DR Congo + 3 more

Averting Proxy Wars in the Eastern DR Congo and Great Lakes | Briefing N° 150 | 23 January 2020

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Three Great Lakes states – Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda – are trading charges of subversion, each accusing another of sponsoring rebels based in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside powers should help the Congolese president resolve these tensions, lest a lethal multi-sided melee ensue.

What's new? Tensions are mounting in Africa's Great Lakes region among Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, all of which allegedly back insurgents based in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the same time, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi is considering inviting these countries into the DRC to fight groups they respectively oppose.

Why does it matter? Given their growing animosity, these three countries, if invited into the DRC, could escalate support to allied militias while targeting enemies. The DRC's neighbours have historically used militias operating there against one another. A new proxy struggle could further destabilise the DRC and even provoke a full-blown regional security crisis.

What should be done? Instead of involving neighbours in military operations, Tshisekedi should redouble his diplomatic efforts to ease regional frictions, building on a recent joint DRC-Angolan initiative and drawing on the UN, U.S., UK and France for support.

I.Overview

Intensifying hostility among states in the Great Lakes threatens a return to the regional wars that tore that region apart in previous decades. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, accuses Burundi and Uganda of backing Rwandan rebels active in the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) North and South Kivu provinces and threatens to retaliate for those groups' attacks on his country. In turn, Burundi and Uganda assert that Rwanda supports Burundian and Ugandan rebels in the DRC. At the same time, the DRC's new president, Félix Tshisekedi, has floated plans to invite Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to conduct joint military operations with DRC troops against insurgents sheltering in his country, a risky policy that could fuel proxy conflicts. Instead, Tshisekedi should prioritise the diplomatic track he has also launched, together with Angolan President João Lourenço, to calm tensions among his neighbours. The UN and Western governments, particularly those of the U.S., UK, and France should throw their weight behind his efforts.

Tensions between Rwanda and its two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda, have escalated over the past two years. In November 2019, Kagame, openly threatened to retaliate against his neighbours after an October 2019 raid in Rwanda by a North Kivu-based militia that he alleges is supported by Burundi and Uganda. For its part, Burundi claims that Rwanda backs Burundian rebels, based in South Kivu, that it asserts are behind recent attacks in Burundi. The Burundian and Rwandan governments have deployed troops to their mutual border. Kagame's longstanding rivalry with his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, has also taken a turn for the worse, with the latter accusing the former of backing DRC-based insurgents against Kampala. Both leaders have purged their security forces of officials perceived as too closely tied to the other, Rwanda has closed the main Rwanda-Uganda border crossing and Uganda has deployed troops to the DRC border. Mounting distrust among the DRC's neighbours carries grave risks for the DRC, given how their rivalries have historically played out in that country.

Tshisekedi, in office for barely a year, has put a welcome premium on diplomacy to ease tensions. Together with Lourenço, he facilitated discussions in July 2019 between the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents in Luanda. Tshisekedi has also worked to improve DRC's relations with Rwanda. At the same time, however, he has pursued a plan under which Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda would conduct military operations, under the DRC army's authority, against insurgencies sheltering in his country. This policy risks fuelling proxy conflicts in the DRC. Instead, the Congolese president should reinvigorate his diplomatic track, bringing in Burundi as well as Rwanda and Uganda. He should invite the UN's special envoy for the Great Lakes to oversee tripartite talks aimed at easing hostilities. The UN envoy should encourage Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan officials to share evidence of their rivals' support for insurgents in the DRC as a first step toward a roadmap for the withdrawal of that backing. The U.S., UK and France should use their long-time influence in the Great Lakes to press for de-escalation.

Our interactive timeline provides a chronology of major conflicts in the Great Lakes region between 1998 and 2020.