Why Great Lakes region will remain a flashpoint

Sunday October 20 2019

Intervention. Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso

Intervention. Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso (Republic of the Congo), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), João Lourenço (Angola), Paul Kagame (Rwanda) and Felix Tshisekedi (DRC) during the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Uganda and Rwanda in August. FILE PHOTOS  

By Paul Murungi

For long, Uganda has been seen as a haven of stability for the Great Lakes region. But recently, tensions with its neighbour Rwanda escalated, leading to a border shutdown and thus threatening to escalate tension in the region.
Also, the situation in neighbouring countries has not been any better. An ongoing civil war in South Sudan drives away thousands every day. Similar pictures present themselves in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country has been war-torn for decades, accompanied by outbreaks of disease.

Further south, Pierre Nkurunziza and his government’s violations of human rights as well as years of economic mismanagement has forced Burundians to flee their homes. Many of these conflicts have deep-rooted lines that relate to ethnicity, access to resources, weak governance, but also post-colonial scars.
With shifting epicentres, the Great Lakes region remains one of the most volatile regions in Africa where the emergency of conflict is unpredictable and cold relations among the countries continue to exist.

Uganda-Rwanda relations
On September 16, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa led a team to Kigali, Rwanda, for the first meeting of the implementation of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Uganda and Rwanda.
Those in attendance were Manuel Domingos Augusto, the minister of External Affairs of Angola, and Gilbert Kankonde, the deputy prime minister of the DR Congo.

“The peoples of our two countries, more than anybody else, are anxious and need to see progress. Therefore, we should consider immediate steps to normalise relations. I wish to reaffirm that Uganda is committed to a peaceful and friendly co-existence with Rwanda,” said Mr Kutesa in a short speech.

Rwanda's president Paul Kagame (left) and his
Rwanda's president Paul Kagame (left) and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni (right)

“It is our expectation that this meeting will launch the process of normalisation of relations in a tangible way… going forward, it is essential that every effort is made to de-escalate the build-up of tension between the two countries.”


The MoU had earlier been signed on August 21 in Luanda, Angola, between President Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame under the chairmanship of their Angolan counterpart Joao Lourenco. This was against the background of a long-standing feud that saw Rwanda close its borders in February. The two countries accused each other of foreign interference.
But some political pundits saw the signing of the MoU more as a public relations gesture than a genuine desire to end the long-standing feud.

Sudan civil war
In August 2015, the Revitalised Agreement was signed in Sudan to end decades of war in South Sudan. However, in July 2016, violent confrontations erupted resulting in another conflict. Tense negotiations continue with former vice president Riek Machar expected in November in Juba to resolve the conflict.
Whereas there is effort being made, the challenge of sustaining regional peace looms large in the Great Lakes.
The ongoing conflicts in the DRC and failed peace agreements with rebels exacerbate the lack of trust and confidence at all levels. This makes shared efforts to bring about effective peace building, let alone economic recovery at the national and regional levels, a distant goal.

Tensions and suspicions continue to exist among some governments in the region, and there is limited confidence in each other’s ability or willingness to address the root cause and drivers of conflict.
Against this background, this week, political and security analysts, academicians and diplomats met at Makerere University for the Kampala Geopolitics Conference to discuss the political dynamics in the Great Lakes region under the theme: ‘Power Play in the Great Lakes Region: Regional Dimensions of Peace and Conflict’.

According to Daniel Kalinaki, the general manager editorial at Nation Media Group, power in the Great Lakes is projected differently by the different countries through diplomatic, military and economic means.
Kalinaki says the key drivers of conflict in the region include economic disfranchisement within countries, historical injustices and an absence of genuinely competitive processes leading to politics being exercised through violent means.
“We have too many destructive wars than constructive wars. The colonial project interrupted the organic peace building process because we were left with unresolved, interrupted nation building projects,” he said.

Melina Platas, an assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University in Abu Dhabi, argues that the relationship between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo are intimately connected by politics. This relationship, she says, affects domestic politics, but also domestic politics affect the decisions that leaders make in relation to cooperation with other counties.

Civil war. In August 2015, the Revitalised
Civil war. In August 2015, the Revitalised Agreement was signed in Sudan to end decades of war in the south. However, in July 2016, violent confrontations erupted resulting in another conflict.

“The role of individual leaders should not be underestimated. We primarily think about presidents having a central role in determining what’s going to happen and how they will react at any given moment,” Platas adds.

Stephanie Walters, a senior research fellow based at the Institute of Strategic Studies, says militarily the focus of power in the Great Lakes region has rotated around key countries such as DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. However, she adds, power also lies among the population and the civil society.

“In Burundi, there was a similar kind of dynamic, the mobilisation that we saw in 2015 against the third mandate of Nkurunziza was sustained, driven by the youth and it was more reactionary. In Uganda, there’s emergence of new leaders and activism. These are the big changes in the Great Lakes region. Rwanda remains a different case for citizens to engage in that kind of activity where the state has been effective in suppressing them,” she observes.

Walters adds that peace agreements in the region in the last 20 years have been imbalanced, with a major focus on the DRC. She cites the peace agreement that was signed in an attempt to stabilise the turbulent eastern DRC.
The long awaited Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC that was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2013 after almost three months of talks between regional and international organisations. However, to date the framework largely remains on paper with the threat of the Allied Democratic Forces still operational in eastern DRC.

Prof Jacobs Chol, an assistant professor of International and Comparative Politics at the University of Juba, South Sudan, says the Great Lakes may remain a boiling point for conflict due to spillover effects of the South Sudan conflict.
“We have observed a movement of refugees across South Sudan to Uganda and the DRC. If not given much attention, it may create more conflict in countries that are more stable,” he warns.
Chol says proliferation of weapons from South Sudan into the Great Lakes may continue. He quotes a small arms survey done last year indicating that more than 2,000 guns have crossed the border to Uganda and were sold to cattle owners in north-eastern Uganda.

“When we talk about power play, we have strong leaders in the Great Lakes and these feel that they are stronger than their institutions and this is a very difficult path for sustainable peace,” he says.
He adds that the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) method in managing the peace process has not been handled well.
“The challenge is how peace processes are handled in the Great Lakes region. There has been a scenario where the new liberal approach has been given a huge priority in managing peace processes where leaders share power by getting ministerial positions to resolve conflicts. Do we want to put a lot of effort on peace mediation or peace keeping or peace consolidation?” he asks.

Chol adds that the peace processes are short of looking at the root causes of conflict which could be ethnic, or over control of resources. “The peace processes remain a one-size-fits-all model yet societies are different. There’s need to use the traditional process and using our own resources where there’s a lot healing and sitting around the table to discuss real issues instead of getting funding from Western countries.”
The issue of UN peacekeeping missions remained questionable at the conference. With at least 16,000 troops of different nationalities in South Sudan, and 20,000 troops in DRC, peace has remained elusive.

The invisible hand
Foreign hands have taken sides in conflicts to benefit from resources.
According to Chol, “There are catalysts to maintain and sustain conflict in the region. For instance, many militias in Congo profiteer from natural resources through striking deals with foreign powers to get supply of guns. Resources remain a recipe for conflict.”
Platas says whereas extremism and terrorism have not affected local conflicts to a much extent in the Great Lakes region; it remains a potential threat to peace, especially with al-Shabaab in Somalia which can be used domestically to target other political opponents.
Whereas there is need to understand the history of the region and what has driven the conflict, the question of invisible hands remains a key.
Walters cites the case of DR Congo where Félix Tshisekedi’s victory was contested but key countries and international organisation allowed him to sail through.
“There’s lack of political will by the leadership of individual member states to impose certain kind decisions on individual leaders,” Walters sums up.