Africa?s great lakes usher in new era of diplomacy

Held under the theme of ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming,’ this was the first time the summit has been hosted by a country without any colonial ties to the United Kingdom, other than the UK itself. 

Despite the summit’s ambitious agenda, however, the talks were overshadowed by a rather substantial elephant in the room: Rwanda’s abysmal record on human rights. 

Under the rule of Paul Kagame, critics warn that Rwanda’s treatment of political opponents and media freedom has considerably deteriorated since the country was admitted into the Commonwealth in 2009. The list of alleged political assassinations grows by the year, and there is evidence to indicate Rwandan authorities have used spyware to target thousands of activists, journalists and politicians. Meanwhile, Kagame is routinely “re-elected” with more than 99% of the vote. 

Kagame is also accused of exporting instability to Africa’s broader great lakes region. Former colleagues have charged Kagame with ordering the 1994 plane attack that triggered the Rwandan Genocide, and of creating and arming the rebel army that toppled Zaire president Mobutu Sese Seko. Those same rebels went on to slaughter tens of thousands of Hutu refugees in the rainforests of the DRC, while Kagame’s troops carried off diamonds, gold, coltan, timber and coffee to later pass off as Rwandan produce. 

The choice of Rwanda to host the summit has also sparked security concerns, with Kigali accused of supporting M23 rebels that are terrorizing the local population in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing the armed group, and authorities assured delegates they would be safe during their visit to Kigali- just 100 kilometers from the DRC border.

Rwanda’s alleged support of M23 has led to the latest flare-up of tensions with the DRC, which have been simmering since the Rwandan Genocide. In May last year, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi was forced to declare a state of siege following growing insecurity along the border region; by November, M23 rebels had begun attacking DRC army positions. The possibility of escalation now threatens to destabilize the entire region.

As recently as 2019, following the election of Tshisekedi, relations between the two countries seemed to be on the road toward becoming more cordial. Though firm about the need to protect the DRC, Tshisekedi has clearly sought to maintain open dialogue and rely on diplomatic efforts in an effort to restore stability to the region. 

Early in his presidency, Tshisekedi relied on multilateral cooperation to strengthen mediation efforts between Rwanda and the DRC. This included a series of quadripartite summits, and the signing of a memorandum widely credited with easing tensions and restoring contact between the two governments.

The DRC has also been admitted into the East African Community under Tshisekedi, a group which includes Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi. Within weeks of the DRC’s integration, the body had begun negotiations with a number of rebel groups in the region- including M23- to discuss the terms of an amnesty deal.

Despite bilateral efforts to calm the situation, Rwanda’s Kagame seems bent on escalation. After Tshisekedi invited Ugandan and Burundian forces to assist in anti-rebel operations within DRC borders in February, Kagame slammed the move to the Rwandan parliament as a threat to national security- going as far as to warn he may deploy troops to the eastern DRC without Tshisekedi’s approval.

In response to recent developments, Tshisekedi has sought to bring regional issues to the attention of the international community in a bid to expand de-escalation efforts. Disappointingly, Western countries have thus far chosen to stay out of the crisis. 

The UK has proved particularly keen to avoid entanglement, having freshly put pen to paper on a $150 million immigration deal with Rwanda for processing asylum seekers. The US, too, has limited its involvement to pithy denouncements of the escalating conflict, as has the UN Security Council

In the meantime, Tshisekedi has sought to engage constructively with regional partners, such as through recent dialogues among the East African Community in Nairobi. The latest round of talks in April saw leaders agree to the deployment of a regional force to tackle the issue of armed groups in the Congo; this month’s discussions are set to finalise those plans. 

Despite mammoth efforts from Tshisekedi and his great lakes peers to find a multilateral solution to the crisis, the international community cannot ignore its role in once again increasing pressure on Rwanda to withdraw its support for rebel groups. The lives of millions in the great lakes depend on it. 

AfricanForeign AffairsSecurity Council