As fighting continues in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between government forces (FARDC) – in coalition with various local and foreign militias, including the genocidal FDLR, Burundian troops and European mercenaries – and the M23 rebels, there is an urgent need for African leaders in the Great Lakes region and beyond to reflect on the catastrophic consequences of a prolonged conflict for the continent’s collective security and integration prospects. In this regard, President Ndayishimiye of Burundi, who chairs the East African Community still has the opportunity to play a crucial role in saving the peace process led by the same EAC. There are compelling reasons for prioritizing the EAC’s interests over President Tshisekedi’s ambitions for a military victory against the M23 rebels.
To begin with, Burundi should avoid the risk of diplomatic isolation, which is likely to happen if his government continues to supply troops to its DRC counterpart, thereby undermining the regional consensus on achieving peace in that country. While in 2012 there was a widespread desire to single out the M23 among the numerous armed groups in Eastern DRC and to blame Rwanda for Congo’s governance failures, the situation is different now. It is now widely understood that achieving sustainable peace requires addressing the root causes of this recurring conflict. They include discrimination, killings, ethnic cleansing that targets Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese, and attempts to exterminate Congolese Tutsi.
It was this understanding that led the EAC heads of state to craft a conflict resolution framework that successfully imposed a ceasefire and the partial withdrawal of M23 rebels from territories they had captured. The intervention by President Lourenço of Angola six months ago, where he, as the African Union mediator, indicated that the M23 rebels had complied with regional demands, should have signaled the region’s strong support for the EAC-led peace process. Both Angola’s decision to commit troops to oversee M23’s cantonment (but only after the success of the Nairobi political process) and the reluctance by SADC leaders to specify a precise timeline for deployment of a regional force, further reinforced this support. Unfortunately, Burundi’s leaders missed these cues. Their decision to intervene militarily in support of Kinshasa’s refusal to negotiate peace has reversed the EAC’s modest gains, sending the region back to square one.
Secondly, with Burundian troops fighting not only alongside the DRC’s national army (FARDC) but also the genocidal group FDLR, there is a risk that Burundi’s actions could lead to tensions with neighboring Rwanda. This would further divide the East African community. It is the alliance between the DRC army and FDLR that is fueling similar tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali. These tensions must be avoided at all costs, as they undermine the remarkable political rapprochement observed between Kigali and Gitega since President Ndayishimiye ascended to power. The commendable normalization process undertaken by the leaders of both countries has allowed Burundians and Rwandans to move across their borders without fear of persecution or harassment. It would be disastrous if these gains went to waste.
Thirdly, there is little for Gitega to gain from its alliance with Kinshasa. Immediate financial gains may be appealing to some sections of Burundi’s political establishment, but these are not worth their weight in gold. Unlike the situation in 2012, this time round it is unlikely the DRC government and its supporters will achieve the ambition of defeating M23 militarily. Not only are the rebels well-armed, trained, and motivated, but they are also better prepared for war. The military setbacks the Congolese army and its allies have suffered and the capture by M23 of over a hundred Burundian troops in combat, according to reliable sources, testify to this fact. Further, in North Kivu, Burundian troops are far from their home bases and can only depend on the FARDC for logistics and supplies. Given the rampant corruption in the DRC’s state institutions, the FARDC is not a reliable partner. One of Burundi’s natural routes for supplies would have been Rwanda, through the city of Goma. However, Rwanda is unlikely to cooperate with a regional actor whose collaboration with its nemesis, the FDLR, is undeniable.
Also, by overextending its reach, Burundi is creating a security vacuum in South Kivu, where it has a more immediate and legitimate interest in neutralizing armed groups that threaten its own security and political stability, such as Red Tabara and FNL. For all these reasons, Burundi’s leaders must weigh the risks of widespread insecurity in the region and choose wisely between pursuing financial gains and working for collective security. Bilateral security agreements, like those between Uganda and the DRC or Burundi and the DRC, address legitimate security threats faced by Kampala and Gitega. They should not serve as a cover to undermine the EAC’s military intervention and peace process in the DRC. Therefore, becoming involved in Kinshasa’s military adventurism and threatening Rwanda’s security in the process should not be on the agenda of political leaders in the region.
The EAC peace process had instilled hope in many Congolese, including the internally displaced and those in refugee camps in Rwanda and Uganda. African leaders had distanced themselves from the self-serving narratives of Western actors on Congo’s crisis who fueled the conflict by supporting Kinshasa’s desperate attempts to find a scapegoat and repeatedly chose to ignore discrimination against Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese as one of the root causes of Congo’s crisis. Burundi’s decision to break ranks and participate in actions that further undermine peace and stability in the DRC has extinguished this hope. It may not be too late for the Ndayishimiye government to change course, reaffirm its neutrality, order its troops to resume their peacekeeping mandate, and attempt to salvage the block’s credibility. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult for the EAC chair to call the next heads of state summit to discuss solutions to the DRC crisis if Burundi is seen by the region as part of the problem.