NAIROBI, Kenya – The Democratic Republic of Congo closed its border with Rwanda on Friday afternoon after one of its soldiers was killed after wounding two police officers while allegedly on Rwandan territory. awakened the specter of war in the African Great Lakes region.
The border closure came hours after the Rwandan defense ministry announced that a Congolese soldier had opened fire that morning, wounding two security forces on the country’s border. A Rwandan police officer “shot back in self-defense”, the ministry said in a statement, killing the Congolese soldier “25 meters within Rwandan territory”.
It was not immediately clear what had sparked the gunfight at the border, but relations between the two countries have soured in recent weeks, with Congo accusing Rwanda of supporting a rebel group it is fighting in its mineral-rich but troubled eastern regions.
Rising tensions threatened to further destabilize the ravaged region, which has endured years of violence, weak governance and corruption, along with brutal uprisings. The escalation of violence has led to allegations of cross-border attacks and the kidnapping of soldiers from Rwanda, along with protests and reports of hate speech and discrimination against speakers of Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.
The rebel group the 23 March Movement, or M23, has clashed with government forces for years, briefly taking over Goma, the capital of the eastern province of North Kivu, in 2012.
The group resumed hostilities late last year after blaming the government for not granting amnesty to its soldiers and not including them in the military as part of a 2009 peace deal. The rebel group’s troops mainly consist of from Tutsis, the same ethnic group as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, and UN experts have accused his government of extensive support for the group.
As fighting intensified, the M23 took over Bunagana this week, a center of cross-border trade in North Kivu, forcing many of the city’s residents to flee to neighboring Uganda. The arrest infuriated Congolese officials, who accused Rwanda of aiding an “invasion” into their territory.
Rwanda has denied supporting the offensive, but that didn’t stop Congolese officials on Thursday from suspending bilateral agreements with the country.
“The security situation in the east of the country continues to deteriorate, especially as Rwanda seeks to occupy our country, rich in gold, coltan and cobalt, for its own exploitation and profit,” Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said in a statement. † “This is an economic war for resources, fought by Rwanda’s terrorist gangs.”
Relations between Rwanda and Congo had improved but deteriorated after Congo allowed Uganda and Burundi to help pursue rebels on its territory from late last year. In a region where competing countries have long used militias as proxies, “Rwanda has become increasingly marginalized,” said Nelleke van de Walle, Great Lakes project director for the International Crisis Group.
This week, as the diplomatic standoff between the two Central African countries deepened, protesters took to the streets of Goma to denounce Rwanda. During one of the protests, General Sylvain Ekenge, the spokesman for the military governor of North Kivu province, told the protesters: “Rwanda doesn’t like us. We are not afraid of it and we will fight against it,” adding: “If it wants war, it will have war.”
The United Nations warned on Friday of an increase in documented cases of hate speech in Congo, saying politicians, community leaders and members of the diaspora were spreading it.
“Hate speech fuels conflict by increasing mistrust between communities,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Alice Nderitu, the UN Special Adviser on Preventing Genocide, said in a statement. “It focuses on aspects that previously mattered less, evokes an ‘us versus them’ discourse and erodes social cohesion between communities that have previously coexisted.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has called for the deployment of a regional force from the East African Community, a seven-country point that includes both Rwanda and Congo. Member States’ regional commanders will meet in Nairobi on Sunday to finalize preparations. Congo welcomed Mr Kenyatta’s proposal but said it would not accept Rwanda’s participation in the joint armed forces.
For Rwanda, the stalemate comes with Congo as it prepares to host the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting starting Monday, which will bring together leaders from the association’s 54 member states. It is also preparing to receive asylum seekers deported from Britain – a controversial plan that was halted this week by multiple legal challenges.
Steve Wembic contributed reporting from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.