Is Rwanda Justified in its Decision Not to Negotiate with the FDLR? Part 1

For nearly fifteen years, Rwanda has been confronted with the existence of a ‘rebel group’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC].
FDLR child soldier.
FDLR child soldier.

For nearly fifteen years, Rwanda has been confronted with the existence of a ‘rebel group’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC].

Built-up from remnants of forces that took part in the 1994 genocide, the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda [FDLR], as the group is now known, fled into DRC following their defeat on the battlefield in Rwanda.

On its own accord, Rwanda twice invaded DRC in an attempt to deal with these ‘negative forces’ that continued to pose a threat to civilian lives, peace and stability within Rwanda and the region at large.

These early military incursions into DRC achieved limited success. Though Rwandan military campaigns significantly reduced FDLR’s military ambitions, the group continues to exist and has been operating in Eastern DRC ever since, disregarding domestic and international law alike.

To its credit, FDLR managed to export the genocide ideology into DRC, including through direct and public incitement to attack and exterminate Rwandans and Congolese Tutsi. In the course of fulfilling this agenda, FDLR has had little care for civilians or their property.

For over a decade, the suffering of civilians in Eastern Congo has continued unabated, fuelling resentments among Congolese, generally directed against ‘Rwandans’, who are blamed by local politicians to be at the root cause of all their troubles.

Earlier this week, news reports, confirmed by both Rwanda and DRC, indicate that several thousands Rwandan troops entered DRC based on a fresh agreement between the two countries to work together militarily to deal with FDLR.

Some may question the wisdom of pursuing the military option in light of earlier experiments. Should Rwanda, instead, negotiate with the FDLR, as a number of -mostly western- analysts have suggested?

Using negotiation theory and concepts as a framework for discussion, I conclude that Rwanda’s decision not to negotiate with the FDLR is appropriate. There are indeed limits to the type of conflicts that can be resolved through negotiations.

This analysis makes no claim about comprehensively taking into account the full range of considerations that may have influenced Rwandan policy not to negotiate because it necessarily relies only on facts publicly known.

Nor is the particular outcome of the current military campaign against FDLR relevant for our purpose. Those who wait to see what happens in order to praise or criticize a particular policy decision always have the benefit of hindsight while decision makers do not.

Moreover, performing a cost-benefit analysis of the merits of entering into negotiation is a challenging task; not least because there is always some degree of uncertainty surrounding the estimation of short and long-term costs and benefits of negotiation, as well as the potential costs and benefits of one’s best alternative.

It is also worth noting that both negotiations and its alternatives – whether litigation or war – occur in the context of strategic interactions.

The potential outcome of a chosen course depends on the action (or reaction) of the other side. These are issues with which decision-makers and analysts are familiar.

The purpose of this contribution is to sketch out a framework for analysis to illustrate how a decision maker might weigh the costs and benefits of a decision whether to negotiate.


Negotiation theory teaches, among other things, that in deciding whether to negotiate, one should begin by indentifying his own interests. What are the interests of Rwanda?

The paramount interest of Rwanda in this context is to protect Rwandan lives both within its territory and, to the extent possible, abroad.

As Rwanda prepares to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the Tutsi genocide that claimed the lives of a million of its own, it is a statement of responsibility for the government to take all necessary measures to ensure that ‘never again’ translates into tangible results.

Rwanda has additional interests, stemming both from its past, but also its vision for the future, including:

. Keeping the country on a ‘peace, unity and reconciliation’ track by creating a new sense of ‘Rwandaness’ (seen, for example, on car stickers in Kigali boasting ‘proudly Rwandan’), an identity separate and distinct from the traditional dichotomy along ‘ethnic’ lines,

. Making a clean cut with former regimes so as to allow the emergence of new ideas and politics, and 

. Promoting security and stability in the country and the region, and thus create conditions favourable to ‘Doing Business’ in Rwanda, attract investments, stimulate economic growth, allow market access and trade in the region, using its strategic location as a competitive advantage.

It is, therefore, true that Rwanda has economic interests in the Congo. Its large population and vast natural resources combined with Rwanda’s location makes DRC a prime market for Rwandan products and services.

Rwanda’s business community has every reason to seek opportunities in DRC given the relative low cost of sourcing raw materials in a neighbouring country to supply local industry while, at the same time, having access to that market is an incentive for both local and foreign investors.

This is not what has been advocated for sometime in international forums, mostly by the United Nations [UN]. The UN has gone to some length to portray Rwanda as an Occupying Power in Eastern DRC whose sole purpose is to exploit the natural resources of that country, FDLR presence being just a pretext.

Charged with similar allegations, a wealthy country can simply ignore the UN and the governments controlling it, with no significant adverse consequences.

Not so for a poor nation. Rwanda cannot afford to be branded as a ‘rogue nation’, the validity - or lack thereof - of claims made by the UN notwithstanding.

Rwanda must preserve its image as a stable and peaceful country, with a leadership that is responsible and committed to implementing its development agenda while, at the same time, striving to promote and maintain a peaceful attitude towards its neighbours. That the United States [US] makes no distinction between terrorists and the countries harbouring them is beside the point. Rwanda, of course, is not the US.

While Rwanda is increasingly recognised as a powerful player to reckon with in regional affairs – chiefly as a result of its no-nonsense approach to security, zero-tolerance to corruption and its remarkable economic performance in the span of a decade – the country still relies, perhaps too heavily for its own good, on aid for its various social and economic programmes.

The trade-offs resulting from the politics of aid and their impacts on Rwanda’s sovereignty are still a reality of our times.

In this context, to maintain a positive image and still deal with the FDLR issue in DRC call for unconventional measures, the current military campaign involving Rwandan troops under DRC command - despite the obvious misgivings anyone would have to such a proposition - being but one example.

Given these interests, it follows that the immediate goal of Rwanda is to eradicate FDLR and, to the extent possible, ensure –through diplomacy and enforceable agreements- that DRC no longer harbours or supports such groups in the future.

What are the interests of the FDLR, the other protagonist in this equation?  In negotiation theory, such inquiry, it is said, must probe beyond stated demands and positions and ask, what is important to the other side? What do they value?

At this stage, FDLR’s paramount interest is to survive either as individual members, groups within the group, or FDLR as a whole. Several accounts suggests that the last few years have registered a weakening of the group both in terms of members’ moral, equipments and ammunitions, other resources, and support.

These forces have not always been known as FDLR. At different times in the last decade or so, they have presented themselves or have been portrayed under different umbrella: ‘Hutu rebels’, ‘Rwandan Opposition’, ‘Armée de Liberation du Rwanda’ and so forth.

While its members are drawn from several sources, it is accurate to say they include ex-FAR forces – some of whom were involved in the genocide against the Tutsi -, Interhamwe militias - who did participate in the killings – and other like-minded individuals recruited over the years, initially from the refugees camps in Congo and Tanzania and, later on, from within Rwanda and in DRC.

Some are Congolese civilians that found themselves co-opted into FDLR operations as a way to survive. Indeed, in the many lawless regions of Eastern Congo, it makes sense to be on the side of those holding the power of the sword, when pillaging and looting the property of those who don’t is the order of the day.

Idi Gaparayi is a consultant in legal affairs based in Kigali (

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