Rwandan forces fired at a military aircraft from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on Tuesday for allegedly violating their airspace. This incident contributed to the escalations of tension occurring between the two African nations, leading to the Congolese government accusing Rwanda of an ‘act of war’. The rebel M23 offensive that broke out in Congo last year contributes much to the strained relationship between the two nations.
- What Happened?
- What is the M23 Offensive?
- How is Rwanda involved?
- What Next?
A Sukhoi Su-25KM jet, flying the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo Air Force was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Lake Kivu, on Tuesday the 24th of January. Lake Kivu is a waterbody which demarcates the border between DRC & Rwanda – one half on each side.
A widely shared video on Congolese social media channels display possible evidence of this incident, which shows a projectile shooting towards an airborne military aircraft – but exploding near the plane. The video however has not been verified by sources.
Rwanda justified its action by stating that the Congolese jet was flying on the western side of Lake Kivu, which falls within their territory and is thus a violation of its airspace.
Congo denied the accusation of violating Rwandan airspace, and gave a statement which indicated that the Rwandans fired on the jet flying on the eastern side of Lake Kivu, which is within Congolese territory. It also confirmed that the plane had landed in the Congolese city of Goma, without suffering major damage.
Congo responded to the accusations by escalating tensions and describing their neighboring country’s move as,
“A deliberate act of aggression that amounts to an act of war.”
The ‘act of war’ in Congo’s estimation, is to undermine a recent agreement of peace that was reached to put an end to the ongoing offensive by the insurgent M23 rebel group in Congo.
What is the M23 Offensive?
In the March of 2022, The March 23 Movement (M23) launched an offensive in North Kivu province of Congo – which led to a clash with the Congolese army – Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) & the local UN Peacekeeping force MONUSCO.
The M23 rebels are primarily deserters of the FARDC who had previously waged an unsuccessful rebellion in the same region as members of the CNDP group, between 2012 – 2013, but were defeated by FARDC & MONUCSO and made to dismantle after signing a peace deal.
Most of the rebels were moved into refugee camps in Uganda. Despite the deal, hostilities continued, and by 2021 the rebels managed to flee the camps and organized themselves with the aim of launching a full scale offensive in Congo. They decided to continue the insurgency by relaunching the offensive in March 2022 – claiming that the peace deal was not honored by Congo.
The fighting that ensued, and is still continuing – has led to the displacement of about 4,50,000 civilians, and escalations in regional rivalries. One such instance is the renewing of tensions between the Democratic Republic of Congo & Rwanda.
How is Rwanda involved?
Congo, alongside the UN & Western powers have accused Rwanda of backing the M23 Offensive in eastern Congo.
Rwanda denies any direct involvement. However the following are the reasons under which it is presumed that Rwanda has been backing the Offensive –
First, Rwanda was openly in support of the 2012 M23 rebellion, alongside Uganda. As Uganda has become closer to DR Congo over the years – Rwanda remains the only possible backer for the rebels who struggled for international recognition and support before resuming the insurgency.
Second, UN Security Council researchers have conducted IMINT (Image Intelligence) research through photo & drone footage to confirm the presence of individuals in Rwandan uniforms among the rebels – which also allowed them to draw a correlation between that and the increased professionalism among the group which previously operated on guerilla tactics.
The same team of researchers also found visual proof of M23 rebels armed with Rwandan weaponry. Congo also managed to detain two Rwandan soldiers while fighting with M23 rebels, but the accused nation claims that Congo carried out cross-border operations and abducted the soldiers to pull Rwanda into its conflict.
Third, the M23 agenda is largely ethnic – and coincides with Rwanda’s ethnic interests. The M23 group justified their offensive as a way to defend the Kivus Tutsi minority from attacks by Hutu militants, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The DR Congo government is said to work alongside the Hutu militants, but Congo denies such claims.
The racist paramilitary FDLR group took part in the Rwandan Genocide, which saw a wipeout of the Tutsi community in Rwanda. The current Tutsi regime thus sympathizes with the interests of the Kivu Tutsi.
Finally, The country’s possible support for the M23 can be due to a Congo-Uganda alliance in the region. A bilaterally strong Uganda & Congo would go against Rwanda’s interests, as it finds itself geographically, strategically and economically locked between them.
Due to these reasons, the majority of the international community believes that Rwanda is backing the M23 Offensive, and does not want it to conclude – in order to continue destabilization of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This has also led to countries like the US to impose sanctions on Rwanda.
The heightened tensions have led to casualties and injuries on both sides, albeit nothing major to trigger a war, yet. A few months back the DRC expelled Rwandan Ambassador Vincent Karenga, as well as recalled the Congolese ambassador in Kigali – thus deteriorating diplomatic relations.
The recent incident brought the mention of an ‘act of war’ from authorities in Congo, concerning experts, regional stakeholders and citizens alike. Authorities in Congo show full intention to retaliate, and say they won’t ‘let the incident go’.
Rwanda on the other hand accuses Congo of multiple breaches of its airspace, stating that this incident was the third of its kind and is testing their patience. Congo counters it by saying that Rwanda is leading a misinformation campaign against Congo, and is attempting to undermine peace processes.
Despite the peace deal that was brokered in November, the M23 rebels have not yet moved back, and Congo blames its neighbour for it.
As Congo denies of its involvement with FDLR, and Rwanda does the same with its alleged involvement with M23 – bilateral de-escalation is less likely to happen anytime soon.
While the international media focuses heavily on Russia-Ukraine conflict, and multilateral forums like the African Union & the UN fail to bring the two countries to reduce hostilities – experts believe that, without international mediation, the Congo-Rwanda situation can turn into a serious conflict that will plunge Eastern Africa into further instability.