The relationship between Rwanda and Congo was most recently strained by the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when the Hutu militias who massacred more than 800,000 Tutsis fled along with more than a million other refugees into eastern Congo.
The Rwandan army chased after them, incidentally helping the future Congolese President, Laurent Kabila, overthrow Congo’s long time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
But Kabila turned on his Rwandan backers, using the Hutu militias to fight them, and touching off one of the centuries bloodiest civil wars.
Eastern Congo remains littered with militia groups, including the Rwandan Hutu militias, also known as ex-FAR.
As a consequence, a renegade Congolese general, Laurent Nkunda, who has had close ties to Rwanda in the past, has maintained a militia in the east that he says is necessary to protect Congo’s Tutsi population from the still-genocidal Hutus.
In recent months, Nkunda’s forces have been blamed for attacking villages and chasing more than 230,000 people from their homes in the name of fighting the Hutu militias.
United Nations officials fear that Congo could be on the brink of all out conflict once again.
Rwandan foreign minister Charles Murigande, recently spoke about the fragile relationship between Rwanda and Congo.
Q: How would you describe Rwanda’s relationship with Congo?
Murigande: There is a steady improvement in the relationship between the two countries.
Our two presidents speak regularly. . . . However, I would also say it’s a very fragile relationship because the very cause that affected that relationship in the past, the ex-FAR, the presence of that force that committed the Genocide, is still present. As long as these forces are still there and have not yet abandoned their genocidal ideology, their desire to overthrow the [Rwandan] government, and to move closer to our border and attack -- to which we would reply -- that might bring some tension.
Q: How big a threat do you consider the ex-FAR?
Murigande: According to our intelligence and MONUC [the U.N. mission in Congo], these are people who are still armed, in military formation, and have commanders at the level of division, brigade, company and battalion.
It is a very well organized army, estimated to be from 6,000 to 10,000 strong. . . . We also have information that they’ve been recruiting and training. . . .
I do not know any country in the world which would not be worried about having a force 8,000 strong, well trained -- and a force determined to harm you -- on your border. . . . I do not even think bin Laden commanded such a huge military force.
The fact that this force is not about to fight and defeat us does not mean it is not a threat. Bin Laden was never in a position to fight and defeat the U.S., but he was still considered a threat.
I wonder why people don’t apply the same logic when it’s a situation that doesn’t effect them.
Q: So how do you deal with the problem of the FLDR?
Murigande: We think that a level of forceful disarmament must be applied. We need to break the grip of the commanders.
The problem is, who should apply that force? Who should carry out this forceful disarmament?
We contemplated MONUC . . . but the U.N. has been categorical that they will not give that mandate to MONUC. Another option is Congo, because they have the legitimacy and duty to do it. . . . But the problem is the Congolese army is not yet very strong, not very well trained, or very well motivated to do it.
Another option is for Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda to mount a joint operation against the forces. But there is an unwillingness by Congo to allow that.
They are saying the people of Congo are not yet at the psychological point to allow Rwanda or neighbouring countries into their territory.
Option four is that of appealing to friendly [non-bordering] countries to support the Congolese army.
This last option is most feasible if the government is willing. The Congolese do not reject the option outright but they are not forcefully pursuing it.
This option is viable in the short and medium term.
Q: What is Rwanda’s relationship to Laurent Nkunda, [a renegade Congolese general]?
Murigande: Rwanda has no relationship with Nkunda. In 1994, when the genocidal forces came to eastern Congo, they did not abandon their genocidal ideology.
They began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, killing Tutsis in North Kivu including the parents of Laurent Nkunda. . . . As long as these ex-FAR are around, [the Tutsis] have nowhere to go unless they can defend themselves. And that led to Nkunda. And if you look at what caused Nkunda, the problem was when he refused to be deployed.
He said, how can I leave when my people are threatened? He said, no, I can’t be deployed. He said, I will be in the army if I am deployed here, where my people are threatened. . . . So that’s the problem.
Of course because Nkunda is [a speaker of the Rwandan language] and a Tutsi, it is easy for people who do not do a deep analysis to conclude that there’s no way Rwanda could not be sympathetic to his case.
And then they conclude there’s a relationship between Rwanda and Nkunda. Rwanda cannot establish a relationship with such a person, but we can understand why Nkunda is Nkunda. We can understand his argument. Because at least he and the people he is with would be willing to die to protect their people. Which is not the case with everyone. . . .
The major root cause of instability in eastern Congo is the ex-FAR. It is the inaction and irresponsibility of the international community that has created this mess here.
The Congolese government seems to be saying that Nkunda is the problem.
They seem to be building the case against him.
This is a case of lack of logic, lack of fairness.
This is someone who says, I’m here because these forces kill my people.
Please, deal with these forces. . . . But instead of dealing with what caused him to be what he is today, you want to deal with him.
It’s like saying, if we didn’t have these Tutsis, the ex-FAR would not have people to kill.
It is an ugly way of seeing things.
But, let’s hope that which is just will prevail.
Q: To what extent has this situation with Nkunda been a source of tension between Rwanda and Congo?
Murigande: It hasn’t been a source of tension, because, you see, Congo is a sovereign country.
It is free to choose its own policy. However, in our dealings with them, as a neighbour, as a country that wants to be friendly, we offer friendly advice.
Like the need to resolve the Nkunda problem with a political solution, rather than a military solution, which would come at a great cost.
There is an argument that says a sovereign country cannot accept a rebellion.
But I would simply respond by saying a sovereign country should be more concerned about the presence of a foreign force.
Q:What about the suggestion some analysts have made, that the Congolese army might use the ex-FAR to attack Nkunda . . . ?
Murigande: A lot of people are worried that as has happened in the past, the government forces might link up with the ex-FAR and I know the ex-FAR would not be unhappy with an opportunity to kill Tutsis.
If that happens, that will start worrying us seriously.
And that is the message we have been giving. . . . That might be a disaster. Because we are also able to fight.
This interview was first published by The Washington Post on August 6, 2007Ends