High stakes for friends and foes as Congo heads to polls

NAIROBI • From the countries who share the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) vast border — some of which stirred its devastating conflicts — to international powers invested in peace efforts, the impact of upcoming elections looks set to reverberate far and wide.

Here are some of the implications of the DRC’s crucial Dec 23 vote to replace President Joseph Kabila, for nations in the intertwined region and the international community working in the resource-rich country.

It has been over a decade since Kinshasa’s neighbours fought Africa’s “Great War” on its soil, but from across its borders, they still jealously guard their interests in the troubled nation.

The current regime in the DRC is the direct result of its neighbours’ interventions in two conflicts between 1996 and 2003 that drew in troops from up to seven African countries and left millions dead.

The regional fire was lit by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as some two million mostly Hutu refugees including those who led the massacres, flooded into eastern Congo.

Rebels used their camps as a new base from which to stage attacks in Rwanda, prompting Kigali to invade the DRC.

Rwanda also, with the help of Uganda, backed a Congolese rebellion which led to the overthrow of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and saw Laurent-Desire Kabila become president in 1997.

Barely a year later a second conflict began.

Laurent-Desire turned his back on his Rwandan and Ugandan allies who then invaded the country again and fought Congolese troops backed by troops from Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Chad. Burundi also carried out limited operations, while Libya and Sudan offered support to Kinshasa.

Laurent-Desire was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph became president.

In the years since, the DRC has maintained complex ties with its neighbours, marked by mistrust and the plundering of its considerable natural resources.

“The development of mineral riches, controlled by powerful Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan interests, is growing and thriving” in the restive east of the country, said Andre Guichaoua, a professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University.

While the resource extraction continues, those involved have increasingly begun to work side by side.

“Over the course of time, in the eastern Congo, the different networks plundering resources who were rivals, realised that they could all get along without fighting to the death,” said Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations.

He said the disappearance of clearly “Rwanda-backed” rebel groups believed to have been deployed to protect these mineral interests — such as the National Congress for the Defence of the People in the 2000s or the March 23 Movement in the early 2010s — is evidence of this cohabitation.

Guichaoua described the situation in the east as a “co-managed destabilisation”.

In its June 2018 report, the United Nations (UN) Security Council’s group of experts on the DRC said “a large part of the gold sold by Uganda and Rwanda was illegally extracted from neighbouring countries, including the DRC”.

In Angola, the government of President Joao Lourenco has pushed for the holding of elections, and for Joseph not to be a candidate.

Luanda is keen to protect its offshore oil interests — which Kinshasa argues are in its waters — and resume control of diamond mining in the north.

Some 400,000 Congolese miners were recently expelled or fled Angola after a massive operation against diamond smuggling.

Further to the south, Burundi and Tanzania have better relations with Kinshasa, based on similar ideological views and other common interests.

Kinshasa and Bujumbura signed a cooperation deal to fight the Burundian opposition which sought refuge in South-Kivu after a political crisis broke out in the country in 2015.

And in Tanzania, where the Kabila clan lived in exile before taking power and still has financial interests, President John Magufuli’s African nationalist views echo those of his counterpart in Kinshasa.

The UN has been present in DRC for 20 years, and its Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) peacekeeping force is one of the biggest in the world.

However, in the name of “national sovereignty”, Kinshasa has refused any logistical or financial assistance from the international community, as well as the presence of any western observers.

Kinshasa has even refused the assistance of MONUSCO aviation in transporting electoral material across the country of 2.3 million sq km, which has only 3,400km of paved roads.

“We are not a country of beggars,” said President Joseph.

Only 200 African observers are being allowed to observe voting in 80,000 polling stations available to the 40 million registered voters. — AFP