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The ambiguous wisdom of Congolese crowds

Blog Congo Siasa

The ambiguous wisdom of Congolese crowds

Over the past week, protestors have been clamoring in front of the American, British, and French embassies in Kinshasa, demanding either their departure or more action against Rwanda, the country many believe is the root cause of the M23 crisis in the eastern DRC. These scenes, reminiscent of recent anti-Western protests in West African countries, have prompted head-scratching and soul-searching among diplomats.
Feb 20, 2024
min read.

The protests are not an isolated occurrence. Large crowds mobilized against the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) in July 2022 and August 2023, and dozens died in their confrontation with security forces. These kinds of protests against the UN mission go back to its inception in 1999. Every time, there are suspicions that the protests have been orchestrated: the notorious tireurs de ficelles (puppet masters), a nebulous term that points to government involvement.


Two things are true: there is real and widespread popular resentment against Western governments, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission; and members of the government are helping to orchestrate the protests. Both, but perhaps especially the former, are important to remember.

There appear to have been several triggers for this most recent wave of protests. First, a scene at the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) on February 7: Congolese players covered their mouths with one hand and put two fingers to their temple. Silence, on tue. They are killing us, but nobody is talking about it. This gesture, long employed by Cédric Bakambu––a striker on their national football team––was seen by millions of Congolese on TV and then on social media, where the scene was relayed. It was quickly taken up by members of the government: on February 9, during the weekly government meeting, several ministers had pictures taken of themselves, employing Bakambu’s gesture. The same day, protests began in earnest, first at the US embassy, before spreading elsewhere. 

Another trigger: the situation in the eastern DRC. The same day as the AFCON semi-finals, M23 rebels surrounded the town of Sake on the shores of Lake Kivu, cutting off the last road out of Goma (other than the one through Rwanda) that had remained open. This news was widely broadcast in the DRC, alarming the public. The minister of defense flew to Goma, arriving there on Friday and meeting with the army and its affiliated militias. 

It is likely that politicians were egging on protesters, even as the government denounced attacks on diplomats. It was, for example, curious that the protests were all directed at Western embassies and not the government that is waging the war against the M23. A candlelight vigil on February 4, 2024, highlighting government inaction in the East, was violently dispersed by security forces. In contrast, a local non-profit denounced “the complacency” of the police in responding to the protests. Members of political parties have been seen during the protests, in particular the notorious Forces du progrès, which claims to be “the eye of the UDPS,” President  Félix Tshisekedi’s party (his interior minister has said they are imposters). Motorcycle taxis, the wewa, who are often seen in UDPS rallies, were also prominent members of the protests. 

And yet, the resentment is very real and should not be dismissed as astroturfed. By now, most major donors have publicly acknowledged that Rwanda is backing the M23 rebellion, which was relaunched in November 2021. Just this week, Rwanda was reported to be using armored vehicles to shoot down United Nations drones. And yet, unlike during the M23 rebellion of 2012-2013, when around $240 million in aid was suspended by donors, the only concrete consequence for Rwanda has been imposed by the US government: they suspended a small military training program, and sanctioned one Rwandan general. In the meantime, while the M23 rebellion has been going on, the British Commonwealth has held its big biannual meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali in 2022, the EU gave $22 million to support the deployment of the Rwanda Defence Force in Mozambique, a consortium of donors announced $320 million in in climate financing, and European countries announced $960 million in investments in Rwanda. As European Commission president Ursala von der Leyen said in December 2023: “On the global scene, the EU and Rwanda see eye-to-eye on many matters and we warmly welcome Rwanda's climate leadership. Rwanda is also a key partner for Europe under Global Gateway.” 

In 2012, the reaction to Rwanda’s backing of the M23 was opprobrium. Now, it appears to be complacency and even increased support. 

This attitude also prevails within the United Nations. While the UN Secretary-General, as well as the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), have hinted that the M23 is backed by Rwanda, they have not said so in public. The UN is in a particularly thorny bind: Rwanda is by far the largest African contributor of troops to the UN peacekeeping mission, the fourth-largest in the world. And yet, its own troops, or the M23 that it is backing, have attacked UN blue helmets in the Congo, injuring and possibly killing some. The special Security Council session on Monday this week led to a tepid statement of concern, in which Rwanda was not mentioned.

The focus of the protests has not been nuanced. Much of the anger, for example, has been directed toward the United States, which, during the years of the Clinton presidency, was a strong supporter of Rwanda, looking the other way or condoning Rwanda’s involvement in the First and Second Congo Wars. The belief that the United States is funding the war, or backing Rwanda, remains widespread. But times have changed somewhat: while the US is still the largest provider of aid to Rwanda, they are also the loudest among donor countries in condemning Rwandan support to the M23, calling repeatedly on Rwanda to withdraw its troops. Following a visit by US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to the region in November, the US helped broker a ceasefire and “leverage[d] intelligence resources to validate” that deal. American officials remain engaged with both sides to prevent escalation––a very different approach than the United Kingdom, which has been determined to move ahead with a controversial asylum deal with the Rwandan government. Until now, it has refrained from denouncing Rwandan involvement in the DRC. 

Despite the lack of nuance and the manipulation, there is no doubt that this resentment is real. In an opinion poll conducted in January 2023, all of the country's Western donors were seen in net unfavorable terms, while in 2019 majorities of over 75% had a good opinion of France, the USA, Belgium, and the UK. Meanwhile, perceptions of China and Russia improved––the latter, which has almost no presence in the DRC, becoming the most popular foreign country, with 61% favorable opinions, up from 35% in October 2016.

There should be no place for violence against diplomats or the United Nations. But our focus should probably not be there. Addressing this problem is not just a matter of tackling the cynical agents of disorder behind the protests. The focus should above all be on fixing the dysfunctional approach to the M23 crisis.