Rwanda ditches its man in the Congo

January 26, 2009
In the dock: Laurent Nkunda
In the dock: Laurent Nkunda

Many will have been surprised to have learned of the Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's arrest last Thursday; most of all probably Nkunda himself. He was arrested late on Thursday night in a joint operation involving Congolese and Rwandan troops, and is being held in Gisenyi, a resort town on Lake Kivu bordering Goma, a city he nearly captured just a few months ago.

There are many versions of the story surrounding his capture. The Congolese army announced that he was arrested in Rwanda, after trying to fight the advancing Congolese and Rwandan armies. The UN said he was arrested in Congo, and that there was no fighting. Bertrand Bisimwe, spokesman for Nkunda's rebel group, dismissed both stories, claiming Nkunda had entered Rwanda for a meeting with Rwandan officials, and was nabbed—or tricked—in the process.

But one thing is clear: Rwanda, in one of the most dramatic policy reversals in recent memory, has turned on a man it had backed for years.

Until Thursday, Nkunda was generally regarded as Rwanda's man in Congo: acting as a buffer against Hutu fighters who fled to Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and who have vowed to topple current Rwandan President Paul Kagame (a Tutsi). In Nkunda, Rwanda had an effective gun for hire and sent him weapons, cash and fighters accordingly. But in the end it seems he became too much of a liability.

As I have reported in Prospectrecently, the past six months in eastern Congo have not been pretty, and Nkunda's fighters bear much of the blame for this. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced and on one particularly gruesome day, more than 100 civilians were found executed in a town called Kiwanja, a slaughter the UN blamed on Nkunda's troops. For Rwanda, a country that is heavily subsidised by the west and relies on the goodwill it enjoys around the world, the widely-held belief that Nkunda was nothing more than a Rwandan proxy was becoming increasingly problematic.

And so, in an extraordinary U-turn, Rwanda decided to ditch its man on the ground and team up with Congolese government forces. In return for moving against Nkunda, Rwanda has been allowed to enter Congolese territory to hunt down remaining Hutu genocidiares. It may seem extraordinary that Rwanda and Congo, previously bitter rivals, have managed to cooperate in joint military operations for an entire week without incident. And who knows how long it will last. But, as Tim Butcher pointed out in December's Prospect, Rwanda is the Israel of central Africa; it will do whatever it takes to survive.