On the face of it, the just-ended special heads of state summit of the Great Lakes countries did not offer any radical solution to the deteriorating security situation in Central Africa.
But beneath the surface of the summit, held under the umbrella of the 11-member International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), was a concerted effort by the major players, especially Rwanda and Uganda, to shift the focus of the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) back to a negotiated deal, even as consensus around an exceptional United Nations military-backed intervention deepens.
Unanimously backed by the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2098, the new 3,000-strong force crafted from the existing Monusco is in the strife-torn eastern Congo to aggressively neutralise various armed rebel groups and is seen as a game changer.
But analysts say its would leave Rwanda and Uganda, which have been variously accused of fomenting the unrest in the Kivu regions, shorn of major influence in the region, hence their preference for a “regional solution.”
However, careful not to be seen to be going against the growing international consensus around the conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions of people, Kampala and Kigali, which vigorously deny having a hand in it, grudgingly accepted the UN force.
However, they have continued to lobby, behind the scenes, for a non-military settlement, in part informing the recent push for the ICGLR to reclaim its space.
A UN ultimatum for residents around the strategic eastern DRC town of Goma to disarm expired on Thursday night, and the brigade is expected to forcibly establish a security zone around it and the nearby Sake. Both towns briefly fell into the hands of the March 23 Movement (M23) last year.
It is in this context of the interventionist option gaining traction to the perceived detriment of a negotiated deal that the extraordinary heads of state summit of the ICGLR was convened by its chair, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who prodded Nairobi, perceived as more neutral, to host the talks.
Uganda has struggled to shed the image of being a major conduit for illegal trade in Congolese minerals, especially gold, and a protagonist in the war-weary region.
The ICGLR established the Kampala dialogue between the Joseph Kabila-led DRC government and the notorious M23 rebels last December but it has been flagging.
The M23, which launched an uprising against Kinshasa, walked out of the talks in April following the announcement of the intervention brigade.
Rwanda has been variously accused of aiding the group, most recently by the US — an allegation it denies, terming the charge as “simplistic” and the conflict as complex.
Predictably, Kinshasa warmly welcomed the brigade, the first ever “offensive” peacekeeping mission.
“The DRC welcomes this vote, which marks a decisive turning point for re-establishing peace and security in the Kivu regions,” Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo said in a statement in March.
In a veiled reference to Rwanda and Uganda, he pointedly added that the brigade “is the beginning of the end of armed groups and sends a very clear signal to those supporting them.”
Kinshasa, whose army has recently made some gains in the area, feels confident of a military victory with the help of the UN brigade.
Analysts say such an outcome would be of immense benefit to the DRC, which has been unable to stamp its authority on the lawless area.
“That (victory) would, of course, empty the Kampala negotiations of its last sense and meaning, and it would also create a situation where the international partners of the framework agreement would lose the possibility to pressure the Congolese government on its bits and pieces of the agreement, such as good governance and reforms,” Kris Berwouts, an independent Central Africa expert, told The EastAfrican.
On February 24, 11 African leaders, in a delayed deal brokered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, signed the Peace and Security Framework Accord, which is widely seen as the best hope for ending the endemic violence in the mineral-rich region.
Both Rwanda and Uganda were signatories to that accord.
The final Nairobi communiqué placed emphasis on the Kampala talks, urging the M23 and Kinshasa to conclude them “as soon as possible.” It also backed the Congo peace accord signed in Ethiopia.
“The summit and the communiqué seem an attempt to put the focus back on Kampala and the agreement,” said Mr Berwouts.
Rwanda and DRC were urged to “continue with their bilateral discussions in order to strengthen mutual confidence and co-operation” between them, in an acknowledgment of the strained relations between the two, some of which played out in Nairobi.
The ICGLR however threw in a warning to the parties in the conflict, reaffirming its support for the intervention brigade in order to eradicate “all negative forces.”
The expert said it was however notable that Rwanda sent only the foreign minister to a summit attended by three heads of state and three vice-presidents and heavily backed by the region’s economic blocs.
DR Congo, South Africa, Mozambique, Congo Republic, Tanzania, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic and Zambia also signed the Addis accord, which calls on regional nations to refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs.
Following last week’s summit, Kenya and Sudan’s request to be co-opted into the framework were granted. Justifying Nairobi’s application, President Uhuru Kenyatta argued that the conflict had the potential to drain the economic power of stable countries such as Kenya.
“The security situation within and among a number of member states is a critical issue because of its impact on regional stability, which in turn inflicts, or threatens to inflict, undesirable effects on our peoples’ social and economic development,” he said at the opening of the summit.
Observers say Kenya’s main interest is mainly economic as it perceives DRC as an untapped vast market.
The summit also welcomed the planned organisation of an international donor conference together with UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson to raise funds for development for the troubled region.
In May, the World Bank announced a $1 billion development funding for the crisis-wracked Great Lakes as it sought to tackle the underlying economic causes of the conflict.
The interest-free cash was to support the February peace deal in an effort to close a debilitating war.
In Nairobi, the strained relationship between Uganda and Sudan was also addressed. Khartoum has filed a complaint with the AU and the ICGLR over what it claimed was Uganda’s support for rebel insurgents against it.
Kampala also accused Khartoum of providing support and refuge to the once-feared Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
President Museveni also demanded that the DRC army protect its citizens instead of complaining about foreign interference. “DRC has a duty to protect its citizens, but it has no effective army. If DRC feels the rebels are from Rwanda, kill them and bring the bodies so that we can see them,” he said.
In a rejoinder to Rwanda and Uganda, Congolese Foreign Affairs Minister Raymond N’tungamulongo told the summit the causes of the violence in eastern Congo were both “internal and external.”