The arrest of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, coupled with a Rwandan-backed operation to disarm Hutu militia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, might eventually help to restore peace to the region but also poses great risks for civilians, according to analysts.
“Nkunda’s arrest presents a great opportunity for restoration of peace in eastern DRC [as long as it is] immediately followed by comprehensive security sector reforms, an end to a culture of impunity and protection of civilian populations,” said Wafula Okumu, senior research fellow, African Security Analysis Programme, at the Institute for Security Studies.
Nkunda was arrested on 22 January after crossing into Rwanda. Through the CNDP (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple), he claimed to be protecting minority Tutsis in the east from the FDLR (Forces démocratique pour la libération de Rwanda), who include the Hutu militia blamed for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
“The neutralisation of Nkunda was part of a deal between President [Joseph] Kabila [of the DRC] and President [Paul] Kagame [of Rwanda],” Guillaume Lacaille, International Crisis Group DRC analyst, said.
Senior military officials from the long-time foes DRC and Rwanda attended the 16 January press conference during which CNDP military chief Bosco Ntaganda announced Nkunda’s removal as head of the movement, according to Lacaille.
Attempts over the past year by DRC’s lacklustre army to neutralise the CNDP have been unsuccessful.
“To rebound from this last humiliation, Kabila actually made a deal with Rwanda to oust the FDLR and in exchange he got Nkunda’s head,” Lacaille said.
According to Lacaille, the arrest of Nkunda alone will not deliver peace unless the issues he used to justify his insurgency – power- and wealth-sharing between Hutus and Tutsis, as well as the interests of Tutsi businessmen – are dealt with.
“They were funding Nkunda as a kind of protection,” Lacaille said of the businessmen, pointing out that Nkunda’s arrest removed this protection.
Nkunda’s arrest was part of a 15-day operation, aimed at disarming and repatriating the FDLR.
“Problems are already piling up. And the main problem comes from […] the fact that Kabila did not consult with his constituency before allowing [in] the Rwandese army,” said Gerard Prunier, a historian on eastern and central African affairs.
“This is a grievous mistake. The people in the East are his voters and calling in the [Rwandan army] is not exactly what they wished for when they elected him.”
“I don’t think the [Rwandan army] is in Kivu just to cleanse the earth of the FDLR,” he said. “The point is to control the mines which the FDLR now controls and to share the proceeds with the Kinshasa administration rather than with the Hutu genocidaires,” Prunier said.
“But how can you extirpate the FDLR? It is deeply embedded in the local social fabric. In order to extract the parasite you might have to dig deep into the flesh and it will hurt,” he said. “You could do it with local support. But if you try to ram this ‘solution’ down the throats of a reluctant and fearful local constituency, you are not likely to get the cooperation you desperately need.”
This local constituency includes a variety of armed groups collectively known as Mayi Mayi, who in recent years have been broadly allied with the Kinshasa government and the FDLR against the CNDP.
For Prunier, the Mayi Mayi “are the barometer and they are hostile” to the disarmament operation. “The whole thing might end up in a very bloody confrontation indeed,” he warned.
This view was echoed by Lacaille: “The more Rwanda stays in the DRC, the higher the risk of political instability in North Kivu and if a military operation against the FDLR is launched quickly, without more preparation to protect the population, there will be high civilian casualties.”
In the past, he explained, a carrot-and-stick approach was used to repatriate the FDLR: sensitisation programmes for voluntary disarmament – which led to the return of 8,000 Rwandan Hutus between 2001 and 2006 – and gradual military build-up. “Now we have the feeling that the DRC and Rwanda are all about stick.”
The history of enmity between the neighbouring states poses a major risk, according to Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa Programme, at UK think-tank Chatham House. “The Congolese and Rwandan militaries have problematic relationships with each other and these operations will need sustained high-level monitoring by all to ensure potentially disastrous mistakes do not occur,” he told IRIN.