South Africa is conducting a fairly delicate struggle with Rwanda, trying to choreograph and coordinate complex moves to manage the difficult and dangerous President Paul Kagame – on the hard streets of Johannesburg, in the polite halls of diplomacy, in the courts of law, and, by proxy, on the field of battle.
On Tuesday this week the terrain of this struggle moved to multilateral diplomacy in Luanda, where President Jacob Zuma once again attended a summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). South Africa is not a member of this body, but Zuma has become a sort of country member, having been invited to the last few summits as a special guest.
That’s because one of the main topics on the ICGLR’s current agenda is the conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And South Africa has a deep interest in that conflict because of the leading role it is playing in the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
The FIB, though formally part of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), is playing a much more aggressive role than the rest of MONUSCO in actively engaging and destroying ‘negative forces’ in the eastern DRC; the countless armed rebel groups that ravage the region. Comprising South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops – and effectively backed by South African Rooivalk attack helicopters – the FIB helped the DRC army to defeat the strong, Rwanda-backed M23 rebels late last year. That undoubtedly irritated Kagame.The FIB has since gone on to tackle other rebel groups, inflicting a serious defeat earlier this year on rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF–NALU), who come from Uganda. Recently, the FIB has begun taking on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which was established mainly by Hutus who fled Rwanda after participating in the genocide against Tutsis in 1994.
According to diplomatic sources, Rwanda evidently lobbied quite hard before the Luanda summit for the mandate of MONUSCO to be amended to weaken the robust FIB. This was not reflected in the official communiqué, or even, in the formal discussions among the presidents because the lobbying was unsuccessful, it seems – and so the summit unanimously backed the extension of the MONUSCO/FIB mandate.
If it is true that Rwanda tried to amend the UN mandate, this would raise some serious questions about Rwanda’s motives. Kagame has been meddling quite freely in the eastern DRC for 20 years. His explanation has always been that he is going after the FDLR because the DRC has either not done enough to neutralise this threat to Rwanda; or has actively collaborated with it.
At times Rwanda’s interference has been direct, but mostly it has been through proxies such as the M23. Yet the UN and others have credibly accused Rwanda of taking advantage of its presence in the DRC to plunder that country’s mineral wealth.
Now that the FIB and the DRC army are turning their attention to the FDLR – however slowly – Kagame might have been expected to welcome an extension of the MONUSCO/FIB mandate. Not doing so would suggest that what he really wants is not so much the neutralising of the FDLR, but simply to have a free hand to do as he chooses in the eastern DRC, regarding it as Rwanda’s ‘near-abroad.’
The other noteworthy event at the Luanda summit was that Zuma and Kagame had an open and frank discussion in front of their regional peers about the diplomatic spat that erupted earlier this month.
After at least the third attempt on the life of exiled, dissident Rwandan General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, South Africa expelled four Rwandan and one Burundian diplomat, accusing them of complicity in the plot to kill the former army chief of staff who fell out with Kagame in 2010.
Rwanda retaliated by expelling six South African diplomats, and this tit-for-tat game threatened to end with the complete severance of diplomatic relations.
But Pretoria took a deep breath and hit the pause button. Instead, according to officials, Zuma decided to seek regional backing for South Africa’s position that Kagame could not go around assassinating his opponents in other countries, as he had done elsewhere.
Zuma and Kagame frankly laid their cards on the table in front of their peers: Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, who was chairing the meeting; Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni; DRC President Joseph Kabila and Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso.
Zuma told Kagame that his government had evidence that his diplomats stationed in Pretoria had instigated the two unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Nyamwasa in 2010; the unsuccessful attempt at a South African government safe-house in Johannesburg earlier this month; and the murder of Nyamwasa’s friend Patrick Karegeya, the former military intelligence chief, in a Johannesburg hotel room on December 31 last year.
Kagame denied his government’s complicity, and retorted that his government had evidence that Nyamwasa and Karegeya had been plotting from South Africa to overthrow his government by force. He also repeated his government’s charge that the South African government had not responded to Kigali’s request to stop Nyamwasa and Karegeya’s alleged terrorist activities.
Zuma responded that as far as his government knew, the two exiles were merely conducting legitimate, peaceful political opposition to Kagame’s government, which they were entitled to under South Africa’s constitution.
As he later told the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), ‘Rwanda believes that they [Nyamwasa and co] are undertaking some action, and we as South Africa have an international obligation that when people come to us for refugee status, we've got to give [this to] them.’
And so it went. Eventually the summit agreed that South Africa and Rwanda ‘must discuss the issue and find a mutually agreeable solution,’ as a statement from Zuma’s office put it. Essentially, this means that each side will thoroughly examine the other side’s evidence of criminal activity – by Nyamwasa and Karegeya on the one side, and by the Rwandan and Burundian diplomats on the other.
Though Pretoria was spitting blood and threatening greater retaliation after the attempt on Nyamwasa’s life this month, it now seems to be keeping an open mind, judging by Zuma’s statement after the Luanda meeting. One might have thought, by now, that the intelligence agencies would’ve exhaustively investigated Kigali’s allegations of terrorism by Nyamwasa and Karegeya, but they will evidently do that once again when they have Kigali’s evidence.
The attempted murder case against six nationals from the Great Lakes region for trying to murder Nyamwasa in Johannesburg in 2010, is nearing its conclusion in the Johannesburg magistrate’s court. And this will also put the spotlight on Rwanda’s alleged activities in South Africa.
At the last hearing in January, after a long delay, state prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told the court he had earlier heard one of the defence lawyers, Gloria Matlala, saying the trial had been delayed because she had been waiting on payment from the Rwandese government.
More evidence pointing at Kigali may emerge as the case proceeds over the next few days.
However the juxtaposition of the eastern DRC and Nyamwasa issues at the Luanda summit suggests that this might be shaping up as one of those familiar dichotomies that South Africa often faces: between its cherished constitutional obligations and the expedience of maintaining peace in and with Africa.
Is South Africa backing off from the confrontation with Rwanda, or was the language of Zuma’s statement after Luanda just diplomatic-speak to mask the fact that South Africa now has regional backing to take further action against Rwanda? The South African government does not seem to be entirely at one on this. It will be interesting to see whether its next move will be against Rwanda – or against General Nyamwasa.
Written by Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa