VIRUNGA VOLCANIC REGION spans across the borders of three countries. These are Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is a troubled region as its eruptions have attracted global recognition. Part of the Virunga supersite is Mount Nyiragongo, situated in a chain of volcanic regions at the southern sector of Virunga National Park. In that area, volcanic eruptions have been making rounds. The eruption in May 2021 came without a prior warning and consumed nearly everything on its path as the lava flowed down. Volcanic eruptions happen to be just one of the crises in that region in the form of natural disasters. Eruptions of hostilities are the second, in the form of lingering and man-made recurring disasters, plaguing the region in the form of insecurity, militancy and insurgency.
The DRC has been plagued by the persistent crises within the areas near the shared borders of the three countries. This troubled area, known as the province of North Kivu, has been the epicentre of war in the DRC, an area that has generated hordes of armed groups, with no fewer than twenty evolving over the past two decades. The Congo wars that began with ethnic violence in nearly 30 years ago had its roots in North Kivu, and persist as more and more armed factions spring up and sustain their hold on the area under an array of grievances that generate more conflicts. The continued instability in that area remains possible because of the absence of the rule of law to guarantee property rights nor the force of law to suppress armed rivals. The situation has tended to reinforce the thinking that armed struggles are needed to protect individual freedoms and property.
Power vacuum was part of what led to the commencement of a new war on 2 August 1998, about a year after the collapse of the government of President Mobutu Sese Seko. The warring parties were up against the nascent regime of Laurent Désiré Kabila in an attack that quickly slid into violence and that region has been under tension since then, putting lives and economy of DRC and the Kivu area in jeopardy. Ethnicity and associated fear and distrust were motivators as Congolese Tutsi were more inclined to forming an alliance with Burundi across the border with South Kivu in their fight against Kabila who was not without external support from neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. The hands of Rwanda and Uganda were therefore in the instability that has plagued the Eastern province of Kivu in DRC for well over two decades now.
Over time, the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry has shaped the DRC Kivu crisis in some remarkable measure. What started as an armed conflict between the military of the DRC (FARDC) and the Hutu Power group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 still continues today in the eastern Congo. But its ramification is beyond that region, spreading across and remotely connected to Uganda and Rwanda. The seeming rapid deterioration of security in the eastern DRC and resurgence of M23 are an outcome of longstanding regional rivalries between Rwanda and Uganda. If there is any reason to be worried about security in any part of Africa, it is about the Kivu province and the impacts on the stability of four neighbouring countries. A resurgence of interstate conflict in the Great Lakes region becomes more imminent with the swift acceleration of the security crisis in the eastern DRC. The situation is made more worrisome with the numerous actors and interests and complexity of issues involved.
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Among other things, competition for the abundant natural resources and influence in DRC has complicated the longstanding rivalries between Rwanda and Uganda. The crisis in that DRC-Uganda-Rwanda-Burundi corridor therefore shows no sign of diminishing in the foreseeable future with the latest rise in volatility in the eastern DRC which, left unchecked, could spiral further upwards. In recent months, M23 is gaining popularity among more than 100 armed groups operating in the troubled eastern DRC, which has remained unsettled for decades. M23, is a convenient way of calling the March 23 Movement that originated from a failed 2009 peace deal between the Congolese government and a now-defunct rebel group that had fragmented off from the Congolese army and seized control of North Kivu’s provincial capital, Goma, in 2012. It has since taken a foothold in that region, from which it has launched several attacks.
It is of interest that, rather than abating, the fighting at this eastern Congo region has increased tensions between the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda for as far back as the 1994 genocide period in Rwanda, where ethnic Hutus reportedly killed approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Since 2017, nearly 8,000 people have died violently, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, which tracks conflict and human rights violations and over 5.5 million people have been displaced,, according to the United Nations. Diplomatic relationships are now under stress to the extent that the DRC and its president, Felix Tshisekedi, have accused Rwanda of supporting M23, the main rebel group battling the Congolese army in eastern DRC. Whether this was informed by the fact that M23’s leaders include some ethnic Tutsis is an issue of serious concern, as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is of Tutsi tribe. In turn, Rwanda and its president, Paul Kagame, accuse the DRC and its army of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Congo-based mainly Hutu rebel group that contains some fighters who participated in the genocide in Rwanda.
The U.N. United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has been involved in keeping the conflict under control and is deemed the largest peacekeeping mission currently in operation, with a 21,000-strong force. But their impact has been minimal because of the web of entanglement of four countries and conflicting motivations for their involvement in the lingering crisis in that corridor. DRC president, Félix Tshisekedi, seems to be walking a tightrope as he overtly allows Uganda – and covertly permitting Burundi – to deploy troops to fight rebels based in his territory, apparently prompting Rwanda to consider its own incursion in the area, as the M23 regroups. By this, Tshisekedi could raise the risk level of instability in the already troubled eastern region of DRC as Uganda’s military campaign has particularly displeased Rwanda.
How a troubled region in which conflicts have become constant is expected to contribute positively to the economy of the DRC remains a cause for concern as President Félix Tshisekedi has invited troops from neighbouring countries to fight rebels based in his own country. Chances of a flare up of Islamist militia are high in the eastern DRC, going by events after the deadly bombings in Uganda’s capital Kampala. Tshisekedi’s decision to allow the Ugandan military to cross into the DRC’s North Kivu province was particularly worrisome. The decision was said to be in pursuit of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel coalition whose largest faction has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. Rwanda’s President Kagame reportedly warned of the possibility of dispatching his soldiers as well. The religious angle to the regional crisis is taking the crisis to a new level and adding more dangerous dimensions to it.
One remarkable thing is the ADF’s propensity for operating across borders in areas where more than two or three contiguous countries share borders. Similar to the North and South Kivu province’s proximity to three other countries is the Lake Chad region where Niger Republic, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria share a common border. The Lake Chad region has been exploited by the local terror group called Boko Haram and later joined by their deadlier ally, with the consequential killing of thousands of people and displacement of millions of others. The incursion of the terror groups have rendered the north eastern part of Nigeria inhabitable for many years and has displaced the mostly rural agrarian population that turned out to become destitute as a result of their displacement from their farming communities.
The immediate clear logic for the terrorists’ predilection for multination borders is the ease of movement across borders from one country to another in close proximity. Many Boko Haram terrorists fled Nigeria to northern Cameroon many times after launching attacks in Nigeria. The same also has been done for those who fled to either Niger or Chad after attacking their victims in Nigeria. Similar logic may inform the choice of the ADF for the DRC eastern province. The attacks in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, last November in which one suicide bomber detonated his vest outside police headquarters and two others blew themselves up near parliament, have been officially linked with terrorists associated with the ADF. The attacks, in which four other people died and 37 more were wounded, according to official reports, have led to greater fears of regional insecurity in the Uganda-Rwanda-DRC-Burundi corridor. President Yoweri Museveni was quoted as saying the attackers were tied to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group that emerged in Uganda in the early 1990s and later fled into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has led to the killing of thousands of civilians since its resurgence in the DRC in 2013.
This is only the corridor linking for countries in Central Africa, serving as a potential hub for regional terrorism. Its implications are many and varied. Affected countries need to urgently learn to put their differences aside and collaborate to put the longstanding regional instability and conflicts under control for the sake of the region and the continent. Beyond the regional actors, this is a task for the whole of Africa to deal with decisively. As long as a region is in crisis, the entire continent is. It is therefore time to untangle the various issues that combine to prolong the DRC crisis in the Kivu region for the sake of the country, the region and the continent. Africa cannot afford to continue to live with this kind of crisis. It must stop.
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