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End to impunity can bring peace to the Congo

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Picture: Sylvain Liechti / MONUSCO – M23 fighters head towards the provincial capital of Goma in the eastern part of the DRC. Kambale Musavuli talks about the political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo following the discovery of mass graves in North Kivu, in Eastern DRC. He also explains why the solutions proposed by the East African Community do not have much of a chance of working.

By Peoples Dispatch

Kambale Musavuli of the Centre for Research on the Congo explains the current situation in the DRC, including the violence by the M23 group. He explains how the Rwanda-backed M23 group has been devastating Congo for over a decade but has escaped accountability. One of the key reasons for this has been the west’s support for Rwanda. Kambale also talks about the role of the East African Community in the current conflict and how peace cannot come to the DRC without justice.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the DRC, one of Africa’s most important countries, continues to be in the news. There have been reports of mass graves in the North Kivu province of the DRC, which saw a lot of fighting between the government forces and the M23.

Multiple reports, including by the UN, have indicated that the M23 is supported by the DRC’s neighbour Rwanda. However, Rwanda has not faced any consequences although it has a long history of supporting such rebel groups that have wreaked havoc on the DRC.

Meanwhile, the East African Community (EAC), a regional body, has been trying to intervene in the conflict, supposedly trying to bring about peace. But there are many questions about whether the EAC’s approach is actually working. Kambale, could you first take us through what is happening on the ground with the M23 group’s assault? Is the fighting still going on?

Kambale Musavuli (KM): Every time we speak about the M23, we must recall that they are a proxy militia funded, trained, and equipped by the Rwandan military. Numerous UN reports have documented this. For now, they have withdrawn from some areas after negotiations with different parties, such as the East African forces or the Congolese government. African Intelligence just recently published an article documenting how the Congolese government is secretly negotiating with the M23. So, we know there are many efforts to stop the fighting. But we have to look at this in the overall context.

The DRC is a country of over 100 million people. The country has known conflict for the past two decades. This conflict is a proxy war by its neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda. And the Congolese people have been held hostage. They have been held hostage by processes for bringing about peace that do not consider their interests. There have been so many peace accords signed and these rebels — specifically the M23 and its earlier renditions, be it the CNDP or the RCD — have always gone back to the bushes and saying that the Congolese government is not respecting the agreements they’ve signed.

Now, when you look at the agreements, one will ask, why is it that every time someone picks up the gun and subsequently goes to the table, the solution is that the killers have to be part of the government. One should ask why is it that in these negotiations, Congo is losing sovereignty by providing territory and providing political positions that are giving amnesty to people who have committed atrocious crimes such as rapes and mass killing.

So if you look at the discovery of the mass graves — which was already known since November or 2022 — in Kishishe and other areas, the M23 massacred these civilians and put them in mass graves. Congolese citizens have already shared with the world what happened. The UN is investigating. These mass graves are being found. When there will be negotiations again with the M23 which massacred civilians, what are they going to do? Give them amnesty again.

This is why all these processes are not holding. Because it’s not taking into account the will and interests of the Congolese people.

PD: In this context, let’s also look at Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s recently trip to Benin and his comments there. Like you said, it’s pretty much common knowledge across the world that Rwanda is supporting M23. They have a history of doing it. But nonetheless, Kagame has been a vital partner of the West in many of their endeavours, including, ‘handling’ the refugee crisis, which means more atrocities on refugees. So, what have been Kagame’s positions as of late?

KM: It’s really important to understand why we have a conflict in the Congo. Why are there millions of people dying? Millions of Congolese are dying because there is a push to get access to Congo’s land and Congo’s mineral resources and in the process, narratives are created. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been on a tour in West Africa and in a stop in Benin, he said something that should worry many people around the world, especially Africans because Rwanda is a member of the African Union.

Kagame was asked by a journalist about the DRC and in his response, said something very bizarre. He questioned the 1884 Berlin Conference [during which Africa was divided by European colonial powers]. It sounds like a normal thing to do as the Berlin conference was done by the Europeans. One should question such things. But he added something much more cynical. He stated that during the Berlin conference, the land that is today the eastern part of Congo belonged to Rwanda. So, when he says that, he is questioning the current borders of the African continent, a question that was already addressed by the African Union. It had already been decided that every African country that is a member of the African Union and had signed on to the African Union Charter, would respect the boundaries that were in existence in 1960.

I could go on and [add another dimension]. For example, during World War I, it was the Congolese army under Belgian rule that actually went to Rwanda and liberated Rwandans from German colonialism. So, it’s so interesting that today Kagame is saying something different. But now that he has said that, it is firstly sad, and also eye-opening and helps people understand the conflict. There’s always been a fear, which is sometimes presented as a conspiracy theory, that Rwanda and Uganda are in an operation to Balkanise the Congo, to actually make a new country with Congo’s territory.

So when you hear the Rwandan president question Congo’s borders, question the existence of North Kivu and South Kivu [provinces in the Congo] by saying that these are territories that belong to Rwanda before the Berlin conference, we know why over 6 million Congolese people have died. And if we are fighting for a free and liberated Congo and a free and liberated Africa, we are talking about Pan-Africanism, not Balkanisation.

I would have been much happier if the Rwandan President had said, for example, that he would love for Rwanda to become an additional province of the Congo and other that other African countries should come together in regional blocs to create a federation of states where in the final stage, the African continent as a bloc will be a union, a Pan-African union fighting for the interests of the African people. That is not what he’s saying. He’s actually advocating for carving up African states, which means weakening these countries. And then, of course, opening up access to the lands for the interests of the Rwandan elite and also their agents in the West, specifically those in London, Paris, and Washington, DC.

PD: But has there been any pressure on Kagame from the West, his traditional allies? We do know that in 2012, similar pressure led to the end of fighting.

KM: There’s been pressure on Paul Kagame but it has to be contextualised. On one hand, they are putting pressure, but on the other, they’re not taking action. So US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put pressure on the Rwandan government to free political prisoners and stop support to rebel groups in the Congo. But the United States continues to support the Rwandan military and provide military aid. And then the UN reports that the M23 has sophisticated weapons such as night vision goggle and missiles that have greater range. António Guterres, the UN secretary general, stated that the United Nations forces do not have the capacity to fight the M23 because they have sophisticated weapons. So for the US, it’s all words, as far as I am concerned.

It’s the same with the United Kingdom. Yes, they have made statements saying that Rwanda should stop supporting rebel groups in the Congo. France has asked Rwanda to end its support for the M23. But what did the European Union do in the beginning of the year? It provided Rwanda 20 million Euros in military support for the latter’s operation in Mozambique. And in Mozambique, Rwanda is protecting the interests of the French oil company Total and not actually helping the people of the country.

So we are seeing denunciation. We are seeing strong condemnation. But we are not seeing action. And we know what works. We know that in 2012, when international pressure was put on Rwanda, when they withdrew military aid to Rwanda, the M23 disappeared. Ten years later, the M23 is back with great support and the action that was taken in 2012 is not happening.

PD: Let’s take a look at the East African Community. We know its soldiers are on the ground there. There was a peace delegation too. How is the Congolese population and the political establishment responding to the US initiative?

KM: The DRC is the biggest member of the East African community. It also has the biggest population with 100 million people. So the DRC joining the EAC brought more hope to the people of the latter than for the Congolese people. Firstly, most Congolese were not informed or consulted about this process. Secondly, the decision to join was not openly discussed in parliament.

Picture: Tony Karumba / AFP Kenya’s – President, William Ruto, second left, and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua, left, inspect the fleet of vehicles to be used by Kenya Defence Forces soldiers deploying to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the East Africa Community Regional Force at the Embakasi Garrison where the President performed a ceremonial flag-presentation to the departing force in Nairobi on November 2, 2022.

There was hope that the solutions coming out of the EAC would take into account Congo’s history and the belligerence of Rwanda and Uganda. However, in the solutions being proposed by the East African Community, there was no understanding that Rwanda and Uganda, members of the EAC, are actually the forces causing the chaos. So when the EAC is talking about sending troops to stop the M23 rebel group, you have Ugandan soldiers as part of the military force. That does not make any sense because the Congo actually took Uganda to the International Court of Justice. We won a US$ 325 million judgment for the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and pillaging of resources while they were occupying the Congo in the 2000s.

So they are already a belligerent force and they continue to support rebel forces. Secondly, Rwanda is part of the discussion around the military operations. On one hand, the United Nations is saying that Rwanda is supporting the M23. On the other hand, the EAC that is coming up with a strategy to stop the M23 actually has the country supporting the M23. It will never work.

Everything they are doing will not work until the fundamental question of justice is addressed. What will bring about peace in the DRC is justice, not a new military force. We had the best force coming into the Congo in 2012 — the SADC forces comprising soldiers from South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. These forces came and stopped the M23. They put military pressure on a political problem. They achieved some goals. But how do we explain the fact that a decade later, we are still talking about the M23. So we know that the military action is not going to stop the situation.

We believe that a culture of impunity enables those who committed crimes yesterday to continue doing so today. As no one is holding them accountable, it gives them a green light to continue to commit these crimes. So if we don’t address the question of justice, we will continue to have a war in the Congo. As the Congolese people, we support the creation of an international tribunal for the DRC to hold perpetrators of the violence accountable — be it Congolese, be it our neighbours Rwanda and Uganda, and be it the international actors and corporations who have been involved in the conflict. As long as we don’t have justice, we will continue to have conflict. This is, of course, why the EAC solution is not working in DRC.

* Kambale Musavuli, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a human rights activist, Student Coordinator and National Spokesperson with the Friends of the Congo (FOTC)

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch