Steady gains for rebels in DRC and Mozambique as SANDF forces overstretched on two fronts

South Africa's two peacekeeping efforts are under strain, and it looks like only the Rwandans seem to know what they are doing

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Apr 4, 2024

Steady gains for rebels in DRC and Mozambique as SANDF forces overstretched on two fronts

South Africa's two peacekeeping efforts are under strain. With the rebels in Cabo Delgado slowly grinding through civilian targets in Mozambique, and SANDF forces failing in the most basic operational requirements in the DRC, it looks like the only forces who know what they are doing on this continent are the Rwandans.

Rwandan proxy force M23 have been making territorial gains recently. After some intense skirmishes, they have managed to advance on and surround Sake, just as they have surrounded Goma, putting the Tutsi forces in spitting distance of taking the two most vital towns on the north shore of Lake Kivu, a vital trade zone in the region.

According to a USAID contractor in the region, the US embassies in the DRC and Uganda are at odds with their colleagues in Kigali, where the US-Rwandan relationship is very cozy. They are hoping to place pressure on Rwanda to remove support from the M23 rebels in North Kivu.

But this isn’t going to happen. The pressure may be rising on the US to intervene, but they cannot afford to expend any resources aside from diplomatic pressure. They are torn between commitments to both the DRC and Rwanda, where they are keen to keep China and Russia from regaining their economic and private-military foothold, as Russia’s Wagner makes gains in clients across the Sahel, threatening French hegemony in West Africa.

Besides the mesh of global interests, the security issues facing Uganda and Rwanda are not the sorts of things that can be settled by a handshake.

With the DRC having little to no control over its eastern territories, the likelihood that a real settlement can be achieved is limited - the FDLR do not have official recognition under the DRC military (FARDC), and the Rwandan state is not likely to allow Hutu Power militia to march on their borders or to threaten their fellow Tutsi in the DRC with the terror that would come from a relaxing of control.

The green territory is controlled by pro-DRC-govt militia, including the FDLR

The Tutsi M23 and the Hutu FDLR have a blood feud that goes back decades, with the FDLR founded by the interahamwe forces which carried out the Rwandan genocide in 1994. These ethnic tensions are the same ones that have caused the boiling over of conflict in 1998, 2003 and 2012, costing millions of lives, and so there is little chance of swords being turned into ploughshares unless a local state can pacify the region once and for all.

Nor is Uganda is a plum position themselves. After having spent a good couple of years assisting the DRC to keep peace in North Kivu, together with the rest of the East African Community (Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda sent troops) they were ejected, after Rwanda, which is part of this regional bloc, was accused of interfering.

Meanwhile, DRC-based militia ADF (in the Ituri province to the north of North Kivu) have been attacking Ugandan territory recently, massacring school pupils, among other typical Islamist behaviour. This has built on heavy tensions between the formerly staunch allies Rwanda and Uganda, which began in 2019 when Uganda funded opposition militia in Rwanda, and Rwanda pursued them into Ugandan territory, leading to a state-military standoff.

Tensions between Uganda and Rwanda thawed in early 2022, when the border was reopened, but allegations of infiltration of the Ugandan civil service remain sticky.

The deadlock in North Kivu has taken the shape of very specific demands. Kagame wants Tshisikedi to retract his remarks calling for the overthrow of the Rwandan government, the threats to invade Rwanda, and the backing of the FDLR. Tshisikedi wants a complete withdrawal of the M23 and Rwandan support.

But these cannot be done without acquiring firm territorial control, which has proven elusive for the DRC. For their part, Uganda seemed to have been pushing back M23 until their withdrawal.

But after the EAC withdrawal, which may have been influenced by capacity restrictions on the part of Uganda, which is facing its own border troubles, M23 has made serious territorial gains, and is now facing off against a crumbling and under-equipped SADC-led force.

It is clear that South Africa, who leads the charge, is not much up to the task. A recent article complained amusingly that our troops are being neglected because they are too stupid and lazy to dig their own pit latrines. Discipline is poor, and a murder-suicide over sexual infidelity between troops has marred morale.

Our troops also have poor logistics, with no medical transport, no helicopters in working order, and 40-year old Casspirs handling troop transport.

Fewer than 50 troops have been transferred from the border posts in Mozambique, where South Africa is fighting Islamist groups alongside Rwanda in Cabo Delgado. The Cabo conflict has intensified in recent days, making the planned withdrawal of SANDF troops difficult.

Rwanda increased their troops there last month, focusing on protecting key economic resources such as mines, border points and the Total gas drilling site at Afungi.

The capacity to fight effectively on three fronts (Rwanda is also based in the Central African Republic) shows that Rwanda is certainly too strong for any force in the region to take on directly, at least for now.

UN Mission Chief Bintou Keita has been raising the alarm about Rwanda. Keita urged all armed groups, including the M23, to disarm, a typically fruitless and purely symbolic UN statement, accompanied by handwringing over the humanitarian conditions.

World Food Programme operators say they are swamped, with over 800 000 refugees displaced by various armed groups in the region. The absence of a serious Congolese military power means the shifting forces in this regional power vacuum present a state of violent anarchy.

But goodwill can only be achieved under conditions of security, and security is a matter of force.

Only he who has the force necessary to subdue the Kivus will be able to show goodwill to those ravaged by this decades-long smoldering conflict.

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