DR Congo and Rwanda's FDLR rebels: Why Tanzania could end up eating leftovers

Tanzania's position on the FDLR rebels is puzzling, and it is putting far too much on the line - for benefits that are unclear.

THIS week could finally see the launch of a military offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the eastern DR Congo, after the rebel group failed to comply with a January 2 deadline to lay down their weapons and surrender or face military action and be forcefully disarmed.

The operation against the FDLR was initially meant to be a joint effort between the UN and the Congolese army, but last week it was announced that it would principally be carried out by the Congolese army – known by their initials FARDC (Armed Forces of the DRC) – with only logistical support, such as helicopter gunships, from the UN.

Reports indicate that UN’s withdrawal from the frontline comes after the Congolese army wanted to lead the offensive, but according to the UN’s own rules, its forces cannot be involved in fighting unless it is also commanding the operation.

That shift in command may seem like a small technical detail, but it has major ramifications for the success of the mission, and has serious regional implications too.

For one, the Congolese army itself has long been accused of providing arms, military support and intelligence to the FDLR.

A damning report in November by human rights organisation Enough Project revealed in detail how the Congolese army collaborates with the FDLR in profiteering from eastern Congo’s vast natural resources. (READ: How to finance your rebellion: forget ‘blood diamonds’, blood charcoal is the new thing)

The rebels’ biggest money maker at the moment is the charcoal trade, which they directly exploit from the Congolese forests and also levy taxes on local villagers involved in the trade.

The FDLR also has interests in gold mining, cannabis, illegal fishing and poaching in the region, whose proceeds they share with the Congolese army in exchange for the safe passage of goods.

Therefore having the Congolese army leading the offensive against their alleged business partners throws serious doubt on the success of the mission – it is more likely that the army will just make a feeble show of attacking the rebels, and retreat claiming they have been overpowered.

But the UN’s standing down also buys time for Tanzania and South Africa, the two countries making up the majority of UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the eastern DRC.

South Africa for the money

For South Africa “it’s just business, it’s not personal.” Under President Joseph Kabila’s administration, South Africa-DRC relations have flourished, and South Africa has become the biggest supplier of goods and services to DRC, providing more than 21% of the country’s imports.

As president, Kabila is commander-in-chief of the Congolese armed forces, and so it could be argued that ultimately, the army’s alleged support to FDLR can be traced back to him – it’s not lost on observers that Kabila’s primary support comes from the east, but he’s deeply unpopular in the west and in the capital Kinshasa.

In September, twenty-five South African companies visited DRC in search of investment and export opportunities, as part of a delegation organised by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The business delegation comprised companies in the agriculture and agro-processing, infrastructure, built environment, energy, mining and capital equipment, electro technical and medical equipment, solutions and supplies sectors.  

In 2013, South Africa gave a breath of life to the long-planned Grand Inga Dam project on the mouth of the Congo river; construction is scheduled to start this October.

South African power utility Eskom committed itself to buying more than half of the power – 2,500 megawatts – from the 4,800 megawatts generated by the first phase of the Grand Inga Hydro Electric Power complex.

In the mining sector, South Africa has so far been losing out to countries like China and Canada in securing mining concessions in the DRC; for example, 90% of the minerals extracted from Katanga province are exported to China.

 South Africa needs a stable DRC to effectively wield its “economic diplomacy”, and invigorate its own ailing economy.

And as the country with the most developed mining sector in Africa, South Africa sees itself as naturally having the most to leverage in Africa in order to profit from DRC’s minerals, without overtly looking like it’s there to loot and pillage – a charge that tainted the reputation of the other African armies in the Congo during the ‘African World War’ of 1998-2003, including Uganda, Rwanda, Angola and Zimbabwe.

Laundering FDLR

Tanzania has an interest in seeing a stable DRC as it has often had to bear the burden of hosting refugees. In northwestern Tanzania, the UN is hosting 100,000 refugees from the Congo basin, but that region of Tanzania is among the poorest and most marginalised in the country.

UNHCR says that local communities often feel threatened by the influx of migrants and the refugee situation is often played up for political gain.

Even so, Tanzania is in a particularly delicate situation, and unfortunately seems to have come up with the short end of the stick. It risks being left to eat leftovers after other players have had the banquet.  This is because putting its neck on the line far more than any other country in the region, and for benefits that do not seem commensurate with the risks.

In the first place, South Africa has the advantage of geographical distance, such that if things go wrong in the Congo, its domestic politics can remain relatively detached. Tanzania, however, shares a border with DRC over Lake Tanganyika, and continues to be directly affected by the happenings in the Congo.

But more importantly, Tanzania seems to have taken on the very difficult and unpleasant job – that of attempting to “clean up” the reputation of the FDLR.

The FDLR are considered the epicentre of the various groups marauding the eastern Congo, and several of its leaders were involved in perpetrating the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Tanzania’s foreign minister Bernard Membe has been quoted as referring to the rebels as “freedom fighters”, a position that is difficult to justify without re-framing the 1994 genocide – which Paul Kagame’s Rwanda considers genocide revisionism and denial, an extremely grievous crime. The fact that there is a vocal constituency arguing that Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) rebels, and subsequently troops, committed atrocities too during the war and in DRC, is probably not about to equalise the sins of the two sides.

Lost battle

Thus unless Kagame does something exceptionally egregious inside DR Congo, Tanzania will probably lose the PR battle, especially given that one its key allies, the US, has shifted dramatically to take a hardline against FDLR. 

The atrocities of 1994 genocide are so salient in Africa’s – and the world’s – consciousness that trying to “legitimise” the FDLR, who  continue to call for the extermination of the Tutsis, seems very likely to fail.

And more importantly, since the 2005 peace agreement in South Sudan – the Sudan conflict had become a vortex in the region, drawing in nearly the whole of the Horn of Africa – it has become increasingly out of date for a country to be seen to explicitly support rebels in a neighbouring country.

Furthermore, Tanzania doesn’t have much of the solid commercial interests in the DR Congo that South Africa, France, or Belgium do, making its position regarding the FDLR puzzling especially considering that it is a country with a history of being geopolitically astute.

In the words of the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell, it is seldom justifiable to embark on any policy that, though harmful in the present, will be beneficial in the long run, simply because the distant consequences of an action (a happy, stable DRC) are much more uncertain than immediate consequences (Tanzania’s image of a haven of pan-African liberation being decidedly tarnished by being seen to support genocidaires).

In any case with all these undercurrents, it is unlikely that the operation against the FDLR will succeed, or even be launched – sadly, it seems it is just better for everyone, except the Congolese people, for the situation to remain as it is.


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