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Kagame goes on the offensive

January 4, 2019

In his New Year's speech Kagame accused neighboring countries of supporting a rebellion against Rwanda. Experts see Burundi as the main target of his remarks.

Paul Kagame standing at a microphone
Image: Imago/Zumapress/M. Brochstein

The past year was a good one for Rwanda, that was President Paul Kagame's message to his people. Rwanda's relationship with its "African brothers" is stronger today, Africa is more united and Rwanda has contributed to this process, he said. But the speech also contained a hefty dose of criticism for Rwanda's direct neighbors.

"Some neighbors have tried to revive the danger posed by the FDLR, the RNC, and other negative forces," Kagame said. He was referring to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda rebel group, which is mainly operating in Congo, and the Rwanda National Congress, an opposition party in exile. "This jeopardises the otherwise good progress in East African integration, as well as regional security," Kagame said, adding that he had expected this from one neighbor but another had surprised him.

Although Kagame did not name specific countries, there is reason to believe he was referring to Burundi in the latter case. The relationship between the two countries is tense. "The evidence we have, and which they must also have, shows clear complicity, despite public denials," the president said. Kagame called on his compatriots to remain vigilant and  "not allow themselves to be distracted."

Rwanda and Burundi are members of the East Africa Community (EAC)

Regional security at risk

By mentioning opposition groups directly in connection with neighboring countries, President Kagame made a strong statement, said Pritish Behuria, Hallsworth Research Fellow at The Global Development Institute at The University of Manchester, in a DW interview. "The situation has been extremely tense since both countries are arguing that each of them and their neighbors are supporting problematic groups inside the country," Behuria said. Such accusations had previously not been made so publicly. Tensions recently reached a climax. "East African leaders are saying that this kind of tension needs to be sorted out between Rwanda and Burundi because it is endangering the security of the region," Behuria added.

The political instability between Rwanda and Burundi is part of a larger problem within the East African Community (EAC), emphasized Christopher Kayumba, professor at the University of Rwanda. "The EAC is yet to solve the problem of armed rebellions," Kayumba said in a DW interview. "Yoweri Museveni came to power in Uganda in 1986 through an armed rebellion. The same later applied to Kagame in Rwanda and Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi. So if this is still the case after more than three decades in the region, then the EAC has not managed to establish a culture of peaceful change of power in the region."

Pierre Nkurunziza maintains his grip on power in BurundiImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Mugiraneza

Rebel recruitment network

Rwanda's President Kagame has repeatedly called for support in the fight against opposition groups operating from neighboring countries, including the FDLR in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group claims to be exerting military pressure on the Rwandan government to engage in an "inter-Rwandan dialogue" with the current government and to obtain security guarantees for its members so that they can return to Rwanda. the FDLR has been held accountable for numerous attacks on Rwandan and Congolese villages.

According to its latest report from December 18, the UN expert group on Congo found evidence that the opposition RNC party  also supported armed resistance against Rwanda, financed and organized from Burundi. The report quotes former Rwandan fighters who described a recruitment network managed from Bujumbura in Burundi which enables recruitment from several African countries, often through mediators in the region, as well as in South Africa and western Europe. 


A group of FDLR fighters based in eastern DR CongoImage: DW/S. Schlindwein

Since Burundi's President Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term in office in 2015, the Burundian crisis has escalated. Almost 400 Burundians died and thousands were arrested. The subsequent mass flight to Rwanda intensified the conflict between the two countries. In early December the Rwandan army declared that a group of unidentified armed men had attacked three passenger cars in southern Rwanda and killed two people. The men escaped to Burundi. The unconfirmed allegations in the UN experts' report come at a good time for the Rwandan government which had previously openly doubted the credibility of the group. This has now changed. 

EAC must wake up

Pritish Behuria does not believe that Burundi remains the only hot spot for Rwanda to deal with this year. "There have been tensions with Uganda in the past few months as well, as Kagame also accused the Ugandan government of supporting the RNC," Behuria told DW. Another problem is the unclear political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Kagame is obviously a huge advocate of East African and African integration overall. Political tensions between Rwanda and Burundi and broader regions are endangering not only trade stability but also continental stability on a larger scale."

Kayumba sees three main issues for the EAC to resolve. "One is the internal political crisis in Burundi. The second is the allegations between Rwanda and Burundi that one is harboring the other's rebel group. And the other one is between Rwanda and Uganda." He does not believe that this is a task for a single political leader. "These are the joint challenges of the EAC heads of state and government. It's time they wake up to resolve these challenges."

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