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From Embassy Row to the Congolese Street
From Embassy Row to the Congolese Street
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Philippe Kadima Cintu crosses the River Congo in a "pirogue" motorised canoe while doing field research in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo. CRISIS GROUP
Impact Note / Africa

From Embassy Row to the Congolese Street

Six months into research fellowships made possible by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, we catch up with three young experts now working with our Europe, Africa and Middle East teams. Here we interview Philippe Kadima Cintu, who is focusing on his own country, DR Congo.

Philippe Kadima Cintu used to be busy with diplomatic niceties as part of one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s main embassies in Africa. Now he is rediscovering his native country as a Giustra Fellow with International Crisis Group – meeting and interviewing everybody as he crisscrosses the country by plane, bus and motorised canoe.

“In my old job, I dealt with high-level politicians, VIPs. I didn’t have time to go to the field or speak to people on the ground”, Philippe said. “Now I speak with everyone, humanitarians, soldiers, civilians, local leaders, refugees. It changed my perspective on how the country is being managed, how to end poverty, how to bring peace, how to bring the country together. I’ve experienced the grassroots. I see things differently”.

Philippe is one of three Giustra Fellows who joined International Crisis Group six months ago and now support all aspects of Crisis Group’s mission to prevent deadly conflict, with a focus on how conflict causes crises of refugees and migration. The program, made possible by a $1 million gift by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, aims to give first-hand experience to young experts in the countries where Crisis Group works and to build capacity through training and mentorship of Crisis Group’s method of research and analysis.

DR Congo’s past and present conflicts mean this vast country of 70 million people has at least three million refugees and IDPs, and Philippe is certain that understanding their problems is vital to have a full picture of domestic politics. With elections due to be held before the end of 2017, what happens to them is a constant worry as displaced people may have trouble accessing their voting stations, armed groups prevent the displaced from returning home and state protection is often weak.

We speak to more people than in other jobs, whether it’s for fifteen minutes or two hours... I realised how much work lay behind Crisis Group reports, and also how they change people’s minds.

Based in the Africa Program’s eastern hub in Nairobi, Philippe has now been on three research trips to DR Congo in his new role, each for more than two weeks. He began by working with the senior analyst covering the country, meeting contacts in the capital. Then they went together to the troubled, resource-rich region of Katanga.

“I learned how to do interviews. You don’t go with a questionnaire, you just have a conversation with people, you allow them to express themselves. That way you get the necessary information you need to make an analysis. It was very useful”, Philippe said. “Sometimes you make notes in front of them, when they are very comfortable. Sometimes I just listen and make notes later”.

On his last trip he travelled alone to Kisingani to study the work of the Electoral Commission. He quickly found himself meeting many more people than just the head of the commission in the province. In the end, the list included the provincial government, ministers, members of parliament, political parties, civil society activists working on elections, NGOs, the UN, security people, the police and the army.

“It seems to me that we speak to more people than in other jobs, whether it’s for fifteen minutes or two hours. You quickly learn who is interesting and who isn’t. I realised how much work lay behind Crisis Group reports, and also how they change people’s minds”, Philippe said. “For instance, I felt different when I spoke to the governor. When you share your knowledge, when you think through what should be done together, you really are part of an exchange. People are more accepting when you share your point of view like that”.

We got feedback about our articles from politicians saying what we were doing was helping avoid violence.

For instance, when he was meeting another leading Kisingani official, he realised that his interviewee was only meeting officials from far-away powers like the U.S., the UN, Belgium and others. “I said, didn’t you ever think of speaking to Africans from the African Union?” Philippe remembered. “They said, no, we never thought of that. We should. Now you see them talking to Africans”.

Philippe’s persuasion is not all talking, as he has contributed to more than ten reports, commentaries and op-eds published by Crisis Group on DR Congo in the past six months. He has also enriched the Central Africa team, helping with internal training on international policy formulation and post-field trip debriefs. He believes that one article in particular, Course contre la montre (A Race Against Time) published on the prominent website Jeune Afrique, was influential in promoting dialogue and persuading the Congolese not to take their anger onto the streets where events could run out of control.

“We got feedback about our articles from politicians saying what we were doing was helping avoid violence”, Philippe said. “And after the Jeune Afrique article, I got a call from the assistant of the police commissioner, telling me: ‘The points you make are really right’”.

Philippe believes his experiences so far are improving his capacity for analysis, partly because his former government work was mainly about getting people to do things as quickly as possible from a list of instructions.

“I am learning how to create a message. I’ll be a better adviser in future”, he said. “Sometimes a lot of people can’t do much, but a small organisation like Crisis Group, with just 110 people all told, can be seen as a big organisation by the people I deal with. I couldn’t believe that a small group can do such big stuff”.

Philippe Kadima Cintu, a Congolese national, is proficient in French, English, Portuguese, Lingala and Swahili. He previously worked at the DR Congo’s Embassy in South Africa and in Burundi as part of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Philippe received his degree in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and his post-graduate diploma in Humanitarian and Development Management from the University of Wits at Johannesburg.

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.