2013: A year of tensions, betrayals and courage

Today, a year ago, Rwanda ushered in the year 2013 amid a noisy and terribly hostile neighbourhood. The M23 war was raging in eastern DR Congo, and the government in Kinshasa and its backers were increasingly keen to export that war across the borders to Rwanda.
A mortar that was shelled into Rubavu from the DR Congo side. The New Times/File
A mortar that was shelled into Rubavu from the DR Congo side. The New Times/File

Today, a year ago, Rwanda ushered in the year 2013 amid a noisy and terribly hostile neighbourhood. The M23 war was raging in eastern DR Congo, and the government in Kinshasa and its backers were increasingly keen to export that war across the borders to Rwanda.

For Rwandans, it was clear that flawed evidence that was used to link this country to the crisis in eastern DR Congo would only grow in volume and intensity as the New Year rolled–and they were right.

As long as the M23 rebellion was associated with Rwandophone communities in DR Congo, Rwanda was always going to be dragged into that mess simply because it is historically and culturally connected to the people behind the rebellion. So simplistic isn’t it?

For Rwandans, that was utter injustice. Indeed all the tenets of scientific research and fairness were thrown out the window and the world was fed on a dangerous narrative built on lies, biased perceptions, scape-goating and selfish geopolitical interests.

Indeed this flawed narrative resulted into ill-informed actions, some by Rwanda’s friends.

By the dawn of 2013, thanks to the ‘Sickman of Africa’ (read DR Congo), Rwanda’s major development partners had backtracked on their commitments, withdrawing bilateral and multilateral aid without prior notice in the middle of the 2012/13 fiscal year, potentially throwing a resurgent economy in a disturbing state of uncertainty.

At the United Nations, Rwanda bravely assumed its non-permanent Security Council seat amid tensions with the world body whose panel on DR Congo was still itching to jump on every rumour and assumption to vindicate their growing narrative that M23 was Rwanda’s creation and therefore Kigali must be held accountable for DR Congo’s lifelong failure.

In fact, some UN bureaucrats and their patronising governments almost went berserk at Rwanda’s refusal to submit to the powers that be without questioning the legality of their narrative and hostile actions against a government and a people that deep down wished Congo peace because a stable neighbourhood, especially along our western borderline, is in Rwanda’s best interests.

Western media fans agenda

Of course, the Western media embraced the anti-Rwanda narrative and rhetoric, partly because DR Congo conflicts are mired in a complex web of intricacies and machinations which makes lazy and arm-chair journalists and disaffected editors in western capitals copy-and-paste easy explanations, without slightest scrutiny.

But there was also an army of ill-intentioned state and non-state actors who are always keen on pouncing at the least opportunity to mudsling Rwanda and potentially reverse the incredible progress this country has made since the Genocide 20 years ago, against all odds.

These are the guys who will almost shiver to death every time Rwanda earns good press, whether it’s for its impressive war on corruption (as is always documented in Transparency International reports), great leap forward in ease of doing business (according to the World Bank), dazzling economic growth, exemplary discipline and professionalism among Rwandan peacekeeping contingents, use of aid effectively to change lives, food security, reconciliation, name it...

And because this country’s performance over the last decade or so has often times earned it an enviable positive spotlight, the haters and naysayers are always craving for even the remotest opportunity to put a stain on this image, which has been built and is sustained on great sacrifices and hard work by many in this country.

In 2013, these opportunists maximised M23 ruthlessly.

By the way, isn’t it ironic that while western powers were demonising the M23 rebels without caring to listen to their grievances even after the latter had willingly withdrawn from Goma (a jewel of western corporations and NGOs) they were publicly scaling up support to brutal militants elsewhere – notably in Syria – and allowing other rebels to overrun elected governments, including in now war-torn Central Africa Republic?

Well, amid all this, Kigali continued work with willing partners to find a solution to the DR Congo crisis. President Paul Kagame and foreign and defence ministers participated in countless regional meetings, especially in the Ugandan capital Kampala, under the auspices of the ICGLR, to help resolve the conflict.

But these regional efforts were calculatingly undermined by, of all, the United Nations Security Council, which would hijack the ICGLR’s proposal for an African-led force to pacify eastern DR Congo, and instead voted to deploy a 3000-strong force, with an unprecedented mandate to attack armed groups. 

The Force, known as the UN Intervention Brigade, under the command of the ineffective UN Stabilisation Mission in the Congo (Monusco)–composed of contingents from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi–would fully deploy in July, changing the dynamics of the conflict.

Ntaganda surrenders

In the meantime, cracks emerged within the ranks of the M23 leadership, with two rival factions emerging–one led by the military chief, Gen. Sultan Makenga on the one hand, and the other by Bishop Jean Marie Rugerero Runiga and ICC indictee Gen. Bosco Ntaganda.

The ensuing battle ended with members of the Runiga-Ntaganda faction, crossing into Rwanda in March. The highlight of this development was the surrender of Ntaganda, who suddenly appeared at the US embassy in Kigali and requested to be transferred to the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Following Ntaganda’s surrender, Rwanda announced it was ready to cooperate with the US to have him transferred to the ICC, while the US, a non-signatory to the Rome Statute which established the court, scrambled to grant his request without necessarily setting a precedent for anything that might not be in their interest.

Five days later after he had turned himself in, Ntaganda–indicted by the ICC seven years earlier for allegedly recruiting child soldiers in an earlier rebel group, murder, rape and pillaging–was finally transferred to the Hague without much fuss, especially since it needed full cooperation of Rwanda, a country that had been fiercely linked to him and the M23, to take him out of the country.

Meanwhile, it emerged that some members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), were actually pulling away from a negotiated settlement of the Congo crisis, an approach favoured by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), under the chair of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. 

Now, DR Congo, a member of both the ICGLR and SADC, kept playing games, publicly committing to peace talks during ICGLR extraordinary summits, and then openly mobilising SADC members for what increasingly looked like a potential regional war.

Tanzania expels ‘migrants’

Meanwhile, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kiwete, in July, expelled alleged illegal immigrants, a decision that in August saw thousands of perceived or real Rwandan kicked out of the country in inhumane circumstances.

Some were separated from their Tanzanian spouses and their children, while many others lost their property and were beaten and lost limbs during the sudden crackdown. The majority of the evictees had never known any other country other than Tanzania while others had lived in the country for more than five decades, and had legally acquired citizenship.

An estimated 100 Tanzanians were also expelled in the process, before they were later facilitated to return home. On the other hand, the Rwandan government released a statement reassuring Tanzanians living in the country of their safety and freedom to go about their business.

(Just last week, the Rwandan government announced that the Tanzania evictees who were still in transit camps would be resettled permanently effective this week – that certainly ensured there is a New Year’s cheer among folks in Kiyanzi and Rukara camps).

Thousands of Burundians were also kicked out of East Africa’s largest nation, creating a smoky atmosphere between Dar and regional capitals since the expulsions were seen as contradictory to EAC integration spirit.

And, certainly, matters were not helped by the emergence, in June, of a trilateral arrangement among three EAC countries–Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda–under which the three are seeking to ease trade and movement of citizens along the Northern Corridor; a move frowned upon by the other partner states Burundi and Tanzania, who are generally viewed as laggards in EAC integration push.

Western border districts shelled

Back to the western border, the residents of Rubavu District were in July and August enduring a difficult time, with the Congolese army, backed by Monusco and its Intervention Brigade troops, shelling the Rwandan territory hysterically, at one point killing a woman and injuring her two-month old son in a market.

On August 27, Rwanda declared that a line had been crossed.

“The persistent shelling of Rwandan territory is unacceptable, as it would be to any sovereign nation. Rwandan civilians are being targeted by DRC forces. We have remained restrained for as long as we can but this provocation can no longer be tolerated,” Louise Mushikiwabo, the minister for foreign affairs and government spokesperson, said at the time.

By then, a total of 34 bombs and rockets had been fired into Rwanda from Congolese army positions in one month. A few weeks earlier, FDLR had mounted attacks on two separate occasions in the west and northwest of the country, without success and suffering heavy losses.

In the meantime, in Kigali, a renewed wave of grenade attacks, linked to FDLR, killed a couple of people and injured many others.

Many a pundit saw DR Congo’s shelling of Rwanda as a desperate provocation by Kinshasa to suck RDF into action and potentially spark off an all-out regional war.

And Rwanda had every right to return fire with fire. Indeed, the Rwanda Defence Forces in August moved tanks and deployed heavily along the Congo border.

Thankfully, the attacks subsided, and Rwanda exercised utmost restraint.

Yet, in October, the US classified Rwanda among countries that use child soldiers (reportedly in the M23 rebellion) and announced that it had withdrawn some military assistance to the world’s sixth peacekeepers contributing nation.

And in one of my most favourites quotes of the year 2013, President Kagame hit back, “Some believe that might is right but might is not always right.”

Fast forward, in November, amid increased shuttle diplomacy involving UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, his special envoy to the region, former Ireland President Mary Robinson, members of the UN Security Council, and EU and US envoys, things just took a different turn on the Congo/M23 war frontline.

After on-and-off clashes, often punctuated by ICGLR crisis summits, the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers made significant gains, expelling M23 rebels from their strongholds. 

Soon, the rebels announced they had abandoned war and were committed to concluding the Kampala peace talks and transform themselves into a political party.  

As expected, sections of the international media circulated rumours that Makenga had crossed into Rwanda. The general would later emerge in Uganda with scores of fighters.

Later in December, Kinshasa and the M23 rebels penned declarations officially ending the 20-month conflict with commitments to addressing the underlying issues. What a swift turn of events that was!

As we usher in the New Year, DR Congo troops, with a long record of indiscipline (including raping and pillaging) but possibly buoyed by the M23 defeat, have deployed to CAR as part of an African Union mission. Rwanda is also expected to deploy peacekeepers to the same country soon.  

Who would have envisaged this two months ago?

Overall, Rwandans will look back at 2013 as a year when their country was unduly targeted by the same international system that horribly failed them 20 years ago, but also a year when their resolve was tested and they emerged the winners after the economy grew by more than 6 per cent despite unexpected aid cuts.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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