/ 27 January 2020

Tensions loom over the Great Lakes region

Tshisekedi Drawing
On March 18, President Félix Tshisekedi announced an immediate ban on funeral gatherings, both in halls and homes. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)


Hostility is growing among the Great Lakes states, despite laudable efforts by Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi to calm tensions. Since being sworn in on January 24 last year, Tshisekedi has put a premium on regional diplomacy, worried that sparring among his neighbours, who have long meddled in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), could once again spill over. 

Notwithstanding his efforts, the region is increasingly on edge: Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda have all renewed ties to insurgents based in the eastern DRC, threatening a return to the wars that tore the region apart in the 1990s.

The rivalry between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni is among the gravest contributors to instability in the region. Rwanda and Uganda have both competed and collaborated on Congolese soil, where they have long sought to win influence and control territory. They backed rebels during the Second Congo war (1998-2003) and their troops fought each other directly during the 2000 battle for Kisangani. In the subsequent decade, they forged an uneasy detente, but both continued to support militias in the eastern DRC. Rwanda backed the 2008 rebellion led by warlord Laurent Nkunda’s Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple. Both Rwanda and Uganda supported the 2012-2013 M23 uprising. 

Over the past two years, the animosity between Kagame and Museveni has returned and intensified. In March 2018, the Ugandan government fired police chief Kale Kayihura, a long-time ally of Museveni, for being too close to Rwanda. Animosity peaked in February last year, when Kigali closed a commercially important border amid mutual accusations of espionage. 

The Rwandan position

In 2019 Kigali repeatedly alleged that both Uganda and Burundi are backing Rwandan rebels active in the DRC. On October 4 last year, 14 people were killed in Kinigi village, a hub for mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda’s Musanze district, during an attack launched from the eastern DRC. Kigali attributed the raid to the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan Hutu rebel group based in the DRC.

Rwandan officials suspect an alliance between the FDLR and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) rebels, led by Tutsi defectors from Kagame’s government and also based in the DRC. Some RNC fighters appear to have recently moved from shelters in the remote plateau of South Kivu to join FDLR units in Rutshuru in North Kivu, close to the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. Kagame believes the FDLR and RNC enjoy Kampala’s and Bujumbura’s backing, and that members of the Imbonerakure, the youth militia of Burundi’s governing party — the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy — are embedded in the group. During a blazing speech on November 14 last year, he accused neighbouring countries of destabilising Rwanda and threatened to retaliate. 

The Burundian perspective

For its part, Bujumbura claims that Rwanda supports Burundian rebels on Congolese soil, particularly Résistance pour un État de Droit au Burundi (Red Tabara), a group operating in South Kivu. On October 22, shortly after the Kinigi attack, Red Tabara clashed with Burundian security forces in Musigati in Bubanza province, leaving at least a dozen dead. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza accused Kagame of being behind another attack on November 16, in which unknown assailants killed at least eight Burundian soldiers at a military post in Mabayi, Cibitoke province. Since then both Burundi and Rwanda have deployed forces to their mutual border. 

There is some good news. Relations between the DRC and Rwanda have improved. The countries increasingly share intelligence, which has resulted in a successful operation against an FDLR splinter group in South Kivu. The Congolese army took credit for the killings of FDLR commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura in September, and a prominent FDLR splinter leader, Juvenal Musabimana, in November in North Kivu’s Rutshuru territory. But some analysts believe that Rwanda also had a hand in the deaths. Furthermore, the Congolese authorities in November withdrew the arrest warrants for the former M23 faction exiled in Rwanda, potentially allowing them to return to the DRC, where they would be granted amnesty and reintegrated into the Congolese army and bureaucracy (it remains unclear what will happen to a larger cohort of former M23 fighters exiled in Uganda). 

Still, the Kinshasa-Kigali rapprochement could carry risks. Bujumbura and Kampala could decide to increase their support for proxies in the DRC if they perceive Kinshasa’s closer ties to Kigali as menacing. 

Joint military operations 

Against this backdrop, Tshisekedi has devised plans to invite Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda into joint military operations to fight the remaining rebel groups in the eastern DRC. This scheme will likely backfire, as Tshisekedi may already be discovering. The Congolese population is not keen on the idea. They remember all too well abuses committed by the forces of neighbouring states during the terrible wars of the past 20 years.

Moreover, neighbouring states themselves may resist co-operating: already, initial talks about joint operations have failed, mostly due to Uganda’s reluctance to allow Rwanda to track the FDLR near the Ugandan border. In the worst-case scenario, which given recent history is sadly plausible, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda could use their military presence in the DRC to encourage allied militias to attack their rivals. The result could be a chaotic proxy war in which the people of the eastern DRC would be the main losers.

The Congolese president should ditch the military option and instead build upon the forum he launched with Angolan President João Lourenço last year. Tshisekedi and Lourenço successfully mediated between Kagame and Museveni, resulting in a memorandum of understanding signed in August in Luanda that obliged each country to refrain from actions destabilising the other, or the region. Further talks on how to implement this agreement collapsed, because of the mistrust generated by the continued accusations of aid being given to proxies.

But the diplomatic track is still the best way forward. Tshisekedi should use the Luanda forum to seek new bilateral talks between Rwanda and Uganda, as well as talks between Rwanda and Burundi. He should encourage all three countries to put any evidence they have of support for rebels on the table. Neutral parties, such as the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (a body made up of regional states that is one of the guarantors of a 2013 regional peace agreement) and the UN Group of Experts can then investigate. Their findings should inform diplomatic pressure for neighbours to end their support to insurgents in the DRC. 

Tshisekedi’s efforts to improve relations with his neighbours are welcome. But inviting them to conduct military operations in the DRC would be a mistake. Better that the Congolese president focuses on his diplomatic track. Absent that, tensions risk mounting further and fuelling a wider conflict in the Great Lakes.

Nelleke van de Walle is the International Crisis Group’s deputy director for the Central Africa project, focusing on the Great Lakes region. A new report, Averting Proxy Wars in the Eastern DR Congo and Great Lakes, was released last week.