At the first meeting of the Regional Oversight Mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for DR Congo and the Region on May 26, 2013, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete volunteered advice to the three governments with rebel groups operating inside the Democratic Republic of Congo.
he told Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to engage their respective insurgents in talks in order to resolve the region’s long-running armed conflicts.
No one seems to have paid attention to whatever the Kabila government said in response.
President Museveni of Uganda is reported to have expressed willingness to talk.
Rwanda, however, reacted angrily to what were termed “shocking” and “aberrant” remarks and reiterated its policy ruling out talks with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The FDLR is the current incarnation of several rebel groups formed over the years by people accused of planning and executing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
A “concerned citizen” writing on an official Government of Tanzania blog decried Rwanda’s “over-reaction” and called its leadership “delusional”.
Since then, Rwandans and Tanzanians have laboured to outdo each other in condemning each other’s governments while defending their own on social media. Meanwhile after the initial firestorm officials on both sides have tried to downplay the row, at least in public.
Like many Tanzanians, some of whom have been influenced by their government’s pronouncements on the matter, some commentators believe that President Kikwete gave his advice in good faith.
Like their “concerned” compatriot, Tanzanians I have spoken to believe that in its response the Rwandan government was unreasonable and demeaning of their president.
Acknowledge Rwanda’s efforts
However, ordinary Rwandans and government officials alike insist that President Kikwete ought to have known better. One official elaborated: “we are rebuilding this country on the bodies of hundreds of thousands of people killed by members of that group.
“Kikwete should have acknowledged the efforts we have made to resolve that problem. Over the years tens of thousands of ex-combatants who once belonged to the FDLR have been persuaded to return and are contributing to nation building.
“Some are in the army, including in very senior positions. It is the hardliners who committed genocide here and would like to come back and continue killing that refuse to return. No one should ask us to negotiate with them.”
According to media reports and some ‘experts’ on the region, problems between the two countries “started” with President Kikwete’s statement in Addis Ababa.
Informed sources in both countries contest those claims. The standoff, they maintain, stems from things that have remained largely unsaid, at least in public.
Sources in Kigali accuse some Tanzanian officials in high places of conduct that is prejudicial to Rwanda’s security. This, they maintain, is the background to Rwanda’s furious response to President Kikwete’s statement.
At the centre of the accusations are two groups: the FDLR, and the Rwanda National Congress of former Rwandan military officers now in exile, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, Colonel Patrick Karegeya and Major Theogene Rudasingwa.
In reports that give pause for thought, given that the three dissidents are ethnic Tutsis and therefore part of the community the FDLR is sworn to want to exterminate, the FDLR and the RNC are said to have long been engaged in efforts to join forces in pursuit of a common objective: the overthrow of the current government of Rwanda.
One may ask what this has to do with Tanzania or Tanzanian officials. Here the plot really thickens. According to intelligence sources, RNC officials have been regular visitors to Dar es Salaam, while UN sources point to at least one RNC official visiting the DRC to confer with the FDLR leadership.
Further, according to the same sources, FDLR operatives have long frequented areas of Tanzania bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, which they apparently use for smuggling weapons.
The Tanzanian border town of Kigoma is said to be a favourite haunt of theirs. Efforts to establish whether officials on both sides have discussed these claims were unsuccessful.
It is entirely possible that, given the porous nature of African borders, the FDLR sneak in and out of Tanzania without the knowledge of Tanzanian officials.
They could even be crossing into the country as bona fide travellers using whatever passports they carry. Be that as it may, relatively recent developments have raised the level of suspicion in Kigali.
Operations against M23
In early April this year, way before President Kikwete volunteered his advice, media reports started circulating that a top FDLR commander, General Stanislas Nizeyimana, also known as Bigaruka Izabayo, had disappeared while in Tanzania where he had been invited by the Tanzanian military, by then preparing to deploy troops in eastern DRC as part of the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade, alongside contingents from Malawi and South Africa.
Apparently, General Nizeyimana and Tanzania were discussing how the Brigade could conduct operations against M23, the rebel group fighting the DRC government in Kivu Province allegedly with Rwanda’s support, while avoiding confrontation with FDLR.
According to the reports, after several weeks in Tanzania, General Bigaruka disappeared in Kigoma as he returned to the DRC. Some media sources have credited Rwanda’s military intelligence with waylaying and abducting him.
Rwandan officials would neither deny nor confirm the reports. However, one who agreed to speak maintained that Bigaruka’s whereabouts were “irrelevant”, preferring instead to ask what Bigaruka was doing in Tanzania in meetings with officials of the Tanzanian government and military.
Tanzanian sources have confirmed that Bigaruka was indeed in Tanzania, with one saying he could still be there, “as a resource person for the army given his knowledge of the Kivus”. Wherever he is, however, if true, this saga would have been a factor in Kigali’s irritation at Kikwete’s advice.
Adding to Rwanda’s suspicion of Tanzania’s intentions is an interview Bernard Membe, the country’s foreign minister, gave to the Pan-African magazine,Jeune Afrique, while visiting France, way back in November 2012, when preparations to deploy the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade were already underway.
Although he spoke of the need for the FIB to be neutral, he also insisted on the imperative to recapture the territory “occupied illegally” by M23.
A Rwandan official noted: “Membe said absolutely nothing about the FDLR which for over ten years has been committing war crimes in the DRC and has been declared a terrorist organisation by the UN”.
As if to confirm that Tanzania is pre-occupied by M23 and not the FDLR, which the FIB is supposed to disarm, Assah Mwambene, the spokesman for the Tanzanian government, recently told the BBC: “we are determined to eliminate M23”.
He said nothing about what was in store for the FDLR, which Rwandan officials maintain has deployed troops within units of the DRC army with the knowledge of MONUSCO under whose auspices the Force Intervention Brigade operates.
With all this in the background, it is hardly surprising that when the Tanzanian government started expelling illegal aliens, the majority of whom are said to be Rwandans or of Rwandan origin, Kigali smelt a hidden agenda.
The Tanzanian government has emphasised, rightly so, that ejecting illegal immigrants is within the rights of any sovereign state. The timing, however, lends itself to a diversity of interpretations.
It remains to be seen whether President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has been asked by Tanzania to mediate will defuse the row whose causes go deeper than many have hitherto assumed.
(Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)