Mozambique and DRC conflicts: the powderkeg of elite appeasement

I had the opportunity to visit Mocimboa and Palma, the two districts of Cabo Delgado where Rwandan Security Forces (RSF) operate. I have been reflecting on this experience.
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Rwandan troops in Mocimboa Da Prai, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. @NewTimes, Olivier Mugwiza

Looking at the warm and cordial relationship between Mozambique and Rwanda on the one hand and at the currently strained relations between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda on the other, a curious observer would not fail to note the stark difference in the perception of Rwanda as either a peace builder or a trouble maker in Africa. On my part, I have come to the conclusion that these contradictory perceptions cannot both be true. Something has got to give. Instead, they are the reflection or an expression of the standoff between the aspirations for the unity of the African peoples and the interests of an ideologically corrupt African bourgeoisie mimicking the colonially inherited divide-and-rule tactics that have held back our continent. Whichever of these aspirations prevails depends on the leadership qualities and, to be precise, the political courage (or lack thereof) of the authorities in place – in other words, the moral purpose for power.

The prophecy

In the Wretched of the Earth, the famous pan-African intellectual, Frantz Fanon, provided an insightful take on the pitfalls of national conscientiousness with regard to African Unity.

“The people of Africa have only recently come to know themselves. They have decided, in the name of the whole continent, to weigh in strongly against the colonial regime. Now the nationalist bourgeoisies, who in region after region hasten to make their own fortunes and to set up a national system of exploitation, do their utmost to put obstacles in the path of this ‘Utopia’. The national bourgeoisies, who are quite clear as to what their objectives are, have decided to bar the way to that unity, to that coordinated effort on the part of two hundred and fifty million men to triumph over stupidity, hunger and inhumanity at one and the same time.”

Fanon was ahead of his time. He understood that internal forces would prompt weak African leaders to act against the interests of their own people and further delay our progress as a continent. Taking his observation to its logical conclusion, he affirmed, “This is why we must understand that African unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, and under the leadership of the people, that is to say, in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie.”

Sixty years after the publication of Fanon’s book, his words remain an indictment of those among African leaders who have failed to give meaning to their privilege by displaying the one quality that was assumed to come with the territory – leadership.

The challenges

There are some similarities in the challenges faced by President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique and President Tshisekedi of the DRC. Firstly, they both inherited corrupt security apparatuses and people’s mistrust of the authorities, which is due to the shortcomings of previous administrations. Secondly, they also have to deal with traumatized populations subjected to violence by both the armed groups and the security services, an uninspired and destructive political opposition whose sole raison d’être is to oppose any government’s decision regardless of its merits, and foreign-founded civil society groups who are echo chambers of western divisive narratives. Finally but crucially, on the political front, both presidents pledged to bring peace back to their respective countries, and their success or failure in this regard could be the decisive factor in their respective bids for reelection. What differentiates the two, however, is how they deal with these challenges and the related pressure from internal forces on their respective administrations.

Nyusi’s political courage  

President Nyusi decided to do the herculean task of meeting people’s expectations. To achieve this, he had to take decisions that were unpopular among elite circles in Maputo but were welcomed by the neglected population of Cabo Delgado. He decided to bet on Rwanda’s help to tackle the security challenge in his country despite the antagonism of the different groups in the opposition and civil society who constitute the most vocal components of the Mozambican bourgeoisie. With about 3000 Mozambicans dead and 800, 000 internally displaced at the time and even before Rwandan forces could establish firm control of their areas of operation, this bourgeoisie – which spoke from the safety of the Mozambican capital, Maputo, and was happily platformed by western media – was mainly demanding “an exit strategy for Rwandan troops”. That the residents of Mocimboa da Praia, one of the most severely affected districts of the Cabo Delgado Province in Northern Mozambique, were relieved by the presence of Rwandan forces was of no concern to these elite groups which seemed to have an agenda at odds with protecting Mozambicans.

Last September, I had the opportunity to visit Mocimboa and Palma, the two districts of Cabo Delgado where Rwandan Security Forces (RSF) operate. I was not surprised to find out that the love affair between RSF and the residents of the two districts continues unabated and undisturbed by the noise from the bourgeoisie, which has lost momentum and relevance. The abuses predicted by human rights activists when the Rwandan deployment was announced never materialised. Instead, Ismael, one resident of Palma whom I met at the local market had a spontaneous smile on his face when I asked him about the state of this relationship.

“They respect us,” he explained laconically, adding, “Armed people don’t usually pay when they come to the market. The Rwandans are different. They respect our goods and they protect us.”

This sentiment was echoed in Mocimboa da Prai, where one of the residents told the journalists that were interrogating him on the same topic: “If the Rwandans leave, we will leave with them.” And as a matter of fact, the people of the two districts are voting with their feet in their support for Rwanda’s intervention, as 60 thousand of the 800, 000 internally displaced have already returned to their homes. At the same time, the RSF accompanied by Mozambican security forces and leaders have introduced practices – community work, sports activities and medical interventions – that have proved their effectiveness back home in strengthening ties and building trust within and among communities as Mozambican authorities rush to restore basic services, involving the reopening of schools and hospitals among other things.

 

 

Nyusi understands the need to win back the hearts of the Swahili-speaking populations of Cabo Delgado who had come to believe they were not a priority for the elite class in Maputo or even considered as citizens of the country. As a result, he has won the support of the ruling party, FRELIMO, for a third consecutive term, a remarkable feat on its own considering that the party had not publicly expressed support for his decision to involve Rwanda. He intends to sustain and build on this momentum by conducting a reform of the security sector and by building capacity in the government forces with Rwanda’s help. Already, Nyusi’s approach – which consists in prioritizing the needs of ordinary Mozambicans over the views of the bourgeoise – has paid off on the political front. The same cannot be said of his counterpart in Kinshasa.

Tshisekedi’s approach of elite appeasement

At the dawn of his reign, Tshisekedi sought to mark his difference with the political establishment in Kinshasa by affirming the need to cooperate with neighbours, including Rwanda, to address the security quagmire caused by the disastrous decisions of previous Congolese administrations to support genocidal groups operating in eastern DRC and their inability to improve the lives of Congolese people. Predictably, the growing ties between the DRC and Rwanda attracted the wrath of the usual suspects – the very bourgeoisie that Frantz Fanon warned us against – who portrayed Tshisekedi as a puppet of Rwanda. At the time, however, Tshisekedi, surfing on the political capital inherited from his father, seemed determined to improve relations between the two countries and avoid the populist and divisive discourse that had stood in the way of good neighbourliness for too long.

“We have wasted so many years being antagonistic towards each other, living in tension and in a war situation, but also sharing hatred, now that’s enough,” Tshisekedi said in June 2021 after the signing of three agreements of bilateral cooperation with his Rwandan counterpart, President Kagame.

But as time passed by and as the elections period approached, his determination faded away as the pressure from the Congolese bourgeoisie increased. Externalizing the blame for his administration’s failure to deliver on his early promises appeared the best way to appease these elite groups in order to stave off the prospect of an impending electoral defeat. This appeasement approach has had consequences on the security front as it put an end to the unofficial talks between the DRC government and the M23, a self-defence group for the Rwandaphone populations which, against all evidence, the bourgeoisie in Kinshasa insist on describing as a Rwandan armed group. The M23’s subsequent decision to renew fighting to pressure Kinshasa into implementing the 23 March 2009 peace agreement was sufficient pretext for the government to walk back on all treaties of cooperation with Rwanda. The nationalist bourgeoisie had won and the Congolese people were left to fend for themselves as insecurity grew, with thousands fleeing their homes once again.

Today, as ever, hatred against Rwandophone communities in Congo and anti-Rwanda rhetoric in international forums are the two main characteristics of this political drive, which is supposed to culminate in Tshisekedi’s reelection for a second term. For the DRC president, these tactics feeding on hatred and ignorance which appeased the elite were undoubtedly the easiest path to take compared to the more difficult task of actually meeting people’s expectations. Sadly, when the dust settles, ordinary Congolese in the East will realize that nothing has fundamentally changed in the way the bourgeoisie in Kinshasa relate to their aspirations for peace – its indifference and its rejection of Congolese Rwandophones’ right to protection. In hindsight, Fanon’s words have never rung truer: “African unity can only be achieved in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie”.

The moral compass

There are obvious differences in the two approaches: where Nyusi recognized the need to ensure the right to the security of Swahili-speaking populations, Tshisekedi de facto stripped Rwandophone Congolese communities of this right by labelling the M23 a terrorist movement and tolerating hate speech against them. Where Nyusi pursued a strategic long-term imperative, his DRC counterpart pursued a tactical one with a short-term objective. Ultimately, where the former took an audacious political risk against the national bourgeoisie by securing the lives of the people, the latter chose appeasement as a means of securing electoral victory.

Even if a regional military intervention appears unlikely, Fanon’s words should serve as the moral compass for African leaders devising ways to solve the Congolese conundrum, as there are notable differences with the situation in Mozambique. Indeed, the fundamentalists in Cabo Delgado have imposed a reign of terror, provoked the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, burned down houses, administration offices, schools and hospitals, and destroyed energy infrastructure. Their professed objective is to establish sharia law against the wishes of the people, on their graves if need be. Even as these terrorists exploited real grievances related to governance failure to attract recruits, it has been impossible to find rational actors among them to put an end to their violence through nonmilitary means.

The DRC is different and more complex. Groups such as the M23 would cease to exist if Rwandophone Congolese were treated as citizens in their own country and if the DRC government committed to fulfilling existing peace agreements and its mandate to protect its populations from violent genocidal groups. In other words, there is a possibility to resolve some of the violence through peaceful means.

But this can only be possible if the people, not the bourgeoisie, are at the centre of leaders’ discussions and preoccupations.

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