America Must Act to Prevent a Rwanda-Congo War

A Congolese army tank heads towards the front line near Kibumba in the area surrounding the North Kivu city of Goma on May 25, 2022 during clashes between the Congolese army and M23 rebels. Arlette Bashizi/AFP via Getty Images
A Congolese army tank heads towards the front line near Kibumba in the area surrounding the North Kivu city of Goma on May 25, 2022 during clashes between the Congolese army and M23 rebels. Arlette Bashizi/AFP via Getty Images

In the summer of 2022, I crossed from Rwanda into the besieged Congolese city of Goma. The slick Rwandan border police and their Chinese-made black polymer carbines stood in stark contrast to the weary Congolese soldiers’ ancient Kalashnikovs. “We can’t invade Rwanda or Uganda”, a hardened Congolese provincial politician admitted to me. He slid his fingers across his neck, adding, “But we can’t negotiate with a knife to our throat”.

Since that conversation, Rwandan troops and their local March 23 Movement (M23) proxy forces have completely encircled Goma. While the Rwandan government simultaneously denies supporting M23 while justifying its intervention as necessary for Rwandan security, the direct involvement of Rwanda has been extensively documented by the United Nations and acknowledged with alarm by the U.S. State Department.

Humiliated, many Congolese are now ready to take the war to its source. The prospect of interstate war in the region looms once more. The last time these states committed to war, as many as 5.5 million people died. The United States is the leading bilateral donor to Rwanda, giving over $170 million in assistance last year to a country where more than 40 percent of the national budget is made up of international aid. The U.S. government needs to use its overwhelming leverage to keep this deadly inferno in check.

Rwandan support for M23 introduces an unacceptable risk of regional escalation. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi is managing the aftermath of his recent controversial reelection; Burundi’s elite is well armed and divided; Uganda is approaching a leadership succession crisis as its aging president, 79-year-old Yoweri Museveni, promotes his unpredictable son (best known for his undiplomatic use of social media) to head the armed forces; and Rwanda’s veneer of development hides its own volcanic tensions.

All these countries now have troops staring one another down in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It would be a mistake to underestimate the frustration felt by many Congolese and the willingness to challenge Rwanda on its own territory.

Such a major security threat should be unacceptable to the United States. The Islamic State, also active in eastern Congo, is gaining ground and staging regional terrorist attacks as Congolese and Ugandan troops reposition to confront M23. There are concerns that Congo may turn to Russia to buttress its struggling army, although thus far Kinshasa has stuck with non-Russian (primarily Romanian) military contractors. Congo’s most effective weapon in the conflict is the recent arrival of Chinese attack drones. U.N. peacekeepers and the incoming South African-led multilateral military intervention are destined for retreat, humiliation, or quagmire if the conflict drags on. No external actor has the will to commit the resources needed to defeat M23 on the battlefield.

There are also less tangible but more serious reputational costs for U.S. inaction. Tshisekedi vocally threw his weight behind the United States against outright Chinese mining dominance and in support of U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine. If the United States is serious about attracting partners in Africa, it needs to support them when they are threatened.

That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye if Tshisekedi attempts to centralize power illegally, but it does mean forcing the Rwandans to the negotiating table. More broadly, not responding to aggression in central Africa reflects poorly on the Biden administration’s public commitment to international norms and fuels accusations of hypocrisy as Washington condemns Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The goodwill toward the United States in Congo is precarious, tainted as it is by the memory of steady support to Uganda and Rwanda throughout their invasions of Congo between 1996 and 2003. But Washington has also shown that it can flex its muscle when needed—and get the results it seeks.

In 2012, the U.S. and U.K. governments dramatically cut aid to Rwanda in response to the first M23 rebellion. It was not a smooth process, and the decision to cut aid only followed a media storm over M23’s takeover of the provincial capital of Goma. (Learning from this experience, the current rebellion initially encircled rather than captured the high-profile city.) However, it was effective. Rwanda withdrew support from M23 while remaining a U.S. aid recipient. The Congolese security situation temporarily improved.

Until the resurgence of M23 in late 2021, Rwanda’s military action in the Congolese provinces of North and South Kivu was restricted to covert actions, proxy conflicts, and consensual interventions with Congolese government approval. While occasionally destructive (particularly in 2019 in South Kivu), these actions did not provoke widespread countermobilizations or displacement.

In 2022, the U.S. government response started slowly and gradually ramped up pressure while maintaining a public stance of neutrality. Congolese support for the sanctioned Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Congo-based Rwandan rebel group led by members of the genocidal regime overthrown in 1994, was raised on equal footing with Rwandan support for M23, effectively endorsing the Rwandan narrative that the M23 rebellion was a necessary security measure.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with both Tshisekedi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame in August 2022, continued to reiterate equal responsibility. While stern words were supposedly exchanged behind closed doors, no sanctions resulted. The U.N. groups of experts continued to observe multiple phases of offensives and consolidation by M23 with direct Rwandan military support.

Finally, after year and eight months of conflict, six individuals were sanctioned in August of 2023: three FDLR commanders, one M23, one Congolese general, and one Rwandan general. The Rwandan general was promoted in response. The small amount of military aid given to Rwanda was only cut in early October 2023. There were no cuts to development programming, and Rwanda’s eligibility in the flagship U.S.-Africa trade agreement, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, was renewed.

Only in February, as M23’s forces finally turned to march on Goma, did the State Department put out a decisive statement condemning Rwanda and the escalation “caused by the actions of the Rwanda-backed, U.S.- and UN-sanctioned M23 armed group”.

Although necessary, taking a firmer line with Rwanda will have costs. The Rwandan government is a famously responsive security, trade, and development partner in a region infamous for poor governance. Since the aid cut in 2012, the Rwandan government has continuously strived to build this reputation as a good partner into diplomatic leverage to avoid a repeat of that embarrassing rebuke. It may have found that leverage in Mozambique and the Central African Republic, where Rwandan military forces offered badly needed security, allegedly subsidized through French development aid.

Washington is heavily invested in successful development programs enabled by the relatively effective governance of the Rwandan state. Cutting effective development programs, endangering budding business relationships, and retracting military partnerships are not desirable for the United States. Yet these costs pale in comparison to the risks of continuing escalation.

There are also concerns that U.S. perceptions of Washington’s regional interests may be distorted by an overly sympathetic view toward Rwanda by officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali. This concern has been raised privately by some U.S. officials in Uganda and Congo toward their Kigali-based colleagues.

Effective domestic development programs, consistent engagement, and tight control of speech by the image-conscious Rwandan state give Kigali-based international entities a view that is devoid of opposition voices. This concern is echoed among many regional political observers who see Washington as soft on Kigali. In Congo, this observation manifests in popular conspiracy theories of a grand CIA-orchestrated Rwandan ethnic imperial project.

Regardless of the cause, indecision undermines the Biden administration’s regional foreign-policy objectives of building bridges with South Africa—a leading economy on the continent— supporting a growing partnership with Kenya, and reaching strategic mineral deals in Congo, all of which take precedence over the strained partnership with the relatively small country of Rwanda.

If Rwanda withdraws its forces from Mozambique and CAR, the United States has a menu of multilateral or bilateral options to mitigate the consequences. In Mozambique, regional multilateral forces are already deployed and could be empowered. In CAR, bilateral security arrangements with the United States are rumored to be in the negotiation stages. Unlike in those conflicts, there are few good tools to stop interstate escalation in Congo once underway. For the moment, however, the U.S. government still can influence Rwanda and Congo.

Getting Rwanda to negotiate meaningfully requires pressure. While the overstretched U.S. foreign-policy apparatus must prioritize the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, war in the Middle East, and security threats in East Asia, proactive engagement in Africa’s Great Lakes region will save energy and resources in the future.

Reconstructing Congo after 2003, even to its current fragile state, cost billions of dollars, and millions of lives were lost in the fighting. The United States cannot afford another major conflict there, even one that appears for now to lie on the periphery of U.S. interests.

Evan W. Nachtrieb is a contractor for USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance/Office of Africa focused on the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect those of the U.S. government or USAID.

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