In her book, In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz, British author Michela Wrong writes about the fall of Mobutu in 1997: “In a momentary coalition of regional interests never before witnessed in Africa,” turning Zaire into “the terrain on which alien forces worked out ancient grudges, with the locals swept along for the ride.” Mobutu -- who by then was dying of prostate cancer -- was sent into exile with surpassing swiftness, and Laurent Kabila installed in his stead.”
His defeat began a new phase of a deadly conflict as soldiers subdued locals with barrel of the gun killing millions while those who escaped died of negligible diseases.
Plagued by ethnic cleansing, DR Congo became a theatre of war sucking in neighbouring African states, which fought for territory as its resources were carted off.
“The second Congo war was a mess; it left a lot of scars in the psyche of the Congolese people. There is no need to move our armies across the Congo but let us train them so that they can liberate themselves,” argued Mr Okwir Rabwoni, the Western Youth MP in the Sixth Parliament, who was against Uganda’s deployment of troops in DRC.
Parts of eastern Congo remain under the clutches of Congolese militias, Uganda’s ADF rebels and FDLR elements fighting the Kigali regime as thousands continue to flee the war-wracked country and into Uganda.
Daily Monitor last month reported that EAC partner states failed to reach an agreement for a joint military operation against rebel groups operating in eastern DRC.
The plan to have the joint military offensive was proposed by DRC government and supported by Rwanda but the other countries were reluctant to endorse the move. At the meeting, Uganda was represented by the Commander of Land Forces, Lt Gen Peter Elwelu, and the then 2nd Division Commander, Brig Kayanja Muhanga.
This comes at the time DRC is seeking to join EAC. Whereas it is not clear when the trade bloc could take a decision on the application, the conduct of regional players such as Uganda and Rwanda seeks to favour the deal.
“This request follows the ever-increasing trade between the economic players of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and those of the states of the Community,” wrote President Felix Tshisekedi on June 8.
The desire of his government, Mr Tshisekedi observed, is to join the Community of regional leaders “so that we can work together for the development of our respective countries and stabilise this part of Africa.”
In terms of trade, DRC accounts for about six percent of total exports from EAC countries.
“This is a realisation by actors in the region that you can’t face challenges individually but as a bloc. We are much aware that the region has had two challenges emanating from South Sudan and DRC. The question of arms proliferation in South Sudan and rebel groups that affected Uganda has been addressed,” Mr Grace Masiko a former journalist who covered the DRC conflict in the late 1990s, says.
Currently a security firm manager, Mr Masiko says the problems of DRC can be resolved easily under EAC.
“First of all, there is absence of an effective administration in most parts of Congo, which is so huge. Many educated Congolese have never stepped in Kinshasha because there are no roads and one needs to travel by air,” he says.
Barely after Mr Tshisekedi was elected DRC president after the retirement of Mr Joseph Kabila, both Kampala and Kigali that have historically had hostile relations with Kinshasha engaged shuttle diplomacy to win the confidence of the new leader. In November, Mr Tshisekedi visited Kampala for the first ever Uganda-DRC Business Forum.
“Uganda and DRC have concluded a number of cooperation frameworks. These include but are not limited to cooperation in: health; peace and security; energy and mineral development; socio-economic infrastructure; trade and investment, among others,” a statement from Uganda’s Foreign Affairs ministry read. If accepted into the EAC, Congo brings on board a market of 87 million people to the trade bloc.
Speaking about DRC’s desire to join the EAC, Mr Rabwoni says: “Congo brings for the first time East Africa having an access to another ocean so that we straddle the continent both in the Indian Ocean and Atlantic.”
He argues that one of the biggest hindrances of development in Africa is landlocked countries.
“It is a welcome development and great opportunity for EAC to expand. Given the resource endowment of the DRC, it will make the region wealthier and stronger. It will be difficult for other players to ignore it and if stabilized, it can act as the bridgehead of Africa,” Mr David Pulkol, the former director general of the External Security Organisation, says.
Mr Pulkol says DRC can play an advanced role in the economic integration of Africa. DRC has the capacity to light up much of the continent with the projection that its Inga dam can produce 110,000MW of hydropower. But like the paradox of plenty, the country is beset by a number of problems.
“Congo’s problem was that of state collapse like Somalia. When a state collapses, there is a vacuum. In Physics, they say nature abhors a vacuum. Other opportunistic forces take change. That is why non-state actors in Ituri, in North Kivu, in South Kivu, given the wealth that is there and the absence of the state, the rest is automatic, somebody is bound to take advantage,” Mr Rabwoni says.
He adds that non-state actors, who have an axe to grind with the governments in the region, find DRC a safe haven for training for logistics, refreshment and rejuvenation. “That is how the ADF, which was defeated in Kasese, relocated to the DRC,” Mr Rabwoni adds.
However, as DRC seeks to join EAC, it will be confronted by deep-seated suspicion and a history of animosity largely from Kigali and Kampala. In 1997, the Ugandan and Rwandan armies fought as allies to oust Mobutu and helped install Laurent Kabila as president.
“If Africa had come together in 1997 after the first war that had overthrown Mobutu and tried to offer a Marshall plan, maybe we could not have this problem. Stabilising Congo could have helped the regional economy,” Mr Rwaboni says.
But the two armies fell out and between August 1999 and May 2000, the Kisangani battles left thousands most of whom were civilians dead.
“There are some armies in this region which are accused of genocide in the region. But it is not only Uganda and Rwanda [that have problems with DRC]. Congolese have problems with Angola and Zimbabweans. Zimbabweans were accused of grabbing land and forests and timber. We have to heal the Congo so that the Congo can help us as a region, and if we don’t bring repercussions, because the refugees will come and all the other attendant problems of state collapse,” Mr Rabwoni adds.
In 2005, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded DRC $10b for the plunder of its resources by the Ugandan army.
Anchored on Uganda’s impassioned pleas to The Hague-based court, ICJ has accepted to review the award, which is more than a third of Uganda’s GDP. Acts of brinkmanship largely from neighbouring states through their proxies continue to pose a threat to DRC as well as the problem of ethnicity and politics of identity. In 2012, Uganda and Rwanda were accused by the UN of propping up the M-23 rebellion in eastern Congo, allegations they both denied.
“The Tutsi-Hutu question has dogged the quadruplets of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. The Hutu and Tutsi are not the problem, the rest of the community should see them as a problem, which should be resolved,” Mr Pulkol says.
He adds that as DRC seeks to join EAC, “it is a pity that the region cannot hold the summit and the rest of the community is not raising up to stop tension between Uganda and Rwanda, and Rwanda and Burundi.”
“The current leaders in the region should seize this opportunity to unite the region rather than tear it apart. They must reject the squabbles and if they can’t, they must be replaced by those who can tackle challenges,” Mr Pulkol says.
In February, Rwanda closed its border at Gatuna and Cyanika, in Kabale and Kisoro districts respectively, a decision, which has disrupted trade.
On August 21, Rwanda President Paul Kagame and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni signed a pact in Angola’s capital Luanda aimed at ending months of hostility based on accusations of espionage and financing rebel activities.
“The most fundamental one, which could have caused a big spark is Rwanda in the past recruitment of military and intelligence officers and paying them. It is on record that Rwanda recruited and paid senior Uganda police officers to deliver the Kigali agenda to forcefully extradite perceived enemies. Those in security circles were doing this in total breach of the trust and confidence of the Ugandan government. Definitely that compromised our security,” Mr Masiko says.
He claims that Uganda realised that there was infiltration and allowed these activities to go on until they could be exposed on a larger scale.
Rwanda has accused Uganda of offering a safe haven to rebel fighters who are keen to sow mayhem in Rwanda.
During the swearing-in-ceremony of new army chiefs and ministers on November 14, President Kagame warned: “We are going to raise the cost on the part of anybody who wants to destabilise our security. The cost is going to be very high. It is also the cost mainly that those people who want to destabilise our country are going to incur; it is going to be a very high cost on their part, absolutely. And I mean it, and you know that I mean it.”
Mr Rabwoni says it is incumbent upon the intelligentsia, civil society and citizens to pressure their leaders to adopt diplomacy.
“I believe our leaders are sober enough not to reach the brink. The citizenry of the East African Community have to play a role in bringing leaders to account. Once that is understood, the leaders will react positively. We need citizen advocacy in the area of diplomatic policy,” he says
But Mr Rabwoni warns that EAC could only be as good as the individual member states. “If governance in the partner states is poor, if regional and integration consciousness of the component parts of the East African community is weak, then the EAC will be weak,” he says.
South Sudan, a fragile state, which recently joined the EAC, remains locked in conflict since 2013.
In a November meeting mediated by President Museveni and Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his former vice president-turned foe Riek Machar agreed to push back by 100 days the formation of the new administration.
The talks in Entebbe observed that critical tasks remain unresolved, including those related to security arrangements, governance and the integration of fighting forces.
“The EU was tired of war. After the Second World War, they [citizens] said peace and security is too important to be left in the hands of politicians,” Mr Rabwoni says.
Impact on trade. Intra-regional trade within the EAC is currently very low standing at just less than 20 per cent. With DRC in the picture the volumes are expected to increase from the current figures. The EAC Secretariat, draft trade and investment report of 2017 indicates that the total value of intra-EAC trade fell by 14.6 per cent to $4.4b (Shs16.5 trillion) in 2016, from $5.1b (Shs19.1 trillion) in 2015.