DRC in EAC: Can Tshisekedi avoid getting caught in Kigali-Kampala tensions?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 18 April 2022 09:10

Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta (2nd R) and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Felix Tshisekedi (L) look at the new depiction of the East Africa Community on a map after they signed a treaty integrating the DRC into the East Africa trade block at State House in Nairobi on April 8, 2022. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)
Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta (2nd R) and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Felix Tshisekedi (L) look at the new depiction of the East Africa Community on a map after they signed a treaty integrating the DRC into the East Africa trade block at State House in Nairobi on April 8, 2022. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was hoping that joining the regional economic body to the East would help fix the insecurity that has riven the country for decades. But the East African Community (EAC) is unlikely to deliver any quick wins. Especially given the ongoing tussle for influence between Presidents Kagame and Museveni.

For EAC member states, the vast market of the DRC is clearly a draw.

All EAC’s member states have a trade surplus with the country. EAC exports to DRC almost doubled to $940m between 2014 to 2019. Kenya’s top banks including Equity Bank and KCB are buying up financial institutions in the DRC, creating a new corridor of commerce.

But for the newest member of the regional bloc, it is security and natural resource protection which matter most.

During a speech at State House in Nairobi on 8 April, President Tshisekedi said that DRC did not join solely for benefits of commerce, he said, because “commerce and trade thrive in an environment of peace and security for everyone.”

Tshisekedi has also called for the establishment of a new EAC organ focused on mining, natural resources and energy, to be based in Kinshasa.

Easier said than done perhaps, given the historical rift between Uganda and Rwanda, both of whom have a chequered history with regards to the DRC.

Old habits

Rebels seen to be originating from Rwanda and Uganda — or supported by either of the countries — still operate in parts of eastern DRC. A day before DRC was admitted to the EAC for example, M23 rebels resumed fighting in North Kivu Province, sending tens of refugees into Uganda.

Many have yet to return home. The governor’s office in North Kivu has pointed fingers at Rwanda for supporting the rebels.

Since Tshisekedi took the Presidency in 2019, Kagame and Museveni have both been assiduously courting him. Kinshasa now has better relations with Kampala and Kigali than under the Kabila regime.

Uganda’s soldiers were allowed to enter DRC to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels – much to Kagame’s irritation. Kampala is also now pushing cross border joint infrastructure projects.

Whether or not the DRC’s entry into the EAC will help or hinder the tensions between Kigali and Kampala will be a question keenly watched.

Rwanda, Uganda and DRC’s peace & security

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have been directly or indirectly a factor in DRC’s security for a quarter a century.

Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers first entered DRC in 1996, backing rebel leader Laurent Kabila who ousted Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997. But as Kabila settled into his new role in Kinshasa, he began to cut off Museveni and Kagame, accusing their militaries of pillaging DRC’s minerals.

By mid 1998, Kampala and Kigali found themselves completely alienated by Kabila, hence explicitly creating new rebel groups that they supported to oust a man they had propelled to power.

Uganda and Rwanda soldiers ended up fighting each other in Kisangani in 1999. In Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns write how the fighting “had all the characteristics of typical sibling rivalry.”

Soldiers from both camps knew each other well given that Rwandan military leaders – who participated in the bush war that brought Museveni to power in 1986 – had left Kampala a few years earlier. At night, Stearns noted: “Ugandans and Rwandans mingled, sometimes even dancing together and paying for each others’ drinks.”

After two decades of litigation at the International Court of Justice, Uganda was in February ordered to pay DRC $325m for reparations and pillaging of natural resources during the 1988-2001 occupation.

Can the EAC take up security challenge?

The EAC’s mission is to “widen and deepen economic, political, social and cultural integration” through improved trade and investment. Conflict resolution is low on the agenda.

The Rwanda-Uganda border closure lasted more than two years, and only reopened early this year after Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son flew to Kigali twice for talks with Kagame.

Burundi’s attempted coup in 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza was in Dar es Salaam attending the EAC summit. It was Museveni and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete who marshalled forces to help reverse the coup.

The EAC did help facilitate the reopening of the Burundi-Rwanda border that had been closed since the 2015 attempted coup. The two countries resumed talking after Évariste Ndayishimiye ascended to the presidency.

Tshisekedi seems to have directly inquired from heads of state how the EAC will handle eastern DRC’s conflicts.

During an exchange with media about Kinshasa’s admission on 12 April, EAC Secretary General Peter Mutuku said: “There are some decisions by the summit (heads of state) to identify some experts who could be of help not only on issues of security but other issues.” He added that this would strengthen EAC’s peace and security function.

Mathuki also remarked that DRC’s security challenges will “become a collective challenge” for the bloc. “When you’re together, you easily handle a challenge than when you’re alone.”

But Pierre Boisselet, a violence research coordinator at Kivu Security Tracker tells The Africa Report that “security issues in the region are likely to remain mostly bilateral.”

Ordinary Congolese tell The Africa Report that they don’t expect much from the bloc except roaming among its member states without the burden of paying for a visa.

Stewart Muhindo who lives in Beni, North Kivu says the integration into the EAC will not benefit them in terms of security because “some member countries of this organisation participate in the destabilisation of our country.”

Esaie Gatavu, also a Congolese living in Beni, shares the same sentiments. “Entering East Africa means a lot for us, for those who can travel because there will be no visa”, he tells The Africa Report.

Trade concerns

DRC will benefit from tariff-free goods and services from the bloc, which can mean lower prices for consumers. The risk will be EAC export powerhouses flooding the DRC market with goods, thereby hurting nascent industries.

One Kinshasa-based businessperson speaking to The Africa Report, is worried about the arrival of local competition, adding “we are not ready”.

Though DRC has vast mineral resources, it can only take advantage of these resources in trade if smuggling is stopped. This is the drive behind the mineral and natural resources organ that Tshisekedi is lobbying for.

As the American treasury department noted last month when sanctioning Belgian gold businessman Alain Goetz and African Gold Refinery “more than 90 percent of DRC gold is smuggled to regional states, including Uganda and Rwanda.”


Seamless trade will also be hampered by poor infrastructure. A 2018 World Bank report noted that less than 5% of DRC’s 58,000-kilometre national road network is paved. Whereas EAC has identified strategic road networks that facilitate trade, the only help it offers is  collaboration with “development partners in order to mobilise funds”  for improvement and maintenance of these roads.

In the past six years, EAC member states with support from TradeMark East Africa ramped up  construction of one-stop border posts that have facilitated quick cross border movements. DRC benefited from this programme since its shares borders with five EAC member states.

“We want to fully exploit the advantages of DRC joining to ensure that we focus on development of infrastructure so that we can facilitate connectivity of all capitals of partner states with DRC,” said Mutuku.

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