Could DR Congo’s Tshisekedi declare war on Rwanda if re-elected?

The DRC, Africa’s second largest country by size, has seen years of instability, part of which it blames on its tiny neighbour.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame (L), Angola President Joao Lourenco (C) and Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi
Rwanda President Paul Kagame (L), Angola President Joao Lourenco (C) and Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi (R) pose for a photograph in Luanda on July 6, 2022, as they meet for talks after an upsurge in violence in eastern DRC [Jorge Nsimba/AFP]

Polls closed late on Wednesday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as millions of voters turned out to vote in general elections held after tense and sometimes violent campaigns, amid a continuing war against the deadly M23 rebel group.

Some areas are due to vote on Thursday in elections seen as a test for DRC, which has only had one peaceful transfer of power due to years of instability.

One of those tense moments came on Tuesday as incumbent President Felix Tshisekedi, who is seeking a second five-year term, was speaking to his supporters on a final campaign stop in Kinshasa.

“I’ve had enough of invasions and M23 rebels backed by Kigali,” Tshisekedi screamed. “If you re-elect me and Rwanda persists … I will request parliament and Congress to authorise a declaration of war. We will march on Kigali. Tell Kagame those days of playing games with Congolese leaders are over.”

It was evidence of a further breakdown in the fractious relationship between the DRC and its tiny neighbour Rwanda.

Since the resurgence of M23 in November 2021, the scale of violence in the DRC’s volatile east has increased.  The mineral-rich region is home to more than 100 armed groups including M23 and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), fighting for dominance and brutally attacking civilians. Some seven million people have been displaced by the violence. Dozens have died.

Like the string of opposition candidates vying for the presidency including former Katanga governor and wealthy businessman Moise Katumbi, oil executive Martin Fayulu, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning gynaecologist Dennis Mukwege, Tshisekedi has promised to end the insecurity.

For the president, the deteriorating security situation is largely spurred by Rwanda, who Kinshasa believes is backing M23, created in 2012 from a group of mutinous soldiers. Sour relations with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame characterised Tshisekedi’s presidency.

On the campaign trail, the president constantly attacked Kagame, saying he had “expansionist aims” and comparing him with Hitler.

A regional rift

Tuesday’s comments escalated the situation to new heights as the president floated the possibility of all-out combat with Rwanda if re-elected, raising fears of a conflict that could destabilise East Africa.

While alarming, some analysts say Tshisekedi’s rhetoric is less geared at war but calculated to spur nationalistic fervour and gain more votes in the DRC where anti-Rwandan sentiment has become increasingly strong. But the consequences of such strong language, experts warn, could be severe.

“It plays well with the Congolese public to take a hardline stance against Rwanda … however, it’s going to pose a severe problem after elections,” Richard Moncrieff of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said. “Whether it’s Tshisekedi or another candidate who wins, the rhetoric around the elections is going to cause problems when it comes to regional diplomacy because they’ve taken the anti-Rwanda rhetoric too far.”

Tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali go back to the second Congolese war in the 1990s, when rivals Rwanda and Uganda fought proxy wars in eastern DRC, backing armed groups and seeking influence in the mineral-rich region. The DRC is one of the world’s largest producers of copper and cobalt and is endowed with precious elements like gold and diamonds. Due to instability and corruption, however, Congolese people benefit little from the wealth, and the country remains one of the poorest in the world. Those earlier wars, although officially over, are linked to the current conflict.

While Tshisekedi has said in interviews that he tried to keep relations cordial with Kagame, there has been bad blood between the two since the M23’s resurgence in 2021, 10 years after its fighters had gone underground. Kinshasa insists that the rebels –  who claim to be fighting for the rights of ethnic Congolese Tutsis and who control swaths of territory in North Kivu, are being sponsored by Kigali. A United Nations Security Council committee of experts, citing “solid evidence”, said last year that Rwandan troops aided M23 fighters.

Kigali denies the claims but has also counter-blamed Kinshasa for allegedly backing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a brutal armed group that has carried out raids in Rwanda in the past. The group is active in the DRC and has also attacked civilians there.

In February, Congolese troops exchanged fire with members of the Rwandan army in a border area as fears of a regional war rose.

‘The future is unpredictable’

There have been multiple efforts to end the war but none has succeeded yet.

The 14,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, deployed there since 1999, has been denounced by many Congolese as toothless and is now pulling out of the country. Similarly, regional soldiers from the East African Community (EAC) bloc which President Tshisekedi pushed to gain entry to last year, are also withdrawing in phases, having been deemed ineffective. Currently, President Tshisekedi is banking on the planned deployment of forces of the Southern Africa Development Community bloc – SADC.

Many Congolese in the affected provinces of North and South Kivu, as well as Ituri, say they are tired of the multifaceted war that has continued for about 30 years, and want lasting peace. Some say Tshisekedi has failed to secure the provinces and should be booted out of office, while others say he needs more time to fix things.

Analysts say Tshisekedi faces a strong, if fractured, opposition and is struggling to win back the popular support he once had. His fiery approach to Rwanda is being seen as an attempt to put him at the forefront of the minds of most of the 44 million voters.

But it could also point to the fact that the president might keep pursuing a combat-first approach if re-elected, despite setbacks reflected in the departure of the UN and EAC troops. Presently, the Congolese military is fighting the M23 alongside state-recognised rebels called the Wazalendo.

Albert Malukisa, dean of political science at the Catholic University of Congo, told Al Jazeera that a Tshisekedi win could spell trouble for the region without external mediation.

“Tensions with Rwanda could increase if there is no Western pressure, particularly from the USA, for a peaceful settlement of the conflict,” Malukisa said. “If the FARDC [Congolese army] does not succeed in protecting the national territory, the future is unpredictable.”

Although the DRC has tried to secure short-lived ceasefires with M23, continued combat with M23 alone cannot solve the issue in the DRC, Moncrieff of Crisis Group argues. Another approach is needed, he says.

“The more (DRC) throws their army and Wazalendo, the more pushback and costs borne by civilians and ordinary people,” he said. Even with SADC, it would be difficult to win against the M23 group, he added. “Kinshasa needs to work out another more realistic strategy.”

Source: Al Jazeera