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The Great Lakes’ Grand Alliance

Colette BRAECKMAN, 21 April 2009

In Africa’s Great Lakes region, fifteen
years removed from the genocide,
shadows still loom large. Although
most Rwandans have returned to a life
of normalcy, thousands of Hutus have
remained in the Democratic Republic
of Congo (DRC) where they are led
by veterans of the 1995 genocide in a
group called the Democratic Forces for
the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). For
fifteen years they have fought in a series
of wars that have devastated the DRC.
Established in North and South Kivu, in
the eastern part of the country just across
the border from Rwanda, the FDLR,
besides being hostile to the Rwandan
government, have been a menace to
the DRC’s population as well: taking
control of many of the region’s valuable
coltan mines, confiscating harvests, and
submitting the local female population
to sexual and domestic slavery.

General Chaos

The presence in the DRC of armed
Hutu groups like the FDLR was,
ostensibly, the raison d’être of a Tutsiled
Congolese military force whose
rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, was a
former general who refused to bow to
the DRC’s government in Kinshasa and
enter into the fold of the Congolese
army. His movement, the National
Congress for the Defence of the People
(CNDP), controlled a 200km strip of
land along the border with Rwanda.
The CNDP recruited its members from
the Congolese who are Kinyarwanda
speakers (both Hutus and Tutsis),
from refugee camps, as well as from
demobilized Rwandan soldiers. Nkunda
had many friends and admirers within
the Rwandan armed forces, in which he
had previously fought.

At the end of 2008, General Nkunda
constituted a real threat to the RDC’s
president, the democratically elected
Joseph Kabila. By this time, Nkunda
controlled a swathe of territory twice
the size of Belgium while he welcomed
an increasing number of Western
emissaries and forced Kabila into
negotiations.

Strange Bedfellows

At the beginning of this year, the
situation turned on its head. Joseph
Kabila, along with his opposite number
in Rwanda, Paul Kagame, agreed to
unite their efforts and neutralize their
common enemies by launching a joint
military operation called Umoja wetu,
or Our unity.

Why this sudden agreement between
two men who recently admitted that they
had not spoken in months? Pressure.
Kabila’s star was fading amongst the
Europeans, who were upset over the
9 billion-dollar/10 million-tonne copper
mining contract the DRC negotiated
with China. After which, no European
country felt especially inclined to send
a military force to Kivu to help shoulder
some of the UN’s load there in protecting
civilians. On the African front, normally
friendly countries such as Angola were
hesitant to fight alongside a Congolese
army that was seen as ineffective and
unreliable.

If the Kabila administration in Kinshasa
was isolated and vulnerable, so too was
Kagame’s in Kigali. Holland, Norway,
and Sweden, after a report from the UN
highlighted the support Nkunda received
from— and in— Rwanda, threatened to
suspend their cooperation with Kagame
and freeze European aid. Besides
tarnishing the image of Rwanda, Nkunda
was also becoming a little too popular
amongst Rwanda’s Francophone Tutsis,
who he was playing off against the
Anglophone Tutsis— former refugees
from Uganda.

Further ratcheting up the pressure on
the capitals was an insistent message
received from Washington. Barack
Obama personally urged Kabila and
Kagame to find some common ground,
end the chaos in long-suffering Kivu, and
sort out the FDLR.

The first feelers went out in December.
Rwanda’s Chief of General Staff, James
Kabarbe, went to Kinshasa, while General
John Numbi paid a visit to Kigali. Under
the strictest of secrecies, they prepared
an operation that took everybody by
surprise— most notably the UN mission
in the DRC.

Right up until the end of February, the two
countries’ militaries combed North Kivu,
dismantling FDLR positions and severing
their lines of communication. Thousands
of rebels capitulated, returning to Rwanda
to be registered and re-assimilated into
society. Most notably, the operation resulted
in the arrest of Laurent Nkunda, who was
returned to Rwanda, while his former
chief of staff, Bosco Ntaganda, agreed to
integrate the CNDP into the Congolese
army. The collaboration of Bosco Ntaganda
with Kinshasa, however, has provoked an
outcry amongst human rights organizations
because of an outstanding International
Criminal Court warrant for war crimes.
President Kabila has thus far refused
to extradite Ntaganda, intimating that
between peace, the security of his people,
and international justice, he would save the
latter for last.

In a matter of days, the rebel movement,
which had already begun setting up a
parallel administration, was flushed out and
the authority of the DRC reestablished itself
throughout the province. President Kabila,
in a grand gesture of symbolism, then
convened his council of ministers in Goma—
a city formally threatened by Nkunda.

Diplomatic relations between Rwanda and
the DRC have continued to improve; plans
are in motion to appoint ambassadors
and set up consuls. If the peace holds
between these oft-embattled neighbours,
thereby guaranteeing the safety of civilians
and allowing for the return of the more
than one million displaced people in
North Kivu, it would be the best news the
region has received in fifteen years. Will
the bloody page of history on which the
1994 Rwandan genocide is written finally
turn to reveal a new chapter of peace and
prosperity in this, one of Africa’s richest
and most dynamic regions?

Colette Braeckman is a journalist with
the French-language Belgian newspaper
Le Soir and a frequent contributor to Le
Monde Diplomatique.