Congolese Journalist: It’s Time to Stop Negotiating with Rwanda

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 26 Feb 2024

Ann Garrison | Black Agenda Report – TRANSCEND Media Service

Congolese burn an American flag in Kinshasa to protest US support for Rwanda and its war in the country’s northeastern provinces. Screenshot: Reuters video

21 Feb 2024 – Rwanda’s M23 militia and Rwandan Special Forces have been advancing on Goma, the capital city of North Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I had a Zoom conversation with Congolese journalist Akilimali Saleh, who is based in Goma.

Ann Garrison: Akilimali, do you feel safe talking about the security situation there in the northeastern DRC?

Akilimali Saleh: I’m not feeling safe as a journalist, but as a journalist, I have the duty to tell what is going on here. I have the duty to give testimony, I have the duty to give voice to all people who are suffering, to tell what actors here locally are doing. The world has to know, and this is my job.

AG: Could you describe the situation where you are there in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province?

AS: North Kivu Province right now is in the worst situation because the M23 have taken around 90 percent of the territory of Rutshuru, the territory of Masisi and Nyiragongo, and now they are very near Goma. They are all around Goma right now, because to the East, you have Rwanda, which is the founder of M23. In the north, you have the M23 at around 25 or 30 kilometers away. And in the west, you have them at around 35 kilometers away. They are controlling all the roads which connect to Goma. So people are feeling really unsafe.

The humanitarian situation is terrible because there are millions of people who have left their homes and their villages, and are now internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Goma, and we all fear that Goma will be taken by M23. The pressure keeps growing, and people are terrorized by the situation.

AG: How large is Goma? How many people live there?

AS: In Goma we have around 2 million people who are living here every day, but with this situation of the war, we have maybe  as many as 5 million because we have around 3 million who are in IDP camps or staying with relatives here. So there are around 5 million people in Goma who are now surrounded by M23, and there is no way to move to another town or another area because M23 controls all the roads in and out.

AG: So there are 2 million permanent residents of Goma, and 3 million IDPs ringing the city?

AS: There is no public number published by NGOs because it’s quite difficult to come to a number, but this is the estimate of many observers and experts.

AG: But whatever the precise number, there are far more IDPs than there are permanent residents.

AS: Exactly.

AG: And how are these people surviving?

AS: I don’t know if I can say they are surviving rather than dying slowly because there is no water in many areas. There is no food, there is no shelter, there is not anything for them. The government is not helping much, and NGOs are not able to give a lot of support.

For example, in my last interview with an NGO with the World Food Program, they said that they are now able to help around 1.5 million people with a little food and some cash, but it’s not nearly enough. And the situation keeps getting worse and worse.

There is also some community action, led by local organizations who are organizing some support, some collection of food and things, but as you said, the number of permanent residents in the city is lower than the number of IDPs, and most Congolese families aren’t wealthy; they don’t have a lot to give to help, so it’s a really dark situation for the IDPs.

AG: Could you explain the M23, the military force that has the city surrounded?

AS: M23 forces say that they are fighting for the liberation of DRC, but the fact is that they are a Rwandan movement created by Rwanda. But some Congolese who are in prominent positions, like spokesperson, try to give them a Congolese identity; they lie and say that they are Congolese.

AG: Isn’t M23 essentially a division of the Rwandan army?

AS: Yes. There are many soldiers and they are using heavy weapons that can be only used by a government. If they were just a Congolese rebel group, they couldn’t have this many soldiers or this much training, advanced weaponry, and communication equipment. We don’t know the precise number right now, but there are many soldiers, many thousands of soldiers  from Rwanda here in DRC. They are also bombing from helicopters, and even the Congolese government doesn’t have this kind of equipment. There are not only Rwandan weapons, but also Rwandan Special Forces participating in this operation.

AG: What is M23 trying to accomplish by driving all these people from their homes and then surrounding Goma? What is their goal?

AS: We know that they want to control the resources of this region. That is one thing for sure. Otherwise I don’t know because they don’t speak a lot about their ultimate plan. They often say they want to have a discussion between Kinshasa and Kigali with some results but we don’t know what those are except that they’re promoting a Rwandan agenda.

AG: Do you think that Rwanda is trying to annex the Kivu Provinces? It’s been said before that they would like to annex the Kivus and make them part of Rwanda, much as Israel would like to annex Gaza.

AS: We don’t know if this is their immediate agenda, but M23 are continuing to take control of more territory.

We know that there are many foreign countries, including Rwanda and European countries and the US, who are supporting balkanization. They want to see Congo divided into many parts, and those parts would be taken by other countries, including Rwanda.

All I can say for sure now is that Rwanda is looking first of all for minerals: mostly for gold, coltan, and cassiterite, especially in Masisi and Rutshuru Territories.

AG: Do you think these millions of IDPs will ever be able to go home? I know that many of them have been living in camps for many years.

AS: The IDPs can’t leave Goma now because M23 is in control of all the roads and in control of most of their villages as well. If the M23 take Goma, for sure they cannot leave. This will be very difficult for them and for everyone here in Goma.

AG: The United States, the State Department, basically ordered Rwanda to withdraw its troops. What do you think about that?

AS: I think the United States government is doing a kind of PR. They make speeches, but there is no real action. The United States, as the top supporter of Rwanda, has more power to stop this war by telling Rwanda to stop, but it seems like they are only making PR speeches.

If the United States said that if you don’t withdraw your troops, we won’t give you any more money, then Rwanda would withdraw its troops. But for now, it’s only talk without any real action.

AG: Right now, people here understand that President Biden could pick up the phone and tell Benjamin Netanyahu to stop Israel’s war on Gaza. He has the power to do that. Do you believe that if President Biden picked up the phone and actually told President Kagame to stop, to withdraw, that this war and occupation would be over?

AS: Exactly, exactly. President Biden could decide to do that for history, for Africa, for Congo, for the democratic and humanitarian values that are the official policy of the United States. If he made that call to President Kagame, I think this war would stop in a few days. President Obama did that in 2013, but the result was only temporary.

AG: What do you think of the South African Development Community (SADC) deployment  of Tanzanian, Malawian and South African troops to fight M23?

AS: I think that this is important help. This is an important deployment. It’s very helpful because those soldiers are more trained than the Congolese Army, which could learn from them, especially about the use of heavy weapons.

Let us see what they will do exactly on the ground. We hope that they will fight alongside the Congolese until the last centimeter of the DRC is liberated from the hands of the M23.

AG: This seems to be a replay of what happened in 2013. In 2013 SADC deployed under UN auspices, and with the leadership of Colonel Mamadou Ndala Moustapha and the Congolese army, they drove M23 out of Eastern Congo. But then nothing changed. There was a peace conference, a so-called peace conference. It didn’t make any sense because Congo had won the war. So why would you negotiate with the people who lost the war?

Howard Buffett, the American billionaire, paid half a million dollars for the various parties to the war to meet in Uganda. Even though Uganda was one of the aggressors, Uganda was supposed to be a mediator. It was absolutely ridiculous. And then they produced a document. I fished up the document while the rest of the press just turned away like it was over, and the document said that M23 would get everything they’d demanded . Do you remember this?

AS: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And this is why right now, Congolese people are saying that there should be no dialogue. The first dialogue is like the fifth dialogue with Rwanda. And now there is no solution through dialogue. No matter what is discussed, they’re always coming back after and saying they didn’t get what they were promised. That is why people are saying that we should fight to drive them out of Congolese territory.

This is also why there are a lot of demonstrations in Kinshasa. We’ve been having demonstrations against the US and other countries who are supporting Rwanda and who keep talking about the need for dialogue. Congolese feel that the government is acting in the interest of these foreign governments who keep calling for dialogue.

It seems like there is a status quo. Dialogue, war, dialogue, war dialogue, war, and the Congolese feel we have to stop this and stop this pointless dialogue with M23.

AG: That is what it looks like from outside as well, a cycle of dialogue and war.

AS: Yes, and the only thing that changes is that Rwanda’s M23 gains more power. They control some ministries in the local government in the east, and then those guys have more money. They own companies enriching themselves here. We put them in the government, in the strategic institutions in the country. And this happens again and again and again.

So The Congolese want to stop this cycle.

AG: I remember the agreement  signed on March 23, 2009, which ultimately gave M23 its name. According to the agreement, members of the National Congress of the People (CNDP), the Rwandan militia that had been fighting in Congo and terrorizing Congolese people, was to be integrated into the Congolese army and government. It was essentially a concession of territory and military and administrative power that shocked all the Congolese people I knew at the time.

Then the Rwandans who had integrated into the army broke away and started fighting again in 2012, calling themselves M23 for the day that the document was signed in 2009. They said that they hadn’t been given everything they’d been promised. Then that peace agreement that was signed in 2013 said they’d get everything they’d been promised in 2009 even though Congo had won the war. And now M23 are fighting again.

AS: Yes, that’s what happened. And now you have some people who are in the army who are sending information to Rwanda about Congolese military positions, about weapons, about numbers of troops. This is really an occupation of our own army.

But the Congolese say that this has to stop. This is what Congolese are trying to do, even if they aren’t getting a lot of support from the government or from the international community, including the US and UK, countries who are giving a lot of money and support to Rwanda.

AG: Rwanda has been fighting in DRC, violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity, for decades. Why hasn’t the DRC’s army, the FARDC, crossed the border to fight Rwanda?

AS: Rwanda is a country protected by the international community. There is a double standard in the treatment of these two states. Because of the 1994 genocide, any Congolese military response across the Rwandan border would be condemned, and Western countries would even intervene on Rwanda’s behalf. Geopolitics do not allow the Congo to fight in Rwanda for the time being, but the more aggression against the DRC increases, the more the DRC will find itself with only one solution, attacking the problem at its source. In other words, attacking Rwanda.

AG: Do the Congolese people there in Goma trust the government to be acting in their interest?

AS: No, no, no, because the Congolese people, especially in the east, do not trust the government since the government is first of all respecting what foreign countries expect of them, not what the Congolese people expect of them.

This is why there are a lot of demonstrations around the area.

AG: Demonstrations against the foreign powers?

AS: Yes. Exactly. Demonstrations against the foreign powers, where the people destroy and burn their flags and protest around their embassies.

AG: And you think the interest of those foreign countries is to balkanize the Congo?

AS: Yes, but it’s complicated. They are planning to balkanize the Congo, but we can’t tell whether they want it immediately or sometime in the future. Do they want it after a few years or more? We don’t really know.

AG: Is there anything else you’d like to say to help the Western audience, most of all the American audience, understand this?

AS: US citizens and all international audiences should know that millions of people have died in this conflict that has gone on for decades. This is the most lethal conflict since the Second World War. There are around 10 million people who have died in the eastern DRC in this conflict. Many of them died slowly of displacement and disease.

And it’s not an internal conflict like international media suggest. It’s an economic war against Congolese to take minerals. Countries, including Western countries, are using neighboring countries to destabilize DRC because when DRC is not stable, it means that they will have more natural resources, more minerals exploited for almost nothing. This is how US, European, and Chinese companies produce their iPhones and computers and electric cars. This is how Apple and Microsoft and Tesla and others can get cheap minerals to manufacture this technology which helps Western and Asian societies to develop and grow and feel safe.

AG: Do you think China is as responsible as the US and the rest of the West?

AS: No, I can’t say that, because China is a new actor in Africa and in DRC. China is not a power like the UK, France, Germany, or the US. China has some responsibility for sure, because it’s also an important country involved in this area, and it is controlling some companies here, but most of the countries who are financing this war are from the US and Europe.

AG: Akilimali, thank you for speaking to Black Agenda Report.

AS: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about what is happening in DRC.

AG: We’ll talk again.

AS: That sounds good.

_______________________________________________

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Stanford University and is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. In 2014 she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison, ann@anngarrison.com.

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