Rwanda-DRC tensions complicate the Nairobi peace talks for the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes region has historically been a region of great conflict and contestation. Since the mid 1990s, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been at the centre of violent conflict driven by both internal and external armed militia. This has resulted in more than six million people dead and about two million displaced as internally displaced persons in the DRC or as refugees in neighbouring countries. 

This April, about 30 representatives representing armed groups from DRC’s Ituri, North and South Kivu and the Congolese government met in Nairobi. One group that walked out of the Nairobi talks was the Rwanda-backed M23 militia group. The M23 is at the heart of the tensions between Rwanda and the DRC. This tension complicates the Nairobi peace talks for the Great Lakes.  

The conflict in the DRC is complicated. As a result of Kinshasa’s inability to control its national territory in this region, the Rwanda-backed M23 has capitalised on the situation. This rebel group is made up of ethnic Congolese Tutsis called the Banyamulenge that get military support from the Tutsi-led government in Kigali. The M23 has committed horrendous acts of violence on the local population while exploiting the vast range of minerals in the Great Lakes region of the DRC.  

With the DRC joining the East African Community in April, there was hope a regional effort could bring peace to the Great Lakes region. This has failed to materialise because there is not enough political will from DRC’s neighbour Rwanda to disarm the M23 militia. The DRC has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels. The Tutsi-led government in Kigali on its part, has continued to provide support to the M23 rebels, while vehemently denying it is doing so. 

Rwanda has historically used this rebel group as a proxy militia. This militia functions as a border buffer against attacks from remnants of the former Hutu rebels called the Interahamwe domiciled in the Great Lakes region. These former Hutu rebels were the leaders of the genocidal death squads of the Interahamwe that fled into the DRC when the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) swept to power in 1994 ending months of genocidal killing.  

The current spate of killing by the M23 in the DRC can be attributed to two concentric variants. On one hand, the M23 are using violence as a negotiating tool to gain bargaining leverage ahead of the Nairobi talks brokered by President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. On the other hand, this rising violence can also signify a desperate effort by the M23 to entrench their control of lucrative mineral fields in anticipation of the arrival of increased regional military forces from the East African Community. This volatile security environment complicates any peace talks for the Great Lakes.  

For its part, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the DRC has failed to improve the security situation or disarm the M23 rebels. The DRC government, on the other hand, is faced with a cruel dilemma, namely that of Rwanda deciding the fate of the Great Lakes region with the DRC government willing but unable to defeat the M23 rebels militarily. This is because Rwanda supports the M23 and uses this militia to control and protect attractive mineral extraction from the region. The government in Kinshasa, for its part, is too weak to defeat the M23 in the region.  

The path to fruitful peace talks in Nairobi over the Great Lakes region in the DRC lies in a regional effort from all DRC’s neighbours, to encourage Rwanda to rein in the recalcitrant M23 rebel militia. This will pave way for the M23 militia laying down their weapons as the DRC government in Kinshasa is too weak to crush them militarily. 

In addition to this, the Nairobi talks will need to centre on a carrot and stick approach. Providing amnesty to the M23 rebels for laying down their weapons in exchange for the deployment of a robust regional peacekeeping force. 

In addition to this, the DRC government will need to integrate the M23 into the regular Congolese army with the incentive of political appointments to M23 representatives. This carrot approach should be backed by strict penalties for ceasefire violations by the M23 and criminal prosecution for any M23 member that resumes fighting in the region. 

The DRC cannot defeat the M23 militarily but can incentiviSe the rebel group to put down weapons for the sake of the country, regional stability and the prosperity of all the people of the DRC. 


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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David Monda
Professor David Monda teaches political science, international relations, and American government at the City University of New York (York College), New York.

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