icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
African Powers Must Support Democracy in DR Congo
African Powers Must Support Democracy in DR Congo
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila arrives for a southern and central African leaders' meeting to discuss the political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Luanda, Angola, on 26 October, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe.
Commentary / Africa

African Powers Must Support Democracy in DR Congo

African leaders meeting in Luanda this week got part of the way to solving the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) political crisis, endorsing a proposed sixteen-month delay for the DRC’s presidential election. But to ensure the frustration of the DRC opposition and popular anger does not spill over into more violence, they must do much more to make sure the elections actually happen this time.

The DRC Constitution stipulates that the election should take place by 19 December, but the lack of preparation means this now cannot happen. This has sparked a political crisis over the future of President Joseph Kabila, who appears determined to defy the constitution’s ban on him standing for another term and staying in power beyond that date.

Since September, the African Union has mediated a Congolese dialogue in which some but not all domestic DRC parties discussed how to deal with what should happen after December. They reached a political agreement on 18 October. This is what was endorsed by the leaders in Luanda, meeting under the auspices of the follow-up mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework (PSCF) for the DRC.

But the political agreement lacks domestic consensus and has controversial elements. Its call to monitor (“control”) the activities of NGOs in the election process is worrying at a time that Kinshasa is clamping down on civil society. It places the election date at the end of April 2018, but says nothing about the president not standing again, even if the preamble underlines the need for a change of regime through democratic elections. And it says nothing about any limits on presidential or government powers after the 19 December constitutional deadline.

The agreement has been signed by the ruling party and its allies, the ‘moderate’ opposition and those civil society organisations that participated in the dialogue. It “remains open” to other signatories. This reflects the weakness of the dialogue itself, which did not include the biggest parties and personalities of the opposition, Etienne Tshisikedi and Moise Katumbi. The Catholic Church, the strongest moral arbiter in the country, has criticised the agreement and called for a new dialogue.

The DRC authorities have barely tried to disguise their satisfaction regarding the soon-to-be-formed transitional coalition government as a price worth paying for such generous breathing space. Meanwhile the Constitutional Court, which back in May supported Kabila staying in power beyond the end of his mandate in December, has seemingly validated the new electoral timeline, although serious questions remain as to whether the requisite number of judges were present to do so.

The government and opposition remain miles apart, pointing to a dangerous political polarisation which contains serious risks of continued urban violence.

Civil society groups have criticised the agreement, focusing on the overly generous timeframe for the elections and the failure to clearly state that President Kabila should not stand in future elections. Some have simply continued to call for him to stand aside in December. The Rassemblement opposition group has condemned the agreement and called for a fresh dialogue. Previously, on 4 October, it had called for a “special regime” to be put in place following 19 December, rather than for President Kabila to stay on with full powers.

The government and opposition remain miles apart, pointing to a dangerous political polarisation which contains serious risks of continued urban violence. To make matters more complicated, the international community is reflecting this division back at them.

Western powers have become increasingly strident in their criticisms of the government: in a recent statement the European Union (EU) took its hardest line yet against the government’s strategies for delaying the elections, moving its position closer to that of the U.S. By contrast, Angola, the host of this week’s meeting in Luanda, had already effectively endorsed the agreement before delegates had arrived. Foreign Minister Georges Chicoti said it should be accepted and the proposed new election date in April 2018 supported, otherwise “everyone would make up their own calendar”.

This situation presents three immediate dangers. The first is the evident distance between the government and the opposition. Suspicions that some politicians may enter government to refill their electoral war chests will fuel anger, while the opposition will feel emboldened by Western backing and by popular support apparently evident in recent polling.

The second danger is the ever-widening gap between Western and African positions, playing out in a context of anti-Westernism expressed through growing hostility on the continent to the International Criminal Court. This will only encourage the hardliners in the government and opposition alike to camp on their positions, and make resolution harder.

Finally, the rapid and almost unconditional acceptance of the agreement by leaders assembled in Luanda means that Kinshasa will feel under little pressure to implement it and actually stage the elections. The government, which has spent two years perfecting ways of slowing down preparations for polls, may simply repeat for the April 2018 deadline what it has already done for the one in December 2016.

If African powers ... are to rally round this agreement, they need at the same time to seize this vital opportunity to put real and sustained pressure on the government in Kinshasa to get to elections

If African powers, especially the key players Angola and South Africa, are to rally round this agreement, they need at the same time to seize this vital opportunity to put real and sustained pressure on the government in Kinshasa to get to elections – no excuses this time. African powers should demand clear timetables, agree upon benchmarks (including a commitment to the provision of funding for the elections by the national government, as well as the opening of political space) and clarity of responsibilities between the independent electoral commission and other relevant government institutions to ensure polls are held by April 2018.

This will mean close, hands-on supervision of the implementation of the agreement through the follow-up committee of the dialogue, which has been given a regionally constituted role for international support. But most of all it will need sustained, fully coordinated diplomatic pressure, particularly by those African powers that have contributed to the agreement. Any weakness or division will be taken by Kinshasa as a signal to again slow down preparations for any election.

As for Western powers, they may have reasons to be unhappy with the agreement. But faced with a choice between working to brace and to implement the African position and ploughing their own furrow, they should choose the former.

Read the PDF version here.

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.