that country remains unclear, though some also reportedly hope to receive amnesty and join the army. )

The DRC-Rwanda cooperation is welcome but could provoke Kampala and Bujumbura to step up support for proxies in the DRC if they perceive Kinshasa's alliance with Kigali as threatening their own security. Absent steps to de-escalate tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, the DRC's cooperation with Rwanda could backfire, most likely in the form of violent competition between Rwanda and Uganda on Congolese turf. That, in turn, could provoke a popular backlash whipped up by Congolese politicians who often stir anti-Rwandan and anti-Tutsi sentiment during periods where Rwanda has supported armed insurgencies in the country's east. Defections could also increase from within the DRC's army with some commanders or factions persuaded by Rwanda's rivals to take up arms against the government.

V. Prioritising Dialogue over Military Operations

President Tshisekedi initially sought to use his improved relations with Rwanda to calm regional tensions. Recognising the danger posed by the Rwanda-Uganda rivalry, he invited Presidents Kagame and Museveni together to Luanda for meetings in July 2019 co-hosted by his Angolan counterpart. The meetings resulted in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August in Luanda, in which both parties promised to refrain from "actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries". In December, however, Rwandan and Ugandan officials failed to reach agreement on how to implement the Luanda memorandum and talks collapsed in acrimony. The disagreement partly owes to Rwandan accusations of continued Ugandan support to proxies, but another challenge is that the parties cannot reach agreement on any given mechanism by which to substantiate allegations of links to armed groups.

Meanwhile, Tshisekedi had begun exploring military options. Reportedly, the Congolese president's emphasis on such options came mostly at the behest of President Kagame, who is increasingly impatient with threats emanating from DRC. In June, the intelligence chiefs of the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania (an ally of Burundi) met in Kinshasa to discuss the neutralisation of insurgents in the DRC's east. In the following months, military commanders from these countries, joined by officials from the UN's mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) and the U.S. army, attempted to develop battle plans. In October, DRC army commanders outlined an arrangement by which neighbouring countries' forces would launch offensives, overseen by the DRC army, against militias on Congolese territory. But Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan commanders failed to advance the proposal at their last meeting, in October 2019, mostly due to Uganda's reluctance to allow Rwanda to track the FDLR near the Ugandan border. More talks are expected in early 2020.

President Tshisekedi's push for the three neighbours to send troops to root out rebels from the DRC is a high-stakes gambit. It opens the door to military operations without concurrent political de-escalation, heightening risks that neighbours use armed intervention in the DRC to reinforce their own proxies at the expense of their rivals'. It could even erode the Congolese army's internal cohesion, particularly given the delicate potential reintegration plans for former M23 rebels, who are susceptible to Rwandan or Ugandan manipulation.

Rather than pursuing military operations, President Tshisekedi should push for further talks aimed at reducing tensions among his eastern neighbours. He should build on the Angola forum to host, with President Lourenço, fresh talks between Rwanda and Uganda, while seeking similar talks between Rwanda and Burundi.

Separately, the UN and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), an intergovernmental body comprising states in the region which is one of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework's guarantors, should collect and investigate evidence of support to armed groups in the DRC. Xia Huang, the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, who has been instrumental in convening the Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs, should push the DRC's neighbours to give evidence they have of such support by other governments. Xia should request that they share that evidence with the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which is mandated by the Security Council to investigate allegations and publish verified evidence, and with the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) of the ICGLR. The EJVM is mandated under the PSCF's terms to investigate allegations brought by any regional state.

Amassing evidence of support to proxies in the region and ideally establishing a shared understanding of that support would provide a stronger basis for the PSCF's guarantors - comprising the UN, African Union and the regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, in addition to the ICGLR - to push Great Lakes governments to stop fuelling conflict in the DRC. Admittedly, the challenges of verifying regional governments' support to rebels in that country are great. The UN expert group is minimally staffed and would struggle to explore each and every allegation. The EJVM, which includes security personnel from Great Lakes and other countries on the continent, is also hamstrung by limited personnel and the internal politics of its membership. Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan representatives on the body all likely would face pressure from their respective governments to dilute findings that would reflect badly on their capitals. The UN Security Council would need to maintain pressure on all parties to cooperate with both the expert group's and the EJVM's investigations.

The U.S., UK and France can help. All three are UN Security Council permanent members that historically have been invested in the Great Lakes region. While they all have appointed envoys for the Great Lakes, they could use them to greater effect by tasking them to work together to support regional dialogue. The envoys should also ensure that investigations and verifications remain on track and that political pressure is applied on Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to roll back any support to armed groups they are found to be backing. A collective effort at regional diplomacy based around dialogue and appropriate verification of allegations would also relieve pressure on MONUSCO, which has struggled for years to find a military solution to the problem of rebels from the Great Lakes states sheltering in the eastern DRC.

VI. Conclusion

The Great Lakes region is increasingly on edge. Distrust is rife among Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, all of which have connections to insurgents in the eastern DRC. President Tshisekedi's emphasis on regional peacemaking deserves applause and his cooperation with Rwanda has delivered dividends in tackling Rwandan rebels. But these efforts should proceed alongside diplomacy aimed at stemming the Kigali-Kampala rivalry. More broadly, Tshisekedi should rethink his idea of inviting the three neighbours to participate in military operations in the DRC. Instead, he should seek an agreement that entails, first, the DRC's eastern neighbours pledging not to back armed groups in the DRC and, secondly, a verification mechanism for investigating allegations of such involvement. This political track should build on the Luanda initiative. Special Envoy Xia's recent diplomacy means that the UN is well placed to back all this, in line with Secretary-General António Guterres's pledges to emphasise preventive diplomacy. By upping their diplomatic involvement, the U.S., UK and France can also play useful roles.

Without such efforts, there is a real risk that growing tension will fuel a wider regional security crisis. Were Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan forces given a green light for operations in the DRC, the danger would be all the graver, raising the spectre of an interlocking proxy war wherein each Great Lakes country is backing its rivals' enemies.

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