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East African neighbours eye Tshisekedi’s EAC bid with suspicion

By Romain Gras
Posted on Monday, 17 June 2019 14:33

Democratic Republic of Congo's Felix Tshisekedi swears into office during an inauguration ceremony as the new president of the DRC at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/ Olivia Acland

The DRC's President Félix Tshisekedi has formally requested accession to the East African Community (EAC) at a time of tensions between members of the regional bloc.

Tshisekedi expressed his wish for the DRC to become a member in a letter sent on 8 June to Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who presides over the regional bloc. The last country to join the EAC was South Sudan in 2016. Should its membership be ratified, the DRC would become the seventh member of the bloc.

This request is “a confirmation of President Tshisekedi’s stated priority to focus his regional policy on cooperation and integration,” says Olivier Nduhungirehe, secretary of state for the EAC at the Rwandan ministry of foreign affairs. Tshisekedi’s request, the letter states, “follows the ever-increasing trade between operators in the Democratic Republic of Congo and those in the States of the aforementioned Community”.

Among the examples of this cooperation, a few days after Tshisekedi’s first visit to Kigali the Rwandan national carrier RwandAir launched direct flights between Kigali and Kinshasa, beginning on 17 April.

Security matters

Tshisekedi, who was invested as DRC president on 24 January, has already visited several EAC member countries, starting with Kenya on his first regional tour and travelling to Uganda and Rwanda in March, followed by Tanzania and Burundi on 13 and 14 June.

Discussions between the Congolese president and his counterparts have, so far, focused largely on security issues. Tshisekedi, who has promised to bring peace to the troubled North Kivu province, hosted a meeting of the region’s intelligence services in Kinshasa on 5 and 6 June. Burundi did not attend.

Tshisekedi and Kagame, who succeeded Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as president of the EAC on 1 February, had already discussed the DRC’s accession to the bloc twice. Tshisekedi first raised the matter during his visit to Kigali on 26 March, when he called on Congo’s neighbours to “build bridges, not walls”. The two leaders discussed it again on 31 May, when Kagame attended the funeral of Tshisekedi’s father, the oppositionist Etienne Tshisekedi.

War of words

The regional organisation that the DRC now wishes to join is mired in internal tensions. For several months Kigali and Kampala have been at each other’s throats. The temporary closure of the Gatuna border crossing for construction work at the end of February led to a stand-off between the two countries, with the two leaders trading insults.

The crossing point in question reopened on 10 June, but tension between Kagame and Museveni remains high. Rwanda accuses Kampala of providing logistical support to rebel groups including the Rwanda National Congress and the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). For its part, the Ugandan government regularly accuses its counterpart of spying and interference in local political affairs. Both sides deny these allegations.

Similar accusations of support for rebel groups have been flying between Bujumbura and Kigali. Burundi is under pressure from its neighbours ahead of next year’s presidential election. Tensions in the country are high after mediation initiated by the EAC failed.

Burundi failed to provide a representative to the EAC summit in November 2018, leading to the postponement of a meeting to discuss the situation. It was finally held three months later. Bujumbura, like Kampala, is suspicious of the rapprochement between Kagame and Tshisekedi.

The DRC’s request will be discussed at the next EAC summit, scheduled for November 2019. Somalia has also applied for membership.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

 

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