An M23 soldier guards weapons returned by the government‘s army in Goma city, November 21, 2012. Reuters/James Akena
At first, the latest awful news from the Democratic Republic of Congo sounds like just another installment of an ongoing saga common in the Western media, “Vicious African Tribal Factions Hate Each Other.” Several thousand armed predators who call themselves the M23 Movement and are inappropriately described as “rebels” have just seized control of Goma, a regional capital, and the renewed fighting is adding to a death toll that has already risen above 5 million since the Second Congo War started in 1998.
Most mainstream Western press reports are treating the upsurge in violence as a purely local or regional dispute, and the conflict may seem incomprehensible to outsiders. In fact, the tragedy is by no means a merely African affair. The outbreak of fighting is also the result of a colossal failure by US foreign policy–makers dating back to the mid-1990s, aided and abetted by an ill-led United Nations peacekeeping force that stood by as the M23 seized Goma.
Rwanda borders DR Congo to the east, and is deeply implicated in the renewed fighting. Two UN investigations this year have already found that Rwanda is sustaining the M23 force; the most recent UN report, in October, charges that M23 is actually ultimately commanded by Rwanda’s defense minister, James Kabarebe. Observers in Goma are reporting that M23 is armed with sophisticated weapons, including 120-millimeter mortars and night-vision goggles, which the group could not have acquired on its own.
But ever since Bill Clinton’s presidency, American officials have been mesmerized by the post-genocide leader of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Over the past three administrations, US leaders, along with certain American journalists, have repeatedly and consistently overlooked or made excuses for Rwandan crimes.
Rwanda boasts that its economic growth is turning it into a prosperous high-tech nation, an East African Singapore. In fact, the country is still poor, and 40 percent of the government’s budget is foreign aid, which could give the United States, Britain and other large donors tremendous leverage. But despite the persuasive evidence earlier this year that Rwanda was behind M23, all the Obama administration did was cut a token $200,000 in military aid. In 2011, total US aid to Rwanda was $107.2 million; the 2012 figure is slated at $196.4 million.
The M23 armed group is dangerous. A September report by Human Rights Watch found it guilty of “summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment” in the areas of eastern Congo that it already controlled before it conquered Goma. Human Rights Watch added that “Rwandan officials may be complicit in war crimes through their continued military assistance to M23 forces.”
Visitors to Rwanda today are understandably impressed by the reconstruction since the 1994 genocide. Government agencies work efficiently, streets are clean, and investment is pouring in. The Millennium Village project in the Bugesera district of southeastern Rwanda is making significant advances in health and education, in what could be a model for other poor countries.
These unquestionable achievements hide a more sinister reality. Rwanda first invaded the DR Congo in 1996, saying it intended to destroy the former genocidal killers who had been launching attacks while hiding in refugee camps just inside Congo. But in retaliating, the Rwandan army went far beyond a legitimate need to protect its own people. Rwandan soldiers chased and slaughtered refugees deep inside Congo, as painfully documented in A Continent for the Taking (2004), a vital book by journalist Howard French, who was there (see also Tristan McConnell, “Rwanda’s Other Genocide,” The Nation, September 17, 2010).