FARDC scarecrow (Courtesy Dan McCabe)
In the last several weeks, there has been a lot of noise about new insurgencies in the eastern Congo, possibly involving the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. This should provoke consternation: In the past, no local rebellion in the eastern Congo has been able to destabilize the region without outside support, usually involving those two countries. Here are some of the incidents that have roiled public opinion:
- On April 22, the Rwandan army allegedly crossed the border into the Congo, wounding a Congolese soldier;
- The same week, civil society and army officials reported that a group of 300 armed men (some say UPDF) crossed the border from Uganda into the Ruwenzori mountains;
- For several weeks now, Governor of North Kivu Julien Paluku has been warning about the creation of an M23 successor, the Mouvement chrétien pour la reconstruction du Congo (MCRC), backed by Uganda and Rwanda;
- On April 23, three UN employees involved in demining close to the Rwandan border were kidnapped by unknown gunmen before being released several days later.
So are these all symptoms of a new, impending war? Perhaps, but while we need to dig deeper, we should treat these reports very carefully. According to diplomats and non-profit officials in Kinshasa and Goma, it is very likely that the Rwandan army did indeed cross the border and clash with the Congolese army on April 22. However, the senior Congolese army officers I spoke with were not too concerned about this, saying that they did not think this was part of a broader destabilization. There have been other deadly clashes between the two countries in the past year over border demarcation and possible anti-FDLR operations.
What about an M23 successor organization? Again, neither the UN or Congolese intelligence officials I spoke to have been able to confirm the existence of the MCRC, despite the numerous articles in the regional press providing details about the movement. The two ex-M23 leaders I contacted––naturally––laughed it off, but there are other reasons to doubt it. First, it would have to find its military footing, no easy feat given the tensions between the two wings of the M23, respectively linked to Bosco Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga. Also, there is little backing in the Congolese army or local communities for another Rwandan-backed rebellion. « What would they do? » One Congolese intelligence officer told me. « Carve out an Independent Republic of the Volcanoes? Which FARDC officers would support them? Those days are gone. »
In any case, it would be difficult for Rwanda, whose budget is still funded to 38 percent by foreign aid, to justify this kind of backing, and even more difficult to deny backing such a movement if it is officially announced. The country is still recovering from the 2013 low growth caused by aid cuts following Kigali’s backing of the M23 rebellion.
Of course, there could always be smaller, pinprick incursions into the Kivus, aimed at destabilizing and maintaining a foothold rather than conquering. There is some evidence that ex-M23 soldiers have been conducting this sort of activity in Masisi and Nyiragongo (some suggest that the kidnapping of the UN workers, for example, was due to this sort of activity).
Now to the Ugandan side of things. The Ugandan government was accused by the UN of briefly supporting the M23 in the eastern Congo in 2012, and local civil society in Beni alleges that hundreds of men in Ugandan uniforms have been sighted parts of the Virunga national park. A local MP I spoke with from the area said he had heard reports of similar sightings, but it was still unclear who might be involved. The UN, again, in private said it could not corroborate this information. A Congolese intelligence officer said that there was indeed a group, but it was a Congolese group supported by General Kakolele Bwambale, a veteran armed group entrepreneur from the region. So there is little solid intelligence thus far on this group, although plenty of cause for more in-depth research.
The first casualty of war, dixit Kipling, is truth. Psychological operations, smoke-and-mirrors, and rumor-mongering have long been part of the conflict landscape in the eastern Congo. But so have been real, deadly conspiracies involving foreign armies, arms smugglers, and guns for hire.