Rwanda’s Kagame Gets Another Chance for ReconciliationThe surrender of General Paul Rwarakabije and several of his loyalists to Rwandan armed forces two weeks ago in Kigali presented strongman Paul Kagame with a new challenge. Quicken and intensify negotiations with rebel troops or ignore them at your own peril. Through his smile, Rwarakabije, who commanded the exiled Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) across the border in Congo, raised the ante for Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated government, which has been fighting the Hutu rebel force since 1994. “Negotiate,” he seemed to say as he embraced James Kabarebe, chief of staff of the Rwandan Army, upon arrival in Rwanda’s capital Kigali.
Hiding across the border in the Kivu region, the FDLR is primarily composed of Hutu elements of the pre-1994 genocide Rwandan army, including the infamous Interahamwe militia. FDLR fighters have been accused of killing 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Their presence in the region and the threat they present provided Kagame’s army with a justifiable ground to invade eastern Congo, setting off what analysts dubbed Africa’s first world war. Yet, seven years of Rwanda’s involvement in Congo has only exacerbated the already tenuous situation in the Great Lakes region, but has yielded no security for Rwanda.
Rwarakabije’s surrender raises an important question. Why has Rwanda not aggressively and fully negotiated peace with its foes? Rwanda has been an impediment to peace and a burden to regional progress since the genocide occurred, weighing heavily on all of its neighbors who face their own challenges. The government in Kigali should invest more in a political solution in its dealings with the 15,000 men-strong FDLR. As Congo embarks on its own transition to democracy, Uganda fights its war against the Lord’s Resistance Army and Tanzania slowly strengthens its democratic institutions, Rwanda should not only rely on war rhetoric for its security, but rather create the proper environment would encourage more FDLR fighters and other dissidents to return home and reintegrate society.
Rwanda’s preemptive operations in Congo to squash FDLR amount to a failure both militarily and politically. Instead of peace, these operations backfired and generated reports of looting, plundering, rape and mass-murder by Rwandan troops and their proxies, effectively undermining Rwanda’s argument for invading its neighbor. One certainly wonders whether Rwandan officers were indeed searching for FDLR combatants or looking for gold.
Kagame squandered a unique opportunity for true reconciliation in August when he did not promote transparency and respect for the opposition in the so-called first democratic elections since independence. Amidst protests from opposition parties, European Union observers and Amnesty International, he won 95 percent of the votes. Such level of popularity is reminiscent of Mobutu, Houphouet-Boigny, Bongo and Eyadema, but provides little room for democracy and reconciliation in a nation that desperately needs both.
Rwarakabije’s surrender provides another chance to the Kigali government to show initiative and leadership in solving a problem that only Rwandans can solve. The international community continues to lend its support for justice for the genocide through the tribunal in Arusha. A constant flow of economic and military assistance helps revive the economy and build a strong defense. What has lacked in past and current governments is a serious commitment to political solutions in order to build a Rwanda that would accommodate Hutus, Tutsis and Batwas alike.
The Kigali government should seize this moment and provide more incentives for FDLR troops caught up in the mountains of Congo and unsure of their fate to come home. Congo is soon to proceed with its massive Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration or Resettlement (DDRRR) program as a step to national peace. FDLR fighters face very gloomy prospects; either go home and face justice or hunker down and fight or starve to death. Congo, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania cannot guarantee Rwanda’s ethnic harmony or security. These countries have already paid a stiff price for Rwanda’s problems. Kagame is a man of tremendous resourcefulness who has shown great capabilities on the battlefield. The time has come to translate those skills to the political stage and rely on diplomacy and negotiation for a lasting legacy of peace in Rwanda and the Great Lakes. Failure to seize this opportunity will make Rwanda a permanent threat to the entire region’s stability.
The writer served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for six years. He has worked as radio broadcaster at the Voice of America's French Service to Africa and at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa.