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Should we talk about the FDLR every time we talk about the M23?

In his August 11 press conference in Kigali, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had this to say about the violence in eastern Congo: “There are very credible reports of support for armed groups by all sides, including the FDLR by Congolese forces and M23 by Rwandans. And our position is clear […] that support needs to cease for any armed group.” Was Blinken making an equivalence between the M23 and the FDLR, suggesting that Congo and Rwanda are equally responsible for the recent escalation?

It would be a familiar position. In 2009, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer argued that the “grand bargain” to resolve the crisis –– then centered on the M23’s precursor, the CNDP –– should be to dismantle the CNDP and launch an offensive against the FDLR. In 2013, U.S. Special Envoy Russ Feingold took a similar approach, but with much greater public pressure on Kigali.

It is easy to see the appeal of this approach. Admitting that Kigali has legitimate security grievances in eastern Congo would allow the Rwandan government to save face and withdraw from the conflict with its head held high. It is also true that the Congolese government has its share of responsibility for the violence. After all, it would be misleading to attribute all responsibility for the conflict in this region to Rwanda. There are about 120 armed groups, only one of which, the M23, is clearly supported by the Rwandan government. And according to the United Nations, there are 4.8 million displaced people, of whom at most 300,000, or about 6 per cent, have fled their homes because of the escalation of the M23. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Codeco, active in Ituri and the far north of North Kivu, are far more deadly than the M23.

However, this equivalence between the FDLR and the M23 –– a term explicitly rejected but implicitly proposed by Blinken –– is factually fallacious and potentially dangerous. In 2009, it had devastating consequences: the international community’s push to tackle the FDLR contributed to the joint Umoja Wetu operations between the Congolese and Rwandan armies, followed by the Amani Leo operations led by ex-CNDP officers integrated into the national army. This led to brutal battles in which civilians were targeted by all sides; approximately 900,000 people were displaced in the first nine months. The aftershocks to these operations also gave rise to Congolese armed groups that persist to this day.

In 2013, the United States was pushing for a similar agreement. In conversations I had with U.S. diplomats, they had told me that it was needed as a carrot to go along with the stick of financial sanctions that were wielded against Rwanda. This time, despite international pressure to attack the FDLR, the Congolese government decided to launch operations against the ADF – also followed by devastating counterattacks and massacres. And now, many media outlets are suggesting that Rwandan support is motivated by the threat of the FDLR. For example, an Al Jazeera article on the UN Panel of Experts report documenting Rwandan support for M23 states that “some 300 Rwandan troops have conducted operations against rebel groups in eastern DRC, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that Kigali considers a threat.” Many other media reports make similar statements, wanting to ensure that both sides of the conflict are represented.

This is misleading for several reasons First, it suggests that the FDLR is a real threat to Rwanda. This depends on the definition of “threat.” In 2012, the UN Panel of Experts estimated that the FDLR consisted of 1,500 to 2,000 men. By 2020, the group had been reduced to 500-1,000. Targeted operations by the Rwandan and Congolese armies since then have further reduced its strength. Today, the FDLR poses a very serious threat to Congolese civilians but is only able to launch rare raids into Rwanda. The last large-scale attack in Rwanda, involving hundreds of rebels and killing several civilians, was in 2001 It is of course unacceptable that even small attacks take place, but the way Rwanda is reacting is disproportionate and counterproductive.

Second, Rwandan intervention in eastern Congo is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. he Congolese army often has an adversarial relationship with the FDLR –– they have fought them many times, including recently. It is almost always the threat of a Rwandan-backed insurgency that leads the Congolese army to ally and arm with Rwandan rebels, as it has probably done again in recent month This does not justify the alliance; but it is disingenuous for Rwanda –– and diplomats – to suggest that the rise of the M23 was a response to an FARDC-FDLR coalition. The opposite seems much more likely to be true – according to the Group of Experts’ report, recent Rwandan army operations on Congolese soil had begun long before this latest phase of FARDC-FDLR cooperation.

A similar argument can be made with regard to claims of hate speech. The M23 and the Rwandan government have denounced the discrimination faced by the Congolese Tutsi community; supporters of the Rwandan government suggest that the M23 insurgency is justified because of this rise in hate speech. They are right that there has been an increase in such hate speech, including from Congolese politicians, as well as ugly incidents of discrimination against Tutsis in Congo. But these ugly incidents – some of which have been denounced by the Congolese government – have come in response to the M23, not the other way around. Congo must tackle this ugly brand of identity politics, but supporting the M23 –– a brutal and extremely unpopular insurgency –– will only increase tensions.

It is true that the FDLR –– and, to a lesser extent, the splinter groups CNRD and RUD-Urunana –– remain a significant armed group and a threat to the Congolese population. However, there are other ways to deal with these groups besides large-scale military operations As others have argued, political options could include third countries of exile for FDLR officers not accused of war crimes; sanctions for military officers, businessmen, and civil servants who collude with the rebels; and renewed efforts to encourage defections. Even among the military options, there are ways to minimize abuses. The Rwandan army itself has proven this – its targeted killings and attacks on the FDLR in recent years have reduced its leadership and increased fragmentation.

In the end, it is clear that Congo will not be able to rely on the good faith of its neighbors. Long-term solutions to the violence – including that fueled by the Rwandan government – will only come with a stronger and more accountable Congolese state. In the meantime, this kind of false equivalence is not conducive to constructive dialogue.

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