It is no secret that Rwanda has been behind 26 years of catastrophic war and occupation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ever since its invasion, alongside Uganda, in 1996.
Uganda’s crimes get far less press than Rwanda’s, but they are well-documented in decades of UN experts’ reports.
This is a blatant violation of international law, but MONUSCO, the longest, most expensive peacekeeping operation in UN history, has failed to stop it despite billions of dollars spent.
In 2013, after UN Security Council reports clearly documented that top Rwandan and Ugandan military officials were commanding the M23 militia in DRC, the UN launched the “Force Intervention Brigade,” which drove M23 back into Rwanda and Uganda. However, Western-engineered “peace talks” then handed the territory that M23 had occupied right back to them. Colonel Mamadou Mustafa Ndala, the Congolese hero who had led the successful military campaign, was assassinated shortly thereafter.
This evidenced that the war and occupation were working out just fine for the world’s major powers, whose corporations were all benefiting from their deals to buy minerals smuggled out of DRC through Rwanda and Uganda. These same powers welcomed the latest stage of this operation, DRC’s integration into the East African Community (EAC), despite the fact that Rwanda and Uganda are members. The Democratic Republic of the Congo acceded to the EAC Treaty on April 8, 2022, and became a full member on July 11, 2022.
Then, in another illogical development some months later, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi allowed East African Standby Forces into the DRC to fight M23 and other militia groups. The East African Standby Forces include troops from Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. President Tshisekedi himself said, “The mission is delicate, as some countries are suspected to be part of the armed groups,” but without naming the countries.
I spoke to Dr. Jean-Claude Maswana, Congolese economist and professor at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, about the integration.
Ann Garrison: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not part of East Africa. It’s the heart of Central Africa. Does it make any sense for it to join the East African Community?
Jean-Claude Maswana: Geographically, the DRC is not part of East Africa, and in the past no one speculated or explored the idea of it joining the East African Community. It is both a central African and southern African nation, and it makes no sense for it to join the EAC, which includes the very countries that have invaded and looted its resources—most of all Rwanda and Uganda. The historic context that you provided highlights the damage that these two countries have done in the DRC, including the violation of international law and the exploitation of its mineral resources.
So how could joining the EAC possibly serve the DRC’s sovereignty and interests? Why would it do anything but perpetuate the exploitation and injustice?
The very same firms and countries benefiting from the looting of DRC’s minerals also welcomed its integration into the EAC, making it even more likely that the agreement will simply perpetuate the exploitation and injustice.
AG: So this does not make any sense for the Congolese people, but apparently it made sense to President Felix Tshisekedi and other officials. Why would that be?
JCM: To understand this, one thing we have to look at is how President Tshisekedi came to power. The 2018 Congolese presidential election was stolen for him.
That election should have taken place two years earlier, but then President Joseph Kabila and his ruling party clung to power by telling the Congolese that the country lacked the necessary infrastructure to hold a nationwide election. This simply reflected their own failure to build the transportation and communications networks essential to a modern domestic economy and political system, and the Congolese people knew this.
Kabila’s candidate, Emmanuel Shadary, so clearly lost the election that Kabila couldn’t steal it for him. The Congolese people no doubt voted to reject the Kabila regime as much as anything else, not to elect a Kabila collaborator.
AG: I remember that the Catholic Church took great pains to monitor those election results and concluded that Martin Fayulu had won, as was reported by The New York Times, but Kabila apparently struck a deal with Tshisekedi, who had most likely come in second.
JCM: That’s right. President Tshisekedi therefore came to power without the people’s mandate and had to seek legitimacy elsewhere. He and former President Kabila reached an arrangement with then Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to validate his presidency. Kagame was at that time the president of the African Union, so his support carried particular weight.
This political arrangement no doubt has something to do with Tshisekedi’s bizarre decision to bring DRC into the EAC.
AG: Does this legitimize the illegal mineral trafficking?
JCM: Many observers see this as a strategic move to legitimize the illegal mineral trafficking and divert attention from demands that Rwanda and Uganda be held accountable for their immense crimes in the DRC.
As the DRC government was gearing up to formally join the EAC, DRC officials rejected concerns about Rwanda and Uganda. It was obvious that the DRC’s membership in the EAC would undermine efforts for justice, transparency and sustainable development, but they didn’t care. For the most part they don’t represent the Congolese people.
AG: Is there any evidence that Tshisekedi and the other DRC officials you refer to are benefiting financially from this irrational integration?
JCM: There is no definitive evidence, to the best of my knowledge. But given the widespread embezzlement of public funds, large-scale money laundering, and licit/illicit trafficking in minerals—to which the Tshisekedi family is deeply associated—it is hard to rule out the idea that the DRC officials are financially benefiting from this irrational integration.
AG: It’s been reported for years that Rwandans and Ugandans, but especially Rwandans, have actually infiltrated the Congolese government and army. Sometimes elements of the government and army are referred to as “Rwandaphone,” indicating that their sympathies and interests are with Rwanda. Do you believe that that affected this decision?
JCM: That is likely to be the case.
AG: What has it ultimately meant for DRC to join the East African Community (EAC)? Is the EAC a common market like the European Economic Community?
JCM: The European Economic Community, or Common Market, established in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, primarily focused on economic integration among influential industrial nations. Its core objective was to foster economic cooperation and eliminate trade barriers like tariffs, quotas and licenses to import or export.
The EAC also creates a common market. This means that they share the same economy, which means that Rwandan and Ugandan companies will be operating in the DRC as Congolese companies do, without tariffs, quotas or licenses. There will not be any national distinction when it comes to business or markets. It’s a regional economic integration scheme.
Unlike the EU Common Market, however, which facilitated integration among manufacturers, the EAC predominantly represents an integration of nations which still depend on foreign capital and lack significant domestic production capabilities. Foreign capitalists are looking for natural resources, many of which have in the past been looted from the DRC by its neighbors Rwanda and Uganda.
The EAC also serves as a platform for collaboration across various sectors, aiming to boost economic and infrastructure development within its member states but, given Rwanda and Uganda’s history of aggression, the downside is far greater than any potential upside to this for DRC.
AG: Does the integration mean that Rwandans and Ugandans who had been running illegal mining operations in DRC can now have paper making them legal?
JCM: Yes, now they can secure paper.
AG: But we still hear reports of looting. How should we understand that?
JCM: Looting remains the cheapest means of exploiting DRC’s resources. It will not disappear overnight. It will not disappear without the presence of a functioning state in DRC.
AG: This membership in the EAC also hasn’t stopped the horrific violence either. If anything it seems to have gotten worse in the past year, since DRC joined the EAC. Why is that?
JCM: That was expected. The aim of joining the EAC was not to ease or end violence in eastern DRC. No objective observers and analysts expected such an ill-advised decision to somehow end the violence.
AG: But if they now have paper, why are they still fighting and massacring Congolese people? Is this because they have actual territorial ambitions in DRC?
For years I have heard that Kagame would like to drive Congolese out of the Kivu Provinces, populate them with Rwandans, and then hold referendums on whether or not those provinces would like to leave DRC to become part of Rwanda. This would be consistent with the massacres that have driven millions of Congolese into refugee camps, and reports that Rwandan settlers have followed the Rwandan militias. Is that what’s going on?
JCM: In part, yes. The violence in eastern DRC is multifaceted. Kagame’s agenda or dream to wipe out the population in Kivu, as crazy as that may sound, would not have materialized if the DRC had decent leaders. What Kagame can do in the DRC would be impossible for him to do in Burundi, for example. The leadership deficit in the DRC has no precedent in African history. It is a sad truth that cannot be denied.
AG: In the press there is far more emphasis on Rwanda’s aggression than Uganda’s, though both have been occupying and plundering the DRC since 1996. Why do you think that is?
JCM: The difference has to do with both the scale of the plunder and killings. Numerous UN Experts Reports indicate that the scale of the plunder of the DRC resources by Rwanda involve mostly precious metals whose value is higher than those exploited by Uganda.
Also, in reports such as the “UN Mapping Exercise Report” on crimes committed in the DRC 1993 to 2003, most of the massacres identified were committed by Rwandans.
Of course, Rwanda and some others deny that Rwanda has ever done anything in the DRC that deserves condemnation. Astonishingly, the current Tshisekedi government suggested that what has been happening in the DRC is “collateral damage” that should be blamed on the Congolese people themselves.
AG: Now what about this bizarre deployment of East African Standby Forces, including Rwandan and Ugandan troops, to, they say, quell the violence in eastern DRC? How could this make any sense?
JCM: It doesn’t. Who would imagine that Ugandan and Rwandan troops would stop their own troops disguised as Congolese armed groups? Why would Rwanda—which has one of the most powerful armies in the EAC—let the EAC fight and neutralize its own troops operating as M23? How does it make sense to expect Kenyan troops to engage and neutralize the M23 armed groups [Rwandan troops] while those Kenyan troops and their military equipment are entering the DRC via Rwanda, whose troops are in fact M23? The security situation could only get worse as the perpetrators were officially brought into the eastern DRC and thus allowed to strengthen their presence and operations.
AG: Is it conceivable that DRC could get out of the EAC now that it’s in?
AG: How has the international community responded to Congo’s integration into the EAC and creation of the East African Standby Force?
JCM: As expected, with less to no interest.
AG: When we talk about “the international community,” we typically mean North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, which make a lot of hypocritical noise about their liberal values and concern with human rights. But does what you just said apply to Russia and China? Is there any difference in Russia and China’s interactions with the DRC?
JCM: None, as far as I can tell.
AG: Uganda and Rwanda, and especially Rwanda, are known to be aggressors in the DRC, but you have also mentioned Burundi and Kenya. Can you tell us what role Burundi plays?
JCM: Burundi was part of the initial invasion in 1996-97 and has since been part of the problem in eastern DRC. There are Burundian militias operating on the DRC side of the Rwandan and Burundian border, but they are not working with the Rwandans and Ugandans and are not nearly as great a problem.
AG: Can you tell us about the role that Kenya plays in all of this?
JCM: Kenya is an EAC member country and is both economically and politically close to the current regime in Rwanda. Many observers consider Kenya as an arm of Rwanda in the region. Whenever Kenya acts as a political broker in DRC issues, the “invisible hand” of Rwanda seems to be behind it.
AG: Rwanda and Uganda are often at odds and skirmishing on their two borders. In 2008, Rwandan and Ugandan militias famously waged war over the diamonds in Kisangani. Can they nevertheless be understood to be working in tandem to colonize DRC?
JCM: Yes, their bilateral differences do not distract them from their shared agenda in the DRC.
AG: You say the international community was glad to see Rwanda and Uganda’s looting of eastern DRC legitimized, but what have they had to say about the ongoing violence?
JCM: First, the DRC is not Ukraine. It’s not a white, European nation. So, nobody is expected to care that much about what is happening there. Second, even the DRC government does not care about the ongoing violence. Third, following the DRC government, which has been unwilling to officially declare war against the EAC invaders, the international community has released some statements of good intentions and expressed wishes that the violence stop.
AG: I want to ask about the Allied Defense Forces (ADF), a militia operating in the DRC, across the border with Uganda but far less well-known than M23. This group had vanished for years when it suddenly reappeared, causing many to doubt its reality, and it’s often paired with stories that ISIS is in DRC, which seems absurd because the population is nearly 96% Christian, and only 1.5% Islamic. This group has been the excuse for Ugandan troops to enter DRC, just as the FDLR has been the excuse for Rwanda. What do you make of the ADF and the claim that ISIS is in DRC?
JCM: As you rightly pointed out, it is clear that the so-called ADF has no claim [religious or political] in the DRC and must have been created to serve the territorial and economic ambitions of neighboring countries, particularly Uganda.
AG: At the same time that we hear about Rwanda and Uganda’s violence in eastern DRC, we hear about the horrific exploitation of Congolese laboring in the cobalt mines in southeastern DRC, far from the Kivu Provinces. They’re reported to work for as little as $1/day, as artisanal miners, in brutal and poisonous conditions. Is this a problem separate from the foreign aggression in the Kivus?
JCM: It is not a separate problem as far as the exploitation of the DRC’s mineral wealth is concerned. The modus operandi is just different.
AG: What could the government do about the exploitation in the cobalt mines?
JCM: The DRC government’s officials are mostly part of the problem, as most of them benefit from the illegal exploitation and traffic of cobalt. Nevertheless, in normal circumstances the government should enhance its law enforcement capabilities to crack down on illegal cobalt mining and exploitation. This includes investigating and prosecuting those involved in violence, labor abuses, and illegal mining operations, regardless of their positions. Also, the government needs to take strong action against corrupt officials involved in illegal cobalt mining and forced labor. Moreover, it can be considered the creation of independent oversight and auditing bodies to monitor the mining industry’s activities and ensure compliance with regulations. This can help identify and address illegal practices and human rights abuses.
AG: And what about the international community, including both China and the Western powers?
JCM: The international community, including China, could take a strong stance against impunity, corruption and bribery involving cobalt mining in the DRC if the moral will existed there. Putting in place strict sanctions against firms and individuals, including officials and their family members acting on their behalf, could deter some of the inhumane practices taking place around the cobalt exploitation and traffic. Also, encouraging ethical business practices and accountability could help reduce the influence of corrupt officials and entities in the industry.
However, ultimately, only the Congolese people can reclaim their right to their own resources and to a decent life for all.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for promoting peace through her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. She can be reached on Twitter @AnnGarrison and at ann(at)anngarrison(dot)com.