Are we seeing the destabilisation of the Great Lakes Region once more?

Today, everybody is talking about peace and stability in the Great Lakes Region; a place of reconciliation between countries which were once living in suspicion. The Republic of Rwanda and DR Congo have exchanged their ambassadors, a new ambassador of DR Congo has started his work in Burundi, and the East African Community is slowly taking shape. The Community of Central African countries is on the move, and the Southern African countries are also promising to strengthen their relations. Time to look ahead, for a common bright future.

Yet, a dark wind is still blowing in the region. DR Congo and Angola were recently expelling refugees from their territories, the Republic of Congo also started the same expulsion of DR Congolese refugees, DR Congo is confronted with the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in the North, Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) in South and North Kivu, ethnic clashes, corruption, land conflict, displaced people and an internal refugee crisis. The whole country is still under violence in its 4 corners: East, West, North and South. Every day, it is confronted by armed clashes, tribal violence, and the displacement of people. According to international reports some neighbouring countries constitute a transit point where minerals pass to reach international markets. With the money they get from the minerals, FDLR buy munitions and equipments, and continue the violence in the country.

The above picture shows that DR Congo is surrounded by tensions caused by the appetite that its wealth creates regionally and internationally.

For Insight on Conflict and my own conflict resolution organisation, the Chirezi Foundation, I have talked with a number of people to try to understand their perceptions. The majority have said that DR Congo is a victim of its vast mineral wealth and what is happening internally is the result of a lack of patriotism from Congolese from leaders to the general population.

Put together, the scenario of the ‘destabilisation of the elephant’ has begun. Let us look closely at the impression of people internally and externally:

Kimia II

The first impression that we have received is that many people are against the Kimia II operation of the DR Congo government, supported by the UN's MONUC forces. Many people in DR Congo think that this operation has put the country into a political trap. Three elements constitute the base of their argument:

  1. The mission of the operation is vague.
  2. Rwandan troops - thanks to the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD - a rebel group supported by Rwanda in the Second Congo War) have been in DR Congo for many years but have not succeeded in dislodging the FDLR.
  3. After years of war the DR Congo has no army with the potential to undertake such operation. Neighbouring countries and the international community have never attempted such an operation because they are conscious of the impossibility of such a mission.
  4. The operation is sending the FDLR inside its own territory to continue to rape, smuggle and kill innocent people.
Boat peope in East DRC

New Groups

There is also the birth of new armed alliances with the philosophy of protecting their small lands. Local militia - similar to Mai Mai - are slowly but surely emerging in different communities in DR Congo and outside the country. People I talked to suspect that many young people are recruited to start new movements of resistance to defend their local land. This is how the Mai Mai movement started - the same philosophy and same objectives. The local leaders I approached think that such movements could be encouraged because, according to them: “When violence is everywhere in the community, when we lack protection against those so-called FDLR and when you are even unsecured by your own soldiers who were supposed to protect you, nothing can be more welcomed than a local movement to defend you and your property, family and land…

Support for FDLR

In the FDLR, DR Congo is fighting a well organised national and international network. Many people don’t want the FDLR to be dislodged from their positions.  I was told on my visits to South Kivu that many companies have established their bases in neighbouring countries with the sole mission of buying minerals from the FDLR. Also, well ranked personalities in DR Congo and neighbouring countries are being included in such market. In return, FDLR get food, clothing, munitions and military equipments. The chief of tribes I talked about have invited me to organise a trip to the FDLR places in the mountains where they have their government, school, hospitals, or army. The recent leaked UN report provides evidence of international support for the FDLR.

MONUC to leave?

It is unclear to local people how MONUC can leave the country with the current levels of violence and insecurity. In November, the UN Special Envoy Olusegun Obasanjo reported improvements in the region in November: "Generally, an atmosphere of détente and cooperation has developed in the region". However, the talks I had with communities in DR Congo show that there will not be peace in these communities, and development at the grassroots, if nothing is done to take seriously the present situation in DR Congo. The population which has suffered decades of war, insecurity, poverty, misery and displacement was starting to settle and slowly solve their local problems, but over the last year the threat of a new and generalised war has arisen once more.

It is the responsibility of every willing person who will read this report to stand and talk about in order to help DR Congo remain stable, peaceful and determined to engage into the development and reconstruction of its country. It is also of the responsibility of every reader to lobby nationally and internally for justice and discourage illegal exploitation of DRC minerals which could constitute, if nothing is done, the essential cause and reason of a new unwanted war in DRC tomorrow.

The Great Lakes Region, and the international community more widely, have an interest in investing in the stability of DR Congo if they do not want to risk the destabilisation of the whole region. It is easy to start fire but much harder to put it out once it has reached the forest… Qui vivra verra!