State of affairs as EAC leaders discuss DRC

An extra-ordinary summit of the East African Community Heads of State was convened yesterday in Burundi to discuss the bloody turmoil in eastern DR Congo in what has remained an elusive search for peace. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The DR Congo turmoil remains a major concern for the EAC bloc as leaders try to come up with ways to resolve matters

Nairobi/Arusha. East African leaders met in Burundi yesterday to discuss ways to defuse the raging conflict in eastern DR Congo.

The talks are hosted by the seven-nation East Africa Community (EAC), which is leading mediation efforts to end the fighting in the restive east of the giant central African nation.

A resurgent rebel group known as the M23 has taken large swathes of land in the mineral-rich region and is still advancing despite a peace roadmap reached in the Angolan capital in July last year.

Among those at the meeting in the lakeside economic hub of Bujumbura are Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, which is accused of backing M23 in a conflict that has exacerbated regional tensions.

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan and her Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni also attended the extraordinary meeting.

EAC chair and Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye said on Twitter that the meeting would evaluate the situation with “a view of coming up with decisions that will ameliorate the security situation and facilitate the restoration of peace and security in eastern DRC.”

The Congolese presidency said the Luanda roadmap demanded the “effective and definitive withdrawal” of M23 and Rwanda Defense Force troops from occupied zones before January 15.

“The terrorist troops from M23 have never left these zones; on the contrary, M23 and its allies have expanded their areas of occupation,” it said on Facebook.

Mr Kagame is on his first visit to Burundi since 2013, with relations long frayed between the Great Lakes neighbours.

As the leaders met, social media was awash with the message that not much should be expected from the talks as the underlying cause of the crisis had not been fully addressed.

“Make sure you don’t just go there to waste time while civilians are suffering,” tweeted one of them, saying DRC has found itself in a challenging situation as a new EAC member.

Other analysts insisted that the EAC-brokered Nairobi and Luanda peace processes should aim to build peace “and not inflame war.”

“The quest for peace in eastern DRC is a top regional priority. The gains of integration can only be realized if peace and security are established throughout the region,” EAC secretary general Peter Mathuki was quoted as saying at the summit.

‘Brutal atrocities’

The EAC meeting is taking place shortly after a visit by Pope Francis to Kinshasa, where he met victims of the conflict and condemned the “inhumane violence” and “brutal atrocities” taking place.

Militias have plagued the mineral-rich region for decades, many of them a legacy of regional wars that flared during the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Since November 2021, the M23 has seized chunks of territory in the east and come within miles (kilometres) of its main commercial hub, Goma.

The EAC decided to create a military force to pacify eastern Congo last year, with the first troops arriving in Goma in November.

The DRC’s accusations that Rwanda is backing the M23 have been supported by UN experts, the United States, and other Western countries, but Kigali denies the charge.

Last week, Qatar had planned to host a meeting between Mr Tshisekedi and Mr Kagame, but diplomats said the Congolese leader refused to attend.

Tensions between the two countries were inflamed last week when Rwandan forces opened fire at a Congolese fighter jet they said had violated Rwandan airspace.

Kinshasa described it as an attack that amounted to “an act of war.”

The summit also signals a possible rapprochement between Burundi and Rwanda, with their two leaders greeting each other warmly in Bujumbura.

The two tiny countries have long had tempestuous relations, each accusing the other of interfering in its internal affairs.

In 2020, Mr Kagame urged the then newly-elected Mr Ndayishimiye to reset diplomatic ties, but his overture was rejected as “hypocritical.”

Burundi has accused Rwanda of harbouring those behind a failed coup in 2015 that plunged the country into violent chaos.

In a statement ahead of the EAC summit, Kenya’s President William Ruto said the international community needed to act to protect Congo’s resources, a key source of the myriad conflicts.

“The moment is long overdue for the international community to most vigilantly audit industrial supply chains and make sure that global production and consumption honour Congolese resource sovereignty and do not profit from conflict and human suffering,” he said.

The DRC is awash with minerals and precious stones, from gold, diamonds, and coltan to tin, copper, and cobalt. But the decades of war and chronic mismanagement mean that little of the enormous wealth trickles down to the population of some 100 million people.