The chief of staff of the Rwandan armies, General James Kabarebe in Darfur, Sudan, in July 2005. JOSE CENDON / AFP
The “retirement” of General James Kabarebe, a figure in Paul Kagame’s security apparatus, did not last long. Less than a month after the announcement of his departure from the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF, acronym in English), the former chief of staff of the Rwandan army was designated, Wednesday, September 27, Minister of State responsible for regional cooperation.
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Minister of Defense from 2010 to 2018, this 64-year-old soldier is one of the men whose trajectory, strewn with secrets and controversies, tells the story of the last decades of Rwanda’s history. “Many were surprised by the announcement of his retirement, believes Phil Clark, professor of international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. General Kabarebe seemed far too young and one might wonder why risk leaving such an influential military figure out of government. The big picture is much clearer now. »
Engaged within Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) since their rebellion in 1990 against the power then held by Juvénal Habyarimana, General James Kabarebe is one of the oldest loyalists of the current president. Among the burning issues on the new minister’s desk: the conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in a tense regional context since the end of 2021 and the start of the offensive by the March 23 Movement rebel group (M23).
“Hardening and intransigence”
“Rwandans consider Mr. Kabarebe as one of the best diplomatic and military experts in the DRC, says an observer from the Great Lakes region. But the appointment of the general, a red rag for Kinshasa, sends a message of toughness and intransigence to the Congolese government. » His appointment was also received very coldly in Kinshasa.
The military strategist is known for the key role he played alongside rebel Laurent-Désiré Kabila in the overthrow of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko during the First Congo War, between 1996 and 1997, a period in which he was also the mentor of the son of his ally, Jospeh Kabila, who would become president in 2001. Kabarebe’s military career is therefore closely linked to the complex relations between Kigali and its neighbor. For a few months as chief of staff of the Congolese army until the breakdown of the alliance between the new President Kabila and Rwanda, he led the Rwandan troops during the Second Congo War from August 1998 , conflict involving troops from nine African countries, whose death toll rises to more than 4 million, mostly from famine and disease, according to the NGO International Rescue Committee.
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“The choice of Kabarebe shows that Rwanda wants to exclude the DRC from its vision of regional cooperation, analyse Phil Clark. The Rwandan government knows very well that Kinshasa sees it, rightly or wrongly, as the mastermind of Rwandan military involvement in the DRC from the 1990s until today. »
In June, the general’s name was cited in the UN experts’ report on the DRC as one of the Rwandan officers involved in military operations in the Congolese province of North Kivu in recent months. According to the UN report, these operations aim to “strengthen the M23 by providing troops and equipment, and use them to secure control of mining sites, gain political influence in the DRC and decimate the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)”a Rwandan Hutu rebel group initially formed by former genocidaires.
“Respected on the continent”
The Rwandan authorities have always rejected any accusation of a link with the M23. “It’s a narrative that has lasted for a long time,” denounced the Rwandan head of state on July 4 during an interview on national television. “Is this really meant to solve the problem? “, he questioned, pointing to the silence of the international community on the fate of Rwandan-speaking Congolese refugees settled in Rwanda and the collusion of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) with the FDLR, a group he considers a threat to Kigali .
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The appointment of James Kabarebe, who has links with officers in numerous security apparatuses in countries in the sub-region, should in any case influence Rwanda’s relations with its neighbors.
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“While the DRC views Kabarebe with great suspicion, he maintains powerful networks across the Great Lakes and is respected on the continent, not only for his role in the fall of Mobutu, but also for the various peacekeeping missions from Rwanda to Mozambique and the Central African Republic »says Professor Phil Clark.
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