Paul Kagame and the Fate of the Great Lakes Region

Paul Kagame and the Fate of the Great Lakes Region
Paul Kagame is constantly denying supporting rebels in Congo

AFRICANGLOBE – The tectonic plates in Africa’s great lakes region appear to be shifting.

This July Congo activists are marking a year since some European countries suspended aid money to Rwanda, following Kigali’s continued support to warlords and militia gangs terrorising Congo’s eastern provinces.

Last year’s UN Group of Experts report on Congo chronicled the role played by Rwanda’s defence minister, James Kaberebe, and others in supporting and coordinating a deadly militia gang in Congo, the M23.

The report appears to have been the stone that finally cracked Congo’s two-way mirror revealing Kigali’s previously unseen hands in the Congo wars.

Tanzania, where President Barack Obama took a jab at Rwanda and Uganda (without naming them) over their continued support to militia gangs in Congo, is becoming more and more forceful in pushing for wider political dialogue in Rwanda.

Tanzanian president, Jakaya Kikwete has called for Kigali to start talking with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebel group. Kikwete has also been leading regional dialogue.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni — who is under increasing international pressure to find a gracious exit from power before 2016— has played military godfather to President Paul Kagame’s reign in Rwanda.

EU commissioner for trade, Karel De Gucht, seems poised to ending the trade of minerals originating from conflict-affected and high-risk areas, which will dramatically reduce the financial incentive in fuelling and funding wars in Congo.

The UN has begun deploying a peace-enforcing brigade to the region. This should compliment Kikwete’s troop deployment to neutralise the M23 rebels.

But Kinshasa looks apprehensive about the focus of Mary Robinson, UN special envoy to the region, on impunity and pushing for reforms.

US involvement can be seen by Obama’s appointment of a special representative to the region, the first since 1997.

Understanding what this means – or not – has been a challenge for African-policy insiders.

However it is hard to imagine Kagame ever being in a position to revive his political fortunes or restore the moral authority with which he was able to outgun journalists.

The metric that gauges international support to third-world governments is no more in his favour.

The ease with which Kagame collected human rights awards and kept international opinion more or less on his side, while swaying Western countries to fund his budget, may be history.

Indeed, a number of large and looming questions about the future of Rwanda, and by extension that of Kagame’s political party – the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), is on the table. Not least of the questions for Kigali is whether its one-time-darling-of-the-West president is still credible in the wake of sanctions and condemnations over support to M23.

The terrible shadow of former rebel leaders Bosco Ntaganda, Laurent Nkunda, Jules Mutebutsi, Sultani Makenga and Kaberebe – names that now rhyme with that of Rwanda’s president – have become a stain and a burden on the Kigali regime.

Another question is whether it’s possible to maintain, or even advance, the gains Rwanda has made in education and health over the past 15 years without substantial inflows of foreign aid into Kigali’s coffers.

Congo’s death toll seems to have pushed major aid donors beyond any willingness to tolerate Kigali to continue to make a bad situation even worse.

Certainly, if the current trajectory of diplomatic and economic pressure continues, the Kigali government could inevitably lapse into a coma.

Deep down, Kagame would know that his own misjudgements have left him with this excruciating choice, and the manner in which he responds to these almost Manichean alternatives could determine—to a large extent—the future of his government and party.

The good news, however, is that a solution is not impossible. The bad news is there’s no politician in Kigali with a visionary leap.

For now, I think he has three agonising options.

The first, the one best known in the US, is to enshrine Obama’s 18 December five-point telephone call into his policies and politics.

This might buy him some lost support in Washington and London but implementing it at home would be a herculean task.

It prohibits almost everything Kigali has been accused of doing in the past. He would have to go back to the drawing board, revisit his previous calculations and see where it all went wrong.

Such an act would undoubtedly anger a lot of Rwandan businessmen trading Congo’s easily appropriable but highly valuable blood minerals.

It could also further fracture his Tutsi inner circle as it’d require handing over other UN sanctioned M23 leaders to face justice for murdering civilians. This is one of the signature demands Obama made when he called Kagame last December.

His second option would be to try and rebuild a sustained and deepened relationship with the Congolese government. This would mitigate the growing unease of the larger Congolese population towards Rwanda over the crimes of FDLR and the role of Kagame’s government in Congo.

Indeed, if there were a magic potion that could almost miraculously transform Kagame’s luck overnight it would be reconciliation with the Congolese people.

But this is a tall order. The Congo-Rwanda conflict continues to be about almost everything that stirs deep emotions: identity, sovereignty, minerals, land, mass displacement, grievance, insecurity, extremist groups, slaughter of civilians, justice and more.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The real challenge facing people in Congo and Rwanda is the lack of trust and confidence in both governments, either side of Lake Kivu.

It would be both absurd and illogical to expect millions of Congolese — particularly those in the eastern provinces whose lives, families and communities have been devastated by RPF invasions and proxy wars — to trust Kagame will end support to militia gangs.

Equally, it would be both absurd and illogical to expect many Tutsis to place their safety and well being onto the hands of the Kabila regime.

Kabila’s lieutenants have not missed an opportunity to jump in bed with the Hutu militia gang, the FDLR, whose leadership took part in the 1994 genocide.

Similarly, one could not expect the rank and file of the FDLR – many of whom did not play a part in the Tutsi genocide but witnessed the mass slaughter of their countrymen at the hands of Kagame’s RPF in refugee camps in Congo, to return to Rwanda with Kagame still in power.

The third option is perhaps the most pragmatic concession of all: stepping aside. This would enable his RPF party to regain much needed international support or, at the very least, help slow its decline.

And when he does, he would take Joseph Kabila with him. It would give the Congolese and the Rwandans a better chance for frank dialogue and cooperation.


Vava Tampa, a native of Congo, is a part time activist, founder of Save the Congo, an international campaign to tackle Congo’s four major problems, the 4Is: Insecurity, International trade of conflict minerals, Impunity and Institutional failure and chair of the Morel Prize.