On December 31, 2018, a United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo issued its midterm report with chilling but not surprising information on the activities of rebel groups based in the country and fighting this or that regional government.
What isn’t surprising is to say that there are rebel groups based in the DRC fighting neighbouring states; that has been the case for the past two decades.
What’s unsettling is to learn that while rebel groups like ADF fighting the Ugandan government and FDLR fighting Rwanda were said to have weakened, this report says that there are active international networks recruiting fighters for old and not-so-old rebel groups fighting some governments in the region.
The report adds, “Several sources informed the Group of the presence of recruitment cells in South Africa, the United Republic of Tanzania and Burundi that facilitated the transfer of recruits from their country of residence to the Democratic Republic of the Congo by way of Burundi and Rwanda.”
What makes this news distressing is that some regional leaders have in recent times accused each other of supporting the other’s enemies.
In his New Year message, President Paul Kagame said that FDLR and RNC were being “revived” and supported by two neighbouring countries.
While Kagame didn’t name the two neighbours, we know that Rwanda’s relations with Uganda have been ailing while President Pierre Nkurunziza has specifically named Rwanda as his enemy.
Of course, there are many reasons that can explain the prevalence of these armed groups in the region and how they can be ended depending on whom you ask.
If you listened to or asked leaders, they tend to place the problem in the hands of their enemies and leaders of these armed groups.
To that extent, leaders also tend to locate solutions to armed rebellion in apprehending fugitives and sanctioning those who support them or at least encouraging them to give up such support.
Legally, this approach is understandable.
If you listened to those who wage armed rebellion, they claim to fight for “democracy and human rights”.
And specialists in conflict and peace issues would place the persistence of these armed groups on the failure to solve root-causes of each individual conflict in the East African Community.
For example, when President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda launched a five-year civil war in 1981, his primary problem was the alleged rigged election of 1980. His critics today say that instead of resolving that problem after taking power in 1986, he perfected it.
The same goes for President Nkurunziza, who is accused of endangering the security of his country by going against the Arusha peace agreement that ended Tutsi dominance of power and enacted power-sharing that he is now undoing by making himself an eternal leader.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of armed groups fighting this or that nation in the region is one of the enduring features of the EAC since its revival in 2000!
In fact, all EAC member states — except Kenya and Tanzania — have had armed groups or armed rebellion in one form or the other.
That’s a puzzle. Why is it that of the six EAC member states, only Kenya and Tanzania don’t have armed groups bent on overthrowing the sitting government by the force of arms?
Kenya and Tanzania remain the only EAC countries where, despite challenges related to democratisation, leaders have, historically always found reason to resolve their differences without recourse to war.
Thus, while the answer to the above question lies in the histories of these two nations, it also tells us that it’s hard to break the cycle of violence once it starts just as it teaches us how poor we have been, as a region, to put in place disincentives to rebellion.
That also means that while each conflict in each country may have its specific explanations, the persistence of armed groups tell us how poor we have been at making war and rebellion expensive and peaceful resolution of difference attractive.
Christopher Kayumba is a senior lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication and lead consultant, MGC Consult International. Twitter: @Ckayumba