In a period of less than three months during which he has been in office, DR Congo President Félix Tshisekedi has been to three of the six member states of the East African Community (EAC).
On average, that’s the highest of any president in the region and the first DR Congo President to make such visits in the region in such a short time following ascendance to power.
On February 7, he was in Kenya for talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta. This past Friday, March 22, Tshisekedi was in Uganda.
Yesterday, Sunday March 24, the DRC leader arrived in Rwanda for a two-day state visit and held bilateral talks with President Paul Kagame.
During his stay in the country, he will also attend the Africa CEO Forum, at which function, Tshisekedi will unveil his economic recovery plan for DRC; according to event organizers.
Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Richard Sezibera said on March 13 on the sidelines of the retreat of Rwandan envoys that Tshisekedi’s visit was aimed at “strengthening bilateral relations”.
“We see that our relations are good and continue getting better and better, be it in cooperation and curtailing those who wish to destabilise Rwanda’s security that are [operating] in Congo,” he told journalists.
Just what is making the new DRC leader go on one-trip-after-another in neighbouring countries just less than three months after his election yet there is plenty to handle inside his country; including the unresolved formation of a full cabinet due to internal political dynamics and lack of a majority in parliament?
According to Dr. Eric Ndushabandi, a lecturer of political science and Director of the Institute for research and Dialogue for Peace (IRDP), since the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, there are considerable elements that have made DRC remain connected to Rwanda.
He cites the large number of Rwandan refugees in eastern DR Congo. There are negative forces such as the so called democratic forces for the liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) whose members participated in the genocide. Most recently, there is the so called “P5”.
President Tshisekedi, says Dr. Ndushabandi, has been positioning himself as a new leader different from his predecessor Joseph Kabila.
“Tshisekedi seems to legitimize his presidency as a guarantor of change in perception of stability and security. The fundamental change is to see Rwanda as “acteur incontournable” for peace and security in Eastern Congo and in the region,” said Dr. Ndushabandi.
Politically, he says, “the visit means a lot as it [could] modify [the negative] mutual perceptions, then create new room for bilateral relations in security and military cooperation to eradicate negative forces, engage in economic exchange [in areas such as gas, electricity, technology, transportation].”
For Prof Herman Musahara, Associate professor of economics, and Acting Director of the University of Rwanda’s Consultancy Services Bureau, there is quite a list of what President Tshisekedi needs from Rwanda.
“Rwanda is… heading EAC. It’s good for economic diplomacy if DRC is to the join” the regional economic community (REC), said Musahara, referring to President Kagame being the current chair of the EAC.
He added: “Rwanda is a country through which DRC goods pass. It is home to some of its citizens. The visits means good and well.”
He added that visiting Uganda and Kenya was also strategically good.
President Tshisekedi, argues Musahara, “could have visited Belgium or South Africa first. Visiting EAC countries first is symbolic and meaningful in relation to trade and politics. Heads of State matter much in terms of diplomacy and politics. In this regard having regard to both Uganda and Rwanda speaks a lot and can strengthen the common belief in good relations among countries that share borders.”
Dr Ismail Buchanan, a senior lecturer in international reations at UR, the general expectation is that efforts of both leaders will lead to stabilisation of the eastern Congo, which will eventually open huge opportunities for the region.
Mr Paul Mbaraga, a longtime journalist and currently lecturer at University of Rwanda’s School of Journalism and Communication, sees the visit as a way of drawing common understanding on fighting and eradicating terrorist groups.
He says President Tshisekedi has more interest in creating a regional agreement to eliminate terrorist groups in the east of his country, adding: “eradicating those groups is largely in the interest of Congo because they continuously kill innocent Congolese civilians.”
In light of the deteriorating relations between Rwanda and Uganda, DRC has become even more central to both countries and what that country’s new leader will do during his tenure especially that both Rwanda and Uganda have rebel groups fighting their countries based in Tshisekedi’s DRC.
That means that Tshisekedi’s marathon visits to regional countries is not merely about business or wooing leaders to support his country joining the EAC but is largely about geopolitics and a contest by regional leaders to secure the support of DR Congo’s new leader.
Since the defeat of the genocidal regime in Rwanda in July 1994 and its relocation to the then Zaire, (now DRC) and securing the support of the then President Mobutu Sese Seko, that country hasn’t known peace. And the Congolese state has, since that time, never managed to secure its entire territory.
How President Tshisekedi deals with the problem of rebel groups like FDLR, “P5” bent on fighting the Rwanda Government and ADF fighting the Ugandan government will determine whether he succeeds to bring peace and stability to his country.
It’s now 23 years since the outbreak of the war in the then Zaire in 1996 led by Laurent Désire Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. Since then, guns have never completely been silenced.
Instead, as a UN Expert report revealed on December 31, 2018, old rebel groups like FDLR and new ones like “P5” led by former Chief of Staff of Rwandan military, Lt. Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa are being strengthened through a network recruitment fighters and stretching from South Africa to Burundi to Uganda and Tanzania, among other places.
The Rwanda-Uganda standoff then─where the former accuses the latter of supporting Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC─and therefore “P5” has heightened tensions and the possibility of another proxy war in the DRC.
This conflict, in which even Burundi is actively included─as it considers Rwanda an enemy─is likely to affect geopolitics─depending on Tshisekendi’s approach and whose side he decides to throw his weight and his country’s support on.
How will Tshisekedi handle the problem of rebel groups with recurrent bases in his country that use them to launch attacks on neighbouring countries?
Whose side will he take in the Rwanda-Uganda conflict? Or will he be the peacemaker who refuses to take sides and works with both countries to fight and defeat rebels once and for all?
How Tshisekedi answers these questions will determine whether he brings peace and stability to his country or refuels conflict.
Mobutu’s support for the genocidal regime led to his overthrow. Laurent Désire Kabila was assassinated without bringing peace to his country and his son, Joseph Kabila was too weak and indifferent to pacify his country.
Meanwhile, Mbaraga also says DRC’s interest in joining the EAC will create alternative platform to keep engagement with Rwanda as a member of the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL).
Mr Mbaraga, also sees the visit as a possible way to make the French language more prominent in the region.
“When DRC joins EAC, it could play a major role in promoting French in the region because currently only one language [English] is dominating. In addition, remember that Rwanda is currently heading the French speaking bloc,” said Mbaraga, referring to LA Francophone, currently headed by former foreign affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo.
Additional Report by Protais Mbarushimana