Hostilities between Tshisekedi and Kagame persist as M23 advances in Eastern DRC

  • Tshisekedi accuses Kagame of supporting the M23 rebels, destabilizing the DRC and exploiting its resources.
  • The M23 rebels’ resurgence has led to attacks in North Kivu, displacement of civilians, and loss of control over valuable resources.
  • Tshisekedi aims to regain control over North Kivu, eliminate M23, and restore sovereignty and economic stability to the DRC. 
President Kagame meets with President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the second day of the 32nd Ordinary Session of the African Union | CC BY 2.0 by Paul Kagame

Why is Tshisekedi in hostile towards Kagame? 

Answer: Tshisekedi’s hostility stems from Kagame helping the M23 rebel group. 

Tshisekedi, the current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),  blames the Rwandan government and its military forces for providing financial support, training, and equipment to the March 23 Movement (M23) rebels. This group, largely composed of ethnic Tutsis, was previously part of the rebel organization known as the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The CNDP fought against the Congolese army between 2006 and 2009, concluding with a peace agreement. However, in 2012, a faction of these rebels chose to break away, believing that the government was not honoring the terms of the deal.

In the same year, in November, M23 forces advanced in the northeastern Congolese region of North Kivu and captured its capital city, Goma. However, they withdrew from the city by the beginning of the following month after Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president at the time, brokered a deal between the DRC government and M23. Afterward, the group remained dormant until 2021 when they resurfaced and expanded once again in North Kivu.

This resurgence has only fueled tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali, particularly given the scale of the recent expansion. Although M23 had not captured Goma as of now, they have on the other hand seized control of the two main roads leading to the city. They have brought the conflict to the cities’ gates, notably attacking the Mugunga refugee camp on May 3, 2024, located not too far from Goma. Additionally, the group now controls the Rubaya mines, the largest coltan mines in the country. 

The Congolese Ministry of Mines has accused Kigali of profiting from M23’s exploitation of the mines, alleging that tons of coltan have been transported from the DRC to Rwanda by the rebel group. Moreover, they have accused Kigali of selling these raw materials to conglomerates such as Apple, thereby profiting directly from stolen resources from the DRC.

What does Tshisekedi want? 

Answer: He desires to regain control over the region of North Kivu. 

Tshisekedi’s primary goal is to re-establish sovereignty over the entirety of his country. To achieve this, he needs to eliminate the M23, regain control over the regions and borders, and solidify his influence throughout the country. It is not just a question of sovereignty but also of the country’s economy. North Kivu is very valuable to the DRC economy, as it is rich in coltan, gold, and copper. With M23 controlling these resources, the DRC cannot benefit from them. 

Additionally, the conflict has resulted in one million people being internally displaced, creating a large population of refugees and impoverishing the region. On top of that, approximately 25 million people in North and South Kivu are vulnerable to food insecurity which further harms the country’s economy. This is why Tshisekedi is determined to regain control over the eastern regions, particularly key strategic locations such as the Rubaya mines.

In addition to the economic aspect of the conflict, Tshisekedi needs to eliminate the M23 to maintain his grip on power. In last year’s election, one of his key promises was to eradicate the rebel group using force. So far, this has not been achieved, and more of the DRC’s territory has been lost, rendering his position very fragile. On May 19, 2024, opposition leader Christian Malanga, along with some military forces, attempted a coup to oust President Tshisekedi. Although the coup failed and resulted in Malanga’s death, it underscores the necessity for Tshisekedi to regain control over the country.

What does Kagame want?

Answer: Kagame wants protection for the Tutsi minority and to gain control over North Kivu’s resources. 

While Kagame officially denies any relationship between the Rwandan military forces and M23, the United Nations has stated that this is not the case. Indeed, in 2022, the UN Security Council published a 131-page report detailing how their experts had found proof that the Rwanda military provided M23 with reinforcements. Following this analysis, there are two main reasons why Kagame supports the rebel group: First of all, he is himself part of the ethnic Tutsi minority.  Secondly, Kagame was formerly a commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and fought to put an end the Rwandan genocide. 

This background pushes Kagame to support rebels from the same ethnic group as himself, particularly since this rebel group has vowed to protect the Tutsi population against the DRC armed forces. In addition, Kagame sees the M23 group as a way to protect Rwandan interests in eastern Congo and defend Rwanda from the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), an armed rebel group whose members include alleged perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In addition to security matters, Kagame is interested in having M23 control North Kivu because Rwanda directly profits from the Rubaya mines and their resources. This has become an even more lucrative enterprise since the price of one kilogram of coltan has increased from $30 to $70 since M23 took over the mines. Rwanda is not only profiting from the coltan trade but also from other minerals such as gold. In fact, in 2023, Nicolas Kazadi, the DRC’s finance minister, explained that his country was losing around $1 billion due to unsold minerals smuggled out of the country, notably by M23.

What is Tshisekedi doing? 

Answer: He is using a multitude of strategies to stop the M23 forces. 

In order to get rid of the M23 rebel group,  Tshisekedi is employing different methods. First of all, he has allied the DRC’s army with Congolese militia groups, now referred to as “Wazalendo” since the resurgence of the M23 group. The term means “patriots” in Kiswahili, highlighting their new status as part of the Congolese military alliance rather than just militias. 

On September 3, 2023, a decree legalized the presence of these militias within the Congolese army. This move has not only increased the country’s military forces but also garnered support for Tshisekedi. Indeed, these forces have advocated for votes in favor of Tshisekedi’s re-election in 2023.

Secondly, Tshisekedi is seeking international allies, as demonstrated by his visit last month to French President Emmanuel Macron. This visit resulted in Macron announcing further French investment in the DRC could be expected in the near future.

Additionally, he promised that the French Minister of Armies would soon visit the DRC to help consolidate the country’s sovereignty and support initiatives in terms of training. Furthermore, since the end of last year, Tshisekedi has secured assistance from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission to restore peace and security in the country. This mission comprises various military forces from countries in the region, including South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania. 

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer: Kagame as his country is profiting from the conflict without much repercussion. 

Currently it would seem that Kagame is the winner of this conflict. His country is benefiting largely from the trade of minerals from North Kivu. Moreover, there have been no real consequences for Kagame’s involvement with the M23 group. Although the US State Department asked for the government of Rwanda to investigate last May’s attack on the Mutunga Camp and “hold those responsible accountable” no further actions have been taken. Not only that, but the conflict has not halted bilateral agreements between the European Union and Rwanda. In fact, in February of this year, the EU agreed to a deal between its member countries and Rwanda which would ensure a supply of precious minerals. 

The possibility of war between the DRC and Rwanda has increased this year, raising questions about its potential outcome. While in 2012 the international community had rallied around the DRC, with the UK withdrawing aid from Rwanda, a decade later, it is possible that Kagame cares less about damaging Rwanda’s image. 

The world has changed significantly, and the level of international attention and pressure that once influenced Rwanda’s actions may not be as effective today. Global conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza, along with the EU’s internal challenges divert attention away from the issue. Moreover, the UK’s possible deal to send migrants to Rwanda gives Kagame more leverage and less fear of risk of international intervention, leading to a potentially more aggressive stance in the DRC.

Roxane de Bergevin

Research & Analysis Member