Rwanda’s relations with Congo are defined by the genocide, in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu death squads. In the face of international inaction, Kagame, then-leader of a Tutsi-dominated rebel army, beat back the genocidaires, many of whom fled to Congo with millions of Hutu refugees, where they were sheltered in camps set up by international aid groups. For Kagame and the Rwandan government, the legacy of that experience—of genocide and international apathy, then the injustice of seeing the perpetrators still at large and benefitting from foreign assistance in Congo—was formative. Not only could Rwanda not rely on an international community that had proved itself so irrelevant in Rwanda’s hour of need, the country decided it would henceforth disregard international will if it felt its security was threatened.
At home, that prompted Kagame to propagate an ideology of laudable self-reliance. Aid was only accepted if humanitarian groups allowed themselves to be absorbed into government programs and private enterprise—this policy, not foreign donations, would be Rwanda’s path out of poverty. The result has been spectacular economic growth over the last decade that, at times, has outdone China. Abroad, however, that same dogged guarding of Rwanda’s national interests prompted Kagame to repeatedly intervene in Congo, supporting Tutsi-dominated militias in their fight against Hutu Rwandans and, on several occasions, sending the Rwandan army over the border, as well. Kagame argues that such aggressive foreign policy was necessary to prevent a recurrence of Africa’s Holocaust. While that desire is undeniably understandable, there is no doubt also that Rwanda’s interference in Congo sparked that country’s 1997-2003 civil war, in which tens of thousands were killed in fighting and millions more died from related hunger and disease. Equally, there is no disputing that Rwanda’s continuing intervention in eastern Congo adds to the instability of what is already an extremely fragile state.
Over the years, Rwanda has also come to face allegations that its motives are as much commercial as defensive. Eastern Congo is rich in minerals and the ownership of mines is frequently determined by military strength. “Armed groups closely linked to Kigali have been occupying this part of eastern Congo since 1996,” says Jason Stearns, a Congo specialist at the Kenya-based Rift Valley Institute and author of the Congo history, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. “With them has emerged a political and business complex, people who could stand to lose if those networks are eroded or dismantled.”
The latest suspicions of Rwandan interference in eastern Congo were sparked in late April when former rebels from the Tutsi-dominated and Rwanda-supported National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), who were integrated into the Congolese national army as part of a 2009 peace deal, staged a mutiny. (The rebels called themselves M23 after the date of that deal: March 23). Their commander, Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes (ICC), including the use of child soldiers. The ICC also convicted his former boss, Thomas Lubanga, of similar charges earlier this year.