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Situational Report – Africa’s Great Lakes Region

Arthur Willoughby



Introduction: 

Politically, the ‘Great Lakes’ region of Africa (AGL – African Great Lakes) typically refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, even though, geographically, it applies to Kenya and Tanzania as well. These are countries with a complex set of interrelated – albeit distinct – colonial histories, cultures, languages, and contemporary politics, though importantly, the often-arbitrary nature of how the colonial borders were established means that there is significant cultural overlap between the states themselves. Peacebuilding efforts, and matters of security, must therefore consider the complex regional dynamics through which identity politics often traverses national boundaries (Bussy & Gallo 2016). 


Beyond the immense population of the Great Lakes region – with some 107 million people densely compacted in the geographical basin (African Great Lakes 2023) – the region is also home to a vast and highly coveted quantity of natural resources. The African Great Lakes themselves are renowned for their rich fisheries and “biodiversity hotspots” (IISD 2020), but they are also surrounded by enormous mineral deposits, most notably within the DRC. The Democratic Republic of Congo is considered one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, with untapped resources including coltan and cobalt considered to be worth an estimated 24 trillion USD (GSP HUB 2021). The region also contains some of Africa’s best agricultural land (as a previous hotbed of volcanic activity) and exists under a much more temperate climate due to its altitude than other African states, one which makes tropical diseases far less prevalent than elsewhere (African Great Lakes 2023). 


Recognition of this regional economic advantage inspired the establishment of the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries in 1976, with three founding Member states; Burundi, DRC and Rwanda. The goal of this organisation was to facilitate cooperation and economic development, yet resource competition and political tension has left the body largely inactive. 


Understandably, competition over the resource deposits of the Great Lakes has been a primary source of conflict throughout the region’s history. This extends back to even the European colonial project and the notorious ‘scramble for Africa’. The infamous source of the river Nile being situated among the Great lakes once made it a zone of particular interest, and throughout the region’s history it has seen the rise and fall of numerous brutal and exploitative regimes. Notably, these include the Belgian Congo (where King Leopold II became famous for his ferocious use of forced labour to reap rubber and mineral deposits), German East Africa, and British Rule in Kenya and Uganda. Although direct military confrontations were limited due to so-called ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ between European colonial powers, territorial disputes and diplomatic tiffs were commonplace throughout the period. 


The savagery of the colonial period has undoubtedly left a lasting impact, though this effect is compounded by institutional underdevelopment and political instability. Particularly in the DRC, “the lack of a strong, liberal, Weberian state” has been considered a primary reason as to why armed groups have so frequently risen to cause such humanitarian suffering (Bussy & Gallo 2016, p. 313). Rwanda, too, witnessed one of the 20th centuries most devastating genocides in 1994, as ethnic Hutus killed an estimated million Tutsis, and raped between 150,000 and 250,000 Tutsi women (UN 2024). The immediate aftermath of this genocide was the expulsion of over a million Hutus into the DR Congo (then known as Zaire), sparking a conflict in 1996 which has continued to cause tensions even to this day. Although it is not the place of this paper to list all the conflict incidents that have occurred within the AGL, it is important here to note that the region has witnessed countless human rights violations, massacres, and atrocities, and the enduring nature of these grievances has made conflict quick to resurface. 


The Contemporary Landscape:

Today, the differing successes of institutional development and conflict management efforts has meant that the countries within the AGL hold vastly divergent economic and security prospects… 



Rwanda:

  • Despite being the smallest nation in the AGL, Rwanda has experienced notable economic growth in recent years. The government has implemented policies to promote economic diversification, including investments in technology, tourism, and infrastructure. The country has also been praised for its ease of doing business and anti-corruption efforts.

  • For his peacebuilding efforts after the Rwandan genocide, Rwandan President Paul Kagame was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but the de facto one-party state he rules has led many to question the heroic image he has portrayed of himself in recent years (Wrong 2023). 

  • Today, Rwanda boasts a military of 35,000 active personnel, including well-trained paramilitary forces. Military expenditure accounts for 1.2% of GDP, and equipment (although largely constituted of old-Soviet weapons) has been boosted by imports from China, Israel, Russia, and Turkey. 


DRC:

  • The DRC has experienced political instability and conflict over the years, particularly in the eastern part of the country. Armed groups, both domestic and foreign, have been active in the region, including Russian proxy forces and the March 23 (M23) rebel group – the main source of recent unrest. 

  • The DRC has gone through a series of elections, and there have been instances of contested results and political tensions. The transition of power from former President Joseph Kabila to President Felix Tshisekedi in 2019 marked a historic moment in the country's politics. Soon after acceding to power, Tshisekedi declared a state of siege in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, replacing civilian authorities with armed personnel in an attempt to disband rebels. The efforts, however, had the opposite effect and spurred a dramatic uptick in violence. 

  • Journalists also uncovered shocking levels of corruption in Kabila’s former government, revealing receipts that showed how an Israeli business embezzled $3.7 billion in state funds through Kabila-approved contracts over several years. 

  • The vote which made Tshisekedi President in 2019 has also been heavily criticised due to voter suppression and electoral fraud. The physical insecurity that categorises much of the country, and particularly the eastern provinces, makes the inability of citizens to exercise basic political freedoms an important issue. In recent years, the political system of the DRC has been seen as paralysed by some commentators (Freedom House 2022). 

  • “…over 120 armed groups are active in eastern Congo. Many of these groups receive support from the Congolese government and security forces, while others have formed coalitions against the Kabila government. Yet the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the security forces meant to protect them.” (Garcia 2020)

  • Military expenditure accounts for 1.4% of GDP, and the totality of armed militias includes approximately 100,000 active troops (Garcia 2020). The bulk of equipment is old Soviet, with Ukraine representing the largest arms supplier to the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) since 2019. 


Burundi:

  • Burundi is very similar in both size and population to Rwanda, but has a much lower GDP. Its economy is predominantly agrarian, with much of the population surviving off subsistence farming. Key agricultural products include coffee, tea, and various food crops.

  • Industrialization is limited, and the country faces challenges related to infrastructure, energy supply, and access to markets. Burundi is among the least developed countries globally, with a high poverty rate. Unemployment and underemployment remain significant challenges, and as a result, it is a major beneficiary of foreign aid. 

  • Burundi has a history of political instability, including ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. The country experienced a civil war from 1993 to 2006 – one marked by violence and political unrest. After the civil war, Burundi underwent a political transition with efforts to establish power-sharing arrangements between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.

  • In 2020, President Pierre Nkurunziza – who had been in power since 2005 – passed away, and Evariste Ndayishimiye assumed the presidency. Political controversies and concerns about electoral processes have been part of the political landscape ever since. Burundi has faced criticism for alleged human rights violations, restrictions on freedom of the press, and political repression. Concerns have also been raised by international observers regarding the government's approach to dissent and civil liberties.

  • Today, Burundi is actively engaged in the military conflict in the Eastern DRC, having covertly deployed over 1000 soldiers according to a recent UN report (Rolley 2023). Despite this, morale problems clearly exist among Burundian troops, as reports from early this year indicate many were detained for refusing to fight against M23 (Kaneza 2024). 


Uganda:

  • Uganda’s economy, similarly, is largely agrarian, with key products including coffee, tea, maize, and other food crops. However, in the last twenty years it has discovered substantial oil reserves (estimated at 6.5 billion barrels) and intends to launch its first oil drilling programme by 2025 (Al Jazeera 2023). 

  • Investments have been made in infrastructure development, including road construction and energy projects, to facilitate economic growth and regional connectivity. While there have been improvements in poverty reduction, Uganda still faces challenges related to unemployment and underemployment. The informal sector plays a significant role in the employment landscape.

  • Uganda has experienced relative political stability under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. However, his long tenure has been a subject of much debate and criticism. Uganda has held regular elections, but there have been concerns about the electoral process, including allegations of irregularities and restrictions on political freedoms. The political landscape is characterized by a dominant ruling party.

  • Uganda plays a role in regional affairs and has been involved in peacekeeping efforts in neighbouring countries. Along with Kenya and Burundi it sent a contingent of troops to aid a short-lived peacekeeping project in the Eastern Congo, however these efforts came against the backdrop of Kampala’s involvement in the DRC’s bloody civil wars. It also recently paid the DRC compensation for losses caused by Ugandan troops occupying Congolese territory in the 1990s (AfricaNews 2022)

  • The Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) includes around 45,000 active personnel, with an additional 35,000 reserves. Its defence budget accounts for 3.1% of GDP, though importantly, the military remains under civilian control. 

  • Another interesting point to note is that the DRC’s most deadly jihadist group had its origins in Uganda, and there are certainly Ugandan Tabliq Muslim’s who harbour more extreme views with the potential for causing further civil instability (Beevor 2019).


The Latest Developments:

Earlier this month, the UN started pulling peacekeepers out of the DRC after a 25-yearlong presence in the country. The withdrawal comes as the FARDC intensifies its conflict with M23 rebels in the North Kivu province, the latter group allegedly backed by Rwandan leaders. Already, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and dozens have been killed in the fighting (Al Jazeera 2024). 


The UN peacekeeping force (MONUSCO) was established in 1999 in a bid to stop the second DRC war. The conflict saw local forces backed by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fighting against armed groups supported by Uganda and Rwanda. At its peak, 20,000 UN troops were stationed in the country. The UN Security Council has not yet given a date for the completion of the withdrawal, though it is expected to occur by the end of this year. 


Despite being accused by most Western nations, the UN Security Council and Kinshasa, Rwanda has repeatedly denied supporting the M23 rebels who are advancing on the regional capital of Goma. Rwanda, perhaps understandably, has concerns about the security vacuum that will inevitably arise from the MONUSCO withdrawal, and the conflict threatens to draw in many of the AGL countries as it spurs a refugee crisis. However, the ties between the ethnic-Tutsi M23 forces and Kagame’s government in Kigali are evident. M23 have accused Kinshasa of not living up to the peace deal to fully integrate Congolese Tutsis into the army and administration, and vows to defend Tutsi interests against several Hutu militias who continue to operate in the DRC (Kasongo 2024).  


Goma itself is a strategic economic hub, and since the 1990s has transformed itself into a vibrant city given its proximity to key resource deposits (Vlassenroot & Büscher 2009). Kigali’s interest in gaining control over the city might therefore be clearly tied to their economic interests, although there is undoubtedly also a strong ethnic component to their support. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi recently agreed to meet with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Angola, who are mediating the talks, in an effort to return peace to the Eastern DRC (DW News 2024). Although Kinshasa has extended this olive branch, civil society groups are not optimistic that these talks can do much to change reality. Unfortunately, the DRC crisis remains one of the most neglected in the world, and as wars continue to wage in Gaza and Ukraine, the rest of the world seems to be distracted. 


The conflict in the DRC has been ongoing for the past 30 years in some sense or another, and thus it is unlikely that the numerous armed groups will be motivated to give up their arms anytime soon. The competition for resources in the AGL will continue to inspire rebel leaders to occupy and seize key strategic areas, and thus efforts must be made to solidify and bolster security infrastructure within the region. To name a few, clear improvements can be made to modernise outdated security infrastructures, as well as provide additional cyber and intelligence capabilities to state forces. The capabilities of rebel groups in the region are not particularly advanced, and so investment in security capabilities would certainly have a positive impact on regional government capacities to dispel these threats. How these peace talks between Kinshasa and Kigali develop remains to be seen, but without doubt, the AGL will not be free from security threats anytime soon. 


References:

African Great Lakes (2023) New World Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/African_Great_Lakes (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

AfricaNews (2022) Ugandan troops to take part in regional peacekeeping force in eastern DRC, Africanews. Available at: https://www.africanews.com/2022/11/21/ugandan-troops-to-take-part-in-regional-peacekeeping-force-in-eastern-drc// (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Al Jazeera (2023) Uganda launches first oil drilling programme, targets 2025 output, Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/1/24/uganda-to-unveil-first-commercial-oil-production-drilling-programme (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Al Jazeera (2024) Photos: Un peacekeepers begin pullout from DR Congo’s restive East, Al Jazeera. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2024/3/1/un-peacekeepers-begin-pullout-from-dr-congos-restive-east (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Beevor, E. (2019) The Allied Democratic Forces: The DRC’s most deadly jihadist group?, IISS. Available at: https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2019/01/adf-jihadist-group-drc (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Bussy, J.M. and Gallo, C.J. (2016) ‘The Great Lakes Region of Africa: Local Perspectives on liberal peacebuilding from the Democratic Republic of Congo’, The Palgrave Handbook of Disciplinary and Regional Approaches to Peace, pp. 312–324. doi:10.1007/978-1-137-40761-0_24. 

DW News (2024) DRC, Rwanda agree to meet as fighting between M23 rebels and Congo troops escalates | DW news, YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPg1pmIicuA (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Freedom House (2022) Democratic Republic of the Congo: Freedom in the world 2022 country report, Freedom House. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/country/democratic-republic-congo/freedom-world/2022 (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

Garcia, B. (2020) Congo (DRC) country profile – military / security | PKSOI, PKSOI. Available at: https://pksoi.armywarcollege.edu/index.php/country-profile-of-congo-drc-military/ (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

GSP HUB (2021) What is the EBA?, Monitoring Missions and Priorities in Democratic Republic of Congo. Available at: https://gsphub.eu/country-info/Democratic%20Republic%20of%20Congo#:~:text=The%20Democratic%20Republic%20of%20Congo%20is%20considered%20the%20world’s%20richest,and%20considerable%20amounts%20of%20cobalt (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

IISD (2020) Scientists from two continents working together to improve the health of the African Great Lakes, International Institute for Sustainable Development. Available at: https://www.iisd.org/projects/scientists-two-continents-working-together-improve-health-african-great-lakes#:~:text=The%20AGL%20are%20highly%20valuable,million%20people%20across%2010%20countries (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

Kaneza, E.W. (2024) Burundi detains dozens of soldiers who refused deployment in fight against M23 rebels in Congo, AP News. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/burundi-congo-rwanda-soldiers-m23-517d24d64430602c9edc7b6ed4d4f676 (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Kasongo, A. (2024) DRC conflict: Why is fighting intensifying and can it threaten ..., Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/why-fighting-is-flaring-eastern-congo-threatening-regional-stability-2024-02-19/ (Accessed: 12 March 2024). 

Rolley, S. (2023) Over 1,000 Burundian soldiers covertly deploy in eastern Congo, ..., Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/over-1000-burundian-soldiers-covertly-deploy-eastern-congo-internal-un-report-2023-12-30/ (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

UN (2024) Rwanda, genocide, Hutu, Tutsi, mass execution, ethnic cleansing, massacre, human rights, Victim Remembrance, education, Africa, United Nations. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/historical-background.shtml (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 

Vlassenroot, K. and Büscher, K. (2009) ‘THE CITY AS FRONTIER : URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND IDENTITY PROCESSES IN GOMA’, Crisis States Working Papers Series No.2 [Preprint]. 

Wrong, M. (2023) Why is Rwanda’s leader Sowing Chaos in Congo?, Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/podcasts/why-rwandas-leader-sowing-chaos-congo (Accessed: 11 March 2024). 



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