HomeAfricaAre We Witnessing A Power Shift In Africa's Great Lakes Region?

Are We Witnessing A Power Shift In Africa’s Great Lakes Region?


Africa Great Lakes Region
Africa’s Great Lakes region

AFRICANGLOBE – The termination of the M23 rebel group signals a major shift in regional power relations in the Great Lakes and east Africa region.

The M23 insurgency has ended. The immediate reason is comprehensive military defeat at the hands of the Congolese army, heavily supported by the UN. The Congolese army, the FARDC has performed better than expected, the UN mission – notably the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) – has stepped up, and the M23 edifice proved to be largely hollow. It was pushed out of the last remaining towns under its control in a matter of days, and has now seemingly decided to down arms.

The second-order reason is Rwanda’s decision to remain disengaged. Where the M23 had previously benefitted from Rwandan support, documented in detail by successive reports of a UN panel of experts, it was this time left to stand or fall on its own. It is a potentially important – even epochal – change.

There has been a Rwandan-linked politico-military group active in eastern DRC since the late 1990s. That Kigali currently seems content to abandon this long-standing policy suggests a significant shift in its strategic thinking.

The most important question is: what drove this change? Many commentators have pointed to Western diplomacy as the answer, notably the direct personal engagement of senior figures – US Secretary of State John Kerry and UK Foreign Minister William Hague among them – in dissuading the Rwandan leadership from any further cross-border adventures.

Combined with suspensions or cuts to military and development assistance, as well as the erosion of Rwanda’s hard-won international reputation, this is postulated to have been decisive in changing the parameters of the strategic equation being balanced in Kigali.

But, while important, this is not necessarily the whole story. In fact, Rwanda’s partners in the donor community have pulled such levers many times in the past, notably following the exposure of Rwandan support to the DRC-based CNDP militia established by Laurent Nkunda – again by a UN panel of experts – in late 2008. Though that period of pressure resulted in a short-term peace deal, it did not fundamentally change the terrain. The birth of the M23 in early 2012 emphatically was proof of that.

There are two other factors to consider. The first is the gradual erosion of support for Rwandan-linked groups from the Congolese communities on whose behalf they have putatively been operating. The vast majority of former CNDP forces that integrated into the national army at the time of a peace treaty in 2009 have remained in post, resisting the temptation to join their former comrades in the M23.

Many are from the Congolese Tutsi community, historically at the heart of the Rwandan-linked rebellions. Though there will be as many motives as there are individuals, it seems likely that many have recognised that there is little to gain from perpetual conflict. The majority of their grievances, from a dysfunctional state to pervasive insecurity, are shared by all Congolese, and, in the long-run, holding a – literal and metaphorical – gun to the Congolese body politic only serves to make things worse.

The second is a shift in regional politics. Observers have long posited a division of the DRC into informal zones of influence between the DRC’s neighbours. The west, key to Angola’s national security, fell under a tacit security guarantee underwritten by Luanda; the east, including the Kivus, were left open to Rwandan – and, to a lesser extent, Ugandan – influence.

Although this arrangement may have been sufficient to maintain stability across the majority of the DRC’s territory, away from the hot zones of the Kivus, it was at the price of real progress in infrastructure, development or growth beyond the extractives sector.

While such a stasis may have been acceptable for Angola, it seems to have been less so for Angola’s partners in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). A ‘neutral intervention force’ for eastern DRC was mooted by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in mid-2012 but dismissed by many as a distraction. After months of inconclusive discussion, it was a SADC summit in Tanzania in December 2012 that transformed the idea into a political reality, committing a standby force – including Tanzanian and South African battalions under a Tanzanian commander.

Though the resulting Force Intervention Brigade was eventually deployed under the overall command of the UN, it retains Tanzanian leadership and South African muscle, including state-of-the-art attack helicopters. South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, was on a high profile visit to Kinshasa at the moment of M23’s demise, and South Africa subsequently hosted a joint ICGLR-SADC conference to nail down the terms of the peace. The Kivus, long caught in a murderous push-pull between central and east Africa, may just have been firmly claimed for the South.

Thus, despite the focus of many commentators on the diplomatic role of the donors, it was its alignment with an African-led initiative that made the real difference. Put simply, humiliating South Africa and Tanzania would carry very different costs for Kigali than rolling-over a much-maligned UN mission. Such a tectonic shift may have long-term implications elsewhere – notably an emerging realignment in the East African Community towards a Rwandan-Ugandan-Kenyan axis that seems to exclude Tanzania – but it may have brought some much-needed respite to the long-suffering people of eastern DRC.


By: Ben Shepherd 

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