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Zambia & DRC’s disputed territory in Tanganyika since colonial era

By Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala
Posted on Thursday, 27 August 2020 16:05

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Zambian soldiers march during a military parade in Lusaka in 2007 (REUTERS/Mackson Wasamunu - archives)

A small territory in Tanganyika Province has been at the heart of a border dispute between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia for several decades.

In the past several months, the presence of Zambian soldiers on Congolese territory has raised the tension to a new level.

Will the summit that has opened in Lubumbashi help to find a lasting solution to the tensions? The experts of the two countries started a meeting on Tuesday 11 August in Lubumbashi within the framework of the 10th session of the joint defence and security commission between the DRC and Zambia. They have the difficult task of reaching an agreement on a dossier that has caused a rise in tensions in recent months.

At the heart of the conflict is a small handful of villages spread along the border on the shores of Lake Tanganyika: Kubanga, Kalubamba and Moliro. Zambia claims sovereignty over this piece of Tanganyika Province – of which Zoe Kabila, the brother of the former president, is currently the governor – despite a treaty signed in 1989 between the two countries.

Confrontations and diplomatic missions

Incidents between the armies of the two countries on these disputed territories have happened often – in 1996, 2006 and again in 2016 – but the crisis took on new dimensions in March, when Zambia deployed troops on the Congolese side of the border, taking up positions in Kubanga, Kalubamba, Libondwe, Moliro and Minyenye.

Clashes erupted between the military of the two countries – with one dead on each side – triggering a flurry of diplomatic activity in an attempt to avoid an escalation. The subject was at the heart of discussions between DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi and the Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso when they met in Brazzaville in mid-July.

Alerted by Kinshasa, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which both countries are members, sent a “team of technical experts” to the region at the end of July, including representatives from the DRC and Zambia, but also from Botswana and Zimbabwe. At the end of this mission, SADC, which decided in favour of the DRC, also stepped up its mediation efforts to bring the Congolese and Zambian authorities to the table.

Unclear about the Zambian withdrawal

Prior to that, the mediators obtained a commitment from Zambia to withdraw its troops from the disputed area. The withdrawal was to take place between 30 July and 4 August. But while Jolino Makelele, a spokesman for the Congolese government, welcomed the “effective withdrawal” of the Zambian military on 6 August, things seem less clear on the ground.

“I remain convinced that the two delegations will not fail to give priority to the best interests of our people for concrete proposals and appropriate solutions to the concerns of our two peoples who share the same border,” said Jacques Kyabula, the governor of Haut-Katanga Province, at the opening of the talks in Lubumbashi on 11 August.

The weekend before the talks, Zambia’s defence minister Chama Davies had also assured of his intention to visit the DRC “to address these issues” but without saying more.

On the Congolese side, Tshisekedi is anxious to avoid creating a new source of tension and has preferred the diplomatic option. At the same time, however, “in view of the information on the deployment of Zambia’s military units on our borders”, the presence of the security forces had been reinforced in the territory of Moba, the capital of Tanganyika Province, located 300km north of the border with Zambia.

Demarcation still pending

The dispute is a direct legacy of the colonial period. Sixty years after independence, the DRC and Zambia continue to have a “different appreciation” of the border limits set out in an 1894 treaty between British settlers on the Zambian side and Leopold II, King of the Belgians and “head of the independent state of the Congo”.

READ MORE DRC today: 60 years of independence and uncertainty

In 1982, Kinshasa and Lusaka set up a joint committee of experts to arrive at a common understanding of the treaty. Then, in a treaty signed in 1989, the two states agreed on the drawing of some 200km of their border running from west to east between Lakes Moero and Tanganyika.

However, while the land boundary was settled at that time, the delimitation of the lake boundaries was not definitively decided. “This is the most complex dispute,” says Makelele, a spokesman for the Congolese government.

Above all, while the treaty has made it possible to put a common position on paper, its concrete application has been slow. “In fact, the 1989 treaty has still not been fully implemented, in particular due to a lack of logistical resources to draw the border it provides for,” says Makelele.

The conclusions of the SADC technical mission insist, moreover, on very concrete points in their report: the need to carry out geodetic inspection near the border, the need to acquire satellite images to facilitate demarcation and topographical mapping, etc.

“It is urgently necessary for both countries to allocate the required resources,” the experts stress, recommending that work should start “in early September 2020”.

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