Rwanda's Move Into Congo Fuels Suspicion
Some in Mineral-Rich Region See Broader Motives Than Disarming Hutu Militiamen
Friday, February 13, 2009; Page A01
KIGALI, Rwanda -- With thousands of Rwandan troops fanned out across eastern Congo's green hills, many residents and international observers are questioning what is really behind the operation in the mineral-rich region and how long it is likely to last.
The official explanation, offered by both Rwandan and Congolese diplomats, is straightforward. After two wars and a decade of mistrust, the two nations finally agreed to deal militarily with a common menace -- the Rwandan Hutu militia known as the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, or FDLR, which reorganized in Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide and has been a principal cause of the deadliest documented conflict since World War II.
By some estimates, at least 5 million people died in multi-sided wars over more than a decade, mostly from disease, hunger and the collapse of human services associated with the fighting. The humanitarian catastrophe was largely ignored by the United States and other Western nations, while United Nations peacekeepers failed to halt the violence.
In acting now, Congo and Rwanda have in theory ended a proxy war that had played out for years in eastern Congo. Rwanda pulled the plug on rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whom it arrested last month. And Congo abruptly turned on its longtime ally the FDLR, joining the Rwandans in an operation to hunt down the militia.
"Rwanda and Congo have decided to come together as neighbors," said Joseph Mutaboba, who was Rwanda's envoy during several rounds of talks. "And we have been able to tackle the problems that are ours."
But some observers see much broader economic and political motives behind Rwanda's military foray -- its third in Congo in the past decade -- that have more to do with Rwanda's regional ambitions than with the 6,000 or so FDLR militiamen. As recently as October, Rwandan officials had cast the militia as "a Congolese problem," saying it did not pose an immediate military threat to Rwanda.
"Is the FDLR now suddenly on the verge of becoming more militarily powerful? I don't think we've seen that," said Alison Des Forges, a Human Rights Watch researcher and leading expert on Rwanda. "And if they haven't, then what you have is Rwanda trotting out an old warhorse of an excuse to go in again. The question is, what is the intent?"
The stakes are high for the joint Rwandan-Congolese military offensive against the FDLR, given its potential to trigger more regional instability than it resolves. Rwanda's two earlier invasions succeeded in disrupting the militia's operations but also helped spawn more than a decade of conflict that at one point drew in as many as eight African nations in a scramble for regional supremacy and a piece of Congo's vast mineral wealth.
Although the two Rwandan invasions were devastating for the Congolese, they were hugely beneficial for Rwanda, which is still struggling to rebuild after the 100 days of well-planned violence in 1994 when Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Many Rwandans became involved in the lucrative mineral trade out of eastern Congo after the genocide, and some observers speculate that the current military operation aims to solidify Rwanda's economic stake in the region.
"It was a period of great economic boom for Rwanda -- a lot of people got rich, including military officers," Des Forges said, adding that the current military operation could help Rwandan President Paul Kagame relieve internal pressures on his government, which allows little room for dissent. "Presumably, if the troops were back in Congo for a substantial period of time, they could expect to reap certain benefits. It could also be beneficial for Rwanda to have greater control over economic resources than they've had before."
On that score, unverifiable rumors abound about secret deals and gentlemen's agreements struck between Congo and Rwanda over mineral rights and mineral processing. At a local level, Congolese villagers who have long suspected Rwanda of wanting to annex a swath of eastern Congo say they are certain that their tiny but militarily powerful neighbor is interested in more than disarming the FDLR.
"Congo is rich," said Eric Sorumweh, who said he watched hundreds of Rwandan troops pass by his village last month. "So they just come to loot the wealth of Congo."