On Monday, the third Conclave of the East African Community on the Democratic Republic of Congo conflicts was convened by President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House Nairobi.
It was an almost full house, with Rwanda President Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimiye, DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi, and South Sudan President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, in attendance. Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan was represented by the country’s High Commissioner to Kenya John Stephen Simbachawene.
The leaders directed that a regional force be deployed to the eastern DRC. The long-running conflict in the eastern part of the country has risen a notch since the M23 rebels staged a comeback recently. The DRC government has accused Rwanda – and sections of the Uganda security establishment - of supporting the M23 rebels. Rwanda has denied the accusations, and Uganda – with a military presence inside DRC to fight anti-Kampala rebels – has scoffed at the charges. There is little surprise in these events. Tshisekedi, who won the Congo elections in 2019 in the most unusual circumstances, faces a crunch poll in December 2023. Tshisekedi’s victory was rejected as an “electoral coup” by main rival Martin Fayulu. Fayulu was the candidate of then-outgoing leader Joseph Kabila’s party, but Kabila threw him under the bus and, in a first, allegedly helped steal victory for opposition candidate Tshisekedi.
The bulk of the M23 rebels are Banyamulenge, Congo’s Tutsi. The Tutsi bogeyman is the leading uniting factor for the DRC political class, and absent Kabila’s helping hand, the surprise would have been if Tshisekedi didn’t play the card. On the other hand, the M23 were bound to make moves, part of a wider negotiating ploy ahead of the election.
After December 2023, all these dynamics could change – but the political games could also explode beyond control.
On the same Monday as the EAC leaders met in Nairobi, nearly 9,800 kilometres away Belgian authorities were returning a tooth of the murdered Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba to his children. The move was seen as acknowledging atrocities that marked Belgium’s uniquely brutal rule and exploitation of the former colony.
The gold-capped tooth is the only thing that remains of Lumumba, the first prime minister of the DRC, an anti-imperialist figure whose stature remained high in Africa.
Lumumba was killed by a firing squad by separatists and Belgian mercenaries on January 17, 1961. His murderers dissolved his body in acid, keeping his tooth as a trophy.
Next door at that time, the “Rwandan Revolution”, or the “Hutu Revolution”, or “Wind of Destruction”, which started in 1959, was winding down in 1961. It overthrew the largely Tutsi monarchical class – and saw over 20,000 Tutsi killed and nearly 330,000 flee the country into exile. President Paul Kagame was two years old at the time. He fled with his family to Uganda. Museveni was 15 years old.
The two men were united a second time after October 1990 when the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army launched its return-home war from Uganda. After a rocky start to the campaign, a 33-year-old Kagame, who was an officer in the Uganda military and was on a training course in the US, returned to take charge. The rest is history.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and corrupt Congolese autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko’s support for the genocidaires who fled to DRC, partly explains the war led by Rwanda and backed by Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and others, that ended in his ouster in 1997.
It’s often forgotten that even before 1994, Museveni’s government had been at a virtual war with Mobutu, and the left in his government and military heavily invoked the spirit of Lumumba to delegitimise Mobutu as a western neo-colonial stooge.
At that time, Museveni was the regional ideological hegemon, and the vision he espoused was of a “confederation of East and Central Africa”, most prominently in his 1996 campaign manifesto. The EAC revival in November 1999, was a minimum programme, in that context. The joining of Rwanda, Burundi, and lately DRC, brought the fruition of that 1996 East and Central African confederation closer.
A line runs from the “Rwanda Revolution”, the country’s independence, the assassination of Lumumba, Museveni’s rise to power, the 1994 genocide, Mobutu’s fall, the end of the last Cold War hot war in Africa with the killing of Jonas Savimbi in Angola in 2002 (Angola was a Cold War battleground, with the US, apartheid South Africa, and Mobutu backing Savimbi, while the ruling MPLA received support from the former Soviet Union and Cuba), the crisis that led to Robert Mugabe’s ouster in 2017. The list is long.
We cannot tell what might become of Lumumba’s tooth in the years to come, or the forces it might unleash. As Tshisekedi received a bear hug from Kenyatta, we also couldn’t help but wonder how much he was aware of the historical demons he is stirring.
The Monday meeting at the Nairobi State House might turn out to be just a bleep in the long, unfolding East and Central Africa saga. Or it might not.