The Congo-Rwanda bilateral framework in the last 30 years

The love-hate-love relationship Rwanda, a country located on the fault lines of East and central Africa shares its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo her much larger neighbour.
President Francois Mitterand in the company of President Mobutu.
President Francois Mitterand in the company of President Mobutu.

The love-hate-love relationship

Rwanda, a country located on the fault lines of East and central Africa shares its borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo her much larger neighbour.

The relationship between the two countries in the last 30 years is what one can say is hinged on a ‘love-hate-love’ functionality.

This analysis is precisely informed by observations borne out of externally induced factors which have impacted on this relationship.

Key among these being influences emanating from the French hegemony over the region, the emergence of a new political system sweeping over the troubled great lakes region and the end of the cold war among others.

In this three part report, this writer traces the love-hate-love relationship between the two once close Franco-phone neighbours during the cold war era which turned sour immediately after the regime change in Rwanda, whose tragedy the 100 day genocide against the Tutsis ignited the Congo into a battleground for reshaping of a new political order in the region.

The recent reversal of this sour relationship which lasted over 15 years to that of cooperation once again is a complete 360 degree reversal from the days of conflict during the last 15 years.

Cold war era romanticism

During the 1970s through to the 1990s Rwanda’s relationship with her much larger neighbour has been one hinged on cooperation and conflict depending on the durations which defined these relations.

The cold war era witnessed a cooperative relationship as the country’s heads of state were staunch Francophonies, a group of states linked to maintain the promotion and protection of the French language and interests.

Generals Mobutu Sese Seko and Juvenile Habyarimana were indeed allies. However both countries faced a myriad of problems and as such both experienced political upheavals.

Both the country’s violent divisions might have been easier to heal and their tragic histories during the cold war era somewhat different had it not been for the involvement of outside interests.

None had more dramatic effect upon both the countries political destinies than that of France who was considered central Africa’s ‘big cop’.

Linda Melvern, a career journalist who authored an authoritative book about Rwanda’s greatest tragedy the 100 day genocide offers very interesting angles on how one can connect Rwanda and Zaire.

For the case of Rwanda she asserts that ‘without France the dictatorship of Juvenal Habyarimana would never have lasted as long as it did’.

The same can be said of Zaire now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. She added, ‘So staunch an ally was France that Habyarimana believed that French support for his regime was unconditional, no matter what military or political tactic he used to remain in power. Rwanda was part of a family, Francophonie’.

Melvern intimates that, ‘closely related to this obsession with French language and culture was a fear in France of an anglophone encroachment into its African turf, nurtured by centuries of Anglo-French rivalry on the continent’.

Rwanda Melvern argued, was important not because French was its second language, but because Rwanda was located on a political fault-line between francophone central Africa and anglophone East Africa.

France was a major foreign military power-broker in Africa. Central Africa was exclusive to Francophonie hegemony. As such Rwanda, her next door neighbor Zaire, a huge country with vast riches, Burundi and others were all in the Franco African family.

The best way to maintain French influence in Africa was through a policy of close relations between the presidential palace in Paris, the Elysée, and African heads of state such as Mobutu and Habyarimana.

This is how one can connect the romanticism and cooperation between Zaire and Rwanda during the cold war era. Francophonie provided the glue that held Zaire and Rwanda together.

A new political order

This status quo which went uninterrupted during the 1970s through the 1980s was brought to an abrupt standstill in mid 1990s by the emergence of a revolution which swept into Rwanda which had no connection at all to the Francophonie system.

As a fellow Francophonie, Mobutu took up a simple yet costly maxim against the new authorities which seem to state that ‘an enemy of my friend is my enemy’.

He was staunchly against the new government which had just ascended into power in Rwanda in 1994.Meaning that as the Franco-Rwandan diplomatic relations steadily degenerated it naturally sucked in her neighbour next door, Zaire.

The major issue which tied Rwanda, Zaire and France during this new phase of relationship centred around conflict gravitated around the RPF-led war of liberation from 1990 to 1994.

The French role in the anti-RPF campaigns and more so, its critical support  functions to events leading to Rwanda’s greatest tragedy-the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, is a matter of great controversy.

French officials during the RPF campaigns never overcame their deep-seated antagonism to the RPF as just another ‘anglo-saxon’ trojan horse in their African preserve-the zone referred to as Francophone Central Africa.

The French opposition to an RPF victory was such that they were willing to encourage their protégés in Central Africa to do anything, including genocide, its perpetration, ideology and export from Rwanda and into Zaire, to stop it.

But the RPF war machine had developed an unstoppable momentum and Kigali saw the emergence of a new regime which had no connection at all to the Francophonie.

Kigali’s menu of complaints against Zaire

Zaire with the support from France would not agree to arrest officials accused of genocide who were taking shelter in the Kivu refugee camps. On the contrary, the genocidaires were refreshingly candid about their next steps.

They were going back to finish the work they had not quite completed. Thanks to the unanticipated opportunity provided in substantial part by France, they could now begin re-organizing themselves from Zaire and elsewhere.

The kivu refugee camps was thus the new power base for the genocidaires and in broad daylight and with total Zairian and French backing, they shouted in a laud manner how they were going to invade Rwanda in a concerted bid to take back Rwanda to the Francophonie fold once more.

Sheltering the genocidaires

The Rwandan crisis more so the grave issue of dealing with the genocidal enterprise which had been exported  to Zaire immediately shifted the Congo-Rwanda relationship into a heightened conflict  phase from the previous one which was based on the Francophonie romanticism.

The restoration of the Mobutu regime, with the installation of the Kengo government in July 1994 came at the time of a regime change in Kigali and the genocide in Rwanda.

It also coincided with the time of France’s intervention in Zaire to erase the traces of its own role as an accessory to the larger genocidal enterprise that was now straddling the Zaire-Rwanda border.

Having supported the Habyarimana regime and trained its genocidal machine, the French were relieved to have in Kinshasa a regime that would let them permit the Rwandan killers, both soldiers and militiamen, to cross into Zaire with all their weapons intact.

The fact that these killers were now free to use Zairian territory to launch raids into Rwanda, and to slaughter Tutsi citizens and other residents in their new host country of  Zaire, provided the new authorities in Kigali with the biggest item among a host of complaints it haboured against Mobutu and his kleptocrasy.

What is apparent from this policy move by Mobutu was that with growing opposition to his kleptocrasy, he saw an opportunity to regain the initiative arising from this deadly Rwandan political crisis.

He accepted to host the refugees on Zairian soil and thereby became a partner to international aid organizations which had gathered to provide assistance.

The move also allowed him to regain some respectability, at least in the eyes of the French who once again embraced him. At the same time, however Mobutu took the unfolding events and the accompanying inflow of Hutu extremists to instigate hostilities towards the Banyamulenge, a people of Tutsi origin who had lived in eastern Congo for generations.

In October 1996, the governor of South Kivu ordered the Banyamulenge to leave their homes within a few days. The new authorities in Kigali had an even greater grievance on their hands.

The Hutu militia used the refugee camps in Kivu as a base for attacks against Rwanda. Helped by Mobutu, they became a serious threat to the new government’s security.

The Kivu refugee Camps

Well before the genocide had even been halted, two million mostly Hutu Rwandans – an impossible number to grasp – were stranded as refugees in neighbouring Zaire, their status and future anything but clear.

Some had actually been herded out by the genocidaires, using them as human shields for their own escape, while most others, terrified by a combination of perceived retribution by the RPA and hysterical genocidal power propaganda, gratefully sought refuge from the advancing troops.

Would they want to return? Could they be trusted if they returned? Could they trust the new government? Could the new government cope with the needs they would generate? What about the large numbers of genocidaire leaders who had escaped into the camps?

Between 14th July and 18th July 1994, over 850,000 Hutu walked across from north-western Rwanda into Goma, a small town in the Kivu district of eastern Zaire. In terms of scale, rapidity and concentration, this exodus seems to have had no competitors anywhere.

But right from the beginning, a disastrous policy decision was made: The refugees were camped just over the border from Rwanda.

Not only did this violate the 1969 OAU Convention on Refugees that calls for refugees, for reasons of security, to be placed at a reasonable distance from their country of origin, it provided the exiled genocidaire leaders a perfect jumping-off spot for their raids back into Rwanda.

The authority of the central government everywhere in Zaire was problematic; in the east of the country, the region around Lake Kivu, it was on the verge of disintegration.

Only a few NGOs were present, and they were caught completely unprepared. So was UNHCR. Their contingency planning was based on an influx of 50,000 refugees. As a result, the Goma exodus turned into a nightmarish debacle.

The few resources were quickly overwhelmed. The shores of Lake Kivu, made of almost impenetrable volcanic lava, could not have been more inhospitable; beyond the lack of food and medicines were the problems of proper latrines, shelter, and clean water.

After a week there were 600 deaths per day, after two weeks 3,000; and within the first month of their arrival, as many as 50,000 refugees had died, 30,000 of them from cholera in the Goma camps.

Thanks to their use of terror and intimidation, the camps in eastern Zaire were effectively under the control of the Ex-FAR, Rwanda’s former armed forces now turned rebel force and its genocidaire infested militia, who effectively hijacked the distribution of a significant amount of humanitarian aid.

In a real sense, the refugees who wanted to return home to Rwanda were quasi-hostages. This was widely understood, as was the determination of the genocidaire leaders to return to power in Rwanda. Yet none of this deterred most of the NGOs from working hand-in-glove with the genocidaire leaders.

Most people also knew the tricks of the genocidaire leaders: they routinely inflated the numbers in the camp to get larger rations, monopolized whatever share pleased them, and sold the rest to finance further political or military operations across the border. This was common knowledge, yet most aid agencies believed they had little choice.

As a result, many NGOs became in practice caterers to the genocidaires. In practice, they were dependent on the military, meaning the genocidaires controlling the camps to carry out their humanitarian mission – if it is possible to reconcile the two concepts.

Some provided food supplies to camps that were explicitly military, on the grounds that humanitarian aid did not take sides. Some of them hired known war criminals as assistants and helped to ensure their families were fed and received health care. Even a full year later, little had changed, one US NGO reporting that, ‘Too many international NGOs in Goma...continue to employ Rwandan individuals who are strongly suspected of participating in...mass murder... In many instances, the genocidaires were well known and easily identified’.

A rump genocidal state

None of these elements were genuine refugees by most accepted definitions of the term. By international and OAU law, a refugee by definition cannot resort to violence. Neither can those guilty of crimes against humanity be considered refugees.

Humanitarian agencies do not define as refugees those who take up arms against the regime from which they fled. None of these considerations, however, deterred the UN, the international NGOs, most western states, and most media from routinely describing the settlements as ordinary refugee camps.

In fact it was impossible for even the most uninformed among the NGOs not to know the truth about the camps: They constituted a rump genocidal state on the very border of Rwanda.

As early as 3rd August 1994, only two weeks after the new government was sworn in, a report from the UN Secretary-General noted that, ‘It is known that substantial numbers of former Rwandan government forces and militia, as well as extremist elements suspected of involvement in the genocide are mingled with the refugees in Zaire and are reportedly trying to prevent their return’.

Later that month a UNHCR official declared: ‘We are in a state of virtual war in the camps’.

In October, senior UNHCR officials, led by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who had understood early the need to separate the armed elements in the camps, began warning publicly and urgently of the risks if the status quo prevailed.

A December 1994 UN report stated that, ‘Former soldiers and militia men have total control of the camps....They have decided to stop, by force if necessary, any return of the refugees to Rwanda....

It now looks as if these elements are preparing an armed invasion of Rwanda and that they are both stockpiling and selling food aid distributed by humanitarian organizations in order to prepare for this invasion’.

Observers reported that, ‘A common sight at the entrance to each camp...was a Mercedes saloon, still sporting Rwandan licence plates, full of men in dark suits and sunglasses, handing out huge piles of cash to young camp thugs’. Whoever disagreed with the leadership were simply killed, a sure way to deter returns to Rwanda.

The genocidaire leaders and their fronts had ready access to the media of the world, which effectively gave them a monopoly as the authentic voice of the Hutu people. Not for a moment were they contrite about their past deeds or secretive about their future plans.

The intention to attack Rwanda was openly, boastfully, proclaimed. At the end of December 1994 the genocidal President and Prime Minister, Theodore Sindikubwabo and Jean Kambanda, publicly proclaimed a new government-in-exile in Zaire and called for preparations for a renewed war.

The consequences were at least foreseeable. The refugee camps were quickly militarized, security for real refugees deteriorated swiftly, and raids targeting Tutsi began across the border into Rwanda.

The stage was set for a contest which would usher in the peak of the conflict phase   between Rwanda and Zaire.


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