Since April the Democratic Republic of Congo has been engulfed in civil strife. In recent weeks a rebel group, M23, has made striking gains, capturing Goma, capital of the DRC’s North Kivu region, where fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people.
The M23 rebels are widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, a country which borders the DRC. What appears to be an internal African conflict, involves western government. Britain is a major donor to both the DRC and Rwanda, where British bilateral aid trails only the US. Rwanda’s budget is heavily aid dependent.
Judging the ‘overall evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23 in the DRC to be credible and compelling’, last Friday the International Development Secretary Justine Greening justifiably took the decision to cut £21m of direct UK government support to Rwanda.
That action should on the face of it have an impact. More than 48 per cent of Rwanda’s budget is funded by donors. The European Union, the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have already suspended aid to Rwanda – the World Bank will not put forward further requests for money to its board, fearing it is financing the rebellion. Whatever Rwanda’s government says about being able to manage, this will have consequences for a country still recovering from the 1994 genocide.
But the main impact will be felt by Rwanda’s poor. Britain will restrict aid that has contributed to lifting 1m Rwandans out of poverty in the past five years. Cutting back on aid is less likely to materially change the direction of Rwanda’s involvement in the neighbouring DRC.
Aid is being used to as an attempt to put Paul Kagame on the political rack and force him to withdraw support for M23. Instead we are likely to see the limits of the influence of aid as a tool of influence. The Kivus represent a new and unsettling kind of political economy in Africa where the scramble to control mineral and energy resources amidst weak and failing states is creating much more powerful imperatives than aid flows. The region is poor, under-governed and far away from the country’s capital Kinshasa yet rich in minerals like tin, gold, cobalt and most importantly colombo-tantalite or coltan, which is vital for mobile phones. The DRC is home to between 60 and 80 percent of the world’s coltan reserves. The Kivus are a microcosm of the crisis that mineral wealth is inflicting upon Africa.
The province of North Kivu has been the epicentre of war in the DRC. It has generated over two dozen armed groups over the past decades, often controlled by local elites in Kigali and Goma seeking to further their business and political interests. In the case of M23, their links to Rwanda and particular have been well documented by the UN Group of Experts report, which uses everything from satellite footage of foot trails used by militia roaming across the Congo-Rwanda border, to variations in local language to reveal soldiers’ true identities.
Yet the ultimate aims of M23 remain inscrutable. The exact nature of their ongoing relationship with Rwanda is unclear. And it is not just Rwanda, which has an active interest in this conflict; Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola are all also involved. Whatever the guilt of Rwanda the broader issue is how to make the Eastern Congo a viable prosperous and well governed entity rather than a honey pot of mineral wealth amidst a power vacuum that all sorts of chancers will always try to fill.
After each of the four major Rwandan linked incursions into the DRC since the 1990s there has been talk of an economic development plan and indeed some kind of loose open market that allows the free movement of goods and people. This seems the only way to channel the demographic pressures of an overcrowded Rwanda on the edge of the half empty Kivus, that is a mining and gem dealing magnet for the region, away from conflict to commerce.
It also might allow a political stability to to take hold which would reduce the risk of disgruntled Hutu rebels reorganising in order to take the fight back into Rwanda against a regime they still oppose. Only when the vacuum of governance in the Kivus is solved will Rwandan meddling end. In the meantime aid suspension is a bit of a sideshow except for those in Rwanda’s schools and hospitals who will quickly feel its absence.