Rwanda has come out with fighting words against the joint United Nations/Congolese mission in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday after cross-border shelling resulted in the death of at least one Rwandan civilian. Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo’s warning that Kigali would not ignore the “provocation” and would “not hesitate to defend our territory” marks an escalation in Rwanda’s rhetoric on the conflict and, amid reports that its troops are beginning to cross the border, raises concern that Rwanda may openly enter the fray in the eastern DRC.
Kigali has made no secret of its consternation over international efforts to route M23 rebels operating in the eastern DRC, a group it has long been accused of supporting. With the recent deployment of an international intervention brigade, equipped with one of the strongest mandates ever granted to a U.N. force, the M23 are facing a fight for their existence — and jeopardizing the position of their main sponsor in the resource-rich region. However, Kigali’s long-standing denials over its support for the rebel group make any criticisms of the U.N. mission an awkward undertaking — which might explain why Thursday’s cross-border incident has been seized on with such ferocity by the government of Paul Kagame. The pretext offered by the threat to Rwanda’s security is better than most to condemn the mission and works as a potential justification for Rwandan direct involvement.
The immediate denials over responsibility for the incident on Thursday by both Kinshasa and the U.N., which claimed that the shelling came from rebel-controlled areas, also raises the possibility that Rwanda may be doing more than passively reacting to events as they unfold. Whatever its provenance, it is enough for Rwanda to dangle the threat of its intervention to put the U.N. and its neighbors on notice. And the threat of Rwandan intervention in the DRC is not one that can be taken lightly given the historical context; Rwanda’s last invasion of the country in 1998 marked the start of a five year conflict that pulled in several other African nations and became one of the continent’s bloodiest. Explaining the obvious anxiety of some diplomats, who are now worrying about a possible “doomsday scenario” in the region.
Neighboring Tanzania, a major participant in the U.N. brigade, revealed its wariness over the potential for escalation on Thursday, asking Uganda to help it repair frayed ties with Rwanda. The overture came after Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete drew fierce criticism from Kigali over earlier remarks calling for multi-party talks with various rebel groups in the DRC. Kigali’s response remains to be seen but if its rapidly waning patience with the political situation next door — no doubt in no small part due to the coming elections back at home — is any indication, it might not be in any mood to play nice. A day after singlehandedly blocking U.N. sanctions on M23 members, it seems Rwanda is done beating around the bush; while it may not have abandoned the pretense that the M23 is operating independently of its government, they are making almost zero effort to maintain the diplomatic facade — an ominous sign.