On Monday, the third Conclave of the East African Community on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) conflicts was convened by President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House, Nairobi. It was an almost full house with Presidents Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Evariste Ndayishimiye (Burundi), Felix Tshisekedi (DRC) and Salva Kiir (South Sudan) in attendance. Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan was represented by the country’s High Commissioner to Kenya, John Stephen Simbachawene.
The leaders directed that a regional force be deployed to eastern DRC. The long-running conflict there has risen a notch since the M23 rebels staged a comeback recently. Kinshasa accuses Rwanda—and sections of the Uganda security establishment—of supporting the rebels. Rwanda has denied the accusations as Uganda, with a military operation in DRC against anti-Kampala rebels, scoffed at the charges.
There is little surprise in these events. Tshisekedi, who won the Congo elections in 2019 in the most unusual circumstances, faces a crunch poll in December next year. His archrival Martin Fayulu rejected the result as an “electoral coup”. Fayulu was the candidate of then-outgoing leader Joseph Kabila’s party but Kabila threw him under the bus and, in a first, allegedly helped to steal victory for the opposition.
The bulk of the M23 are Banyamulenge, the Congolese Tutsi. The Tutsi bogeyman is the leading uniting factor for the DRC political class, and absent Kabila’s helping hand, the surprise would have been if Tshisekedi didn’t play the card. On the other hand, the M23 were bound to make moves, part of a wider pre-poll negotiating ploy.
After December 2023, all these dynamics could change—but the political games might also explode beyond control.
On the same Monday, nearly 9,800 kilometres away, Belgian authorities were returning a tooth of the murdered Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba to his children. The move was seen as acknowledging the atrocities that marked Belgium’s uniquely brutal rule and exploitation of its former colony.
The gold-capped tooth is the only thing that remains of Lumumba, the first prime minister of Congo, an anti-imperialist figure whose stature remained high in Africa. He was killed by a firing squad by separatists and Belgian mercenaries on January 17, 1961. His murderers dissolved his body in acid, keeping his tooth as a trophy.
Next door, the “Rwandan Revolution”, or the “Hutu Revolution”, or “Wind of Destruction”, which started in 1959, was winding down in 1961. It overthrew the largely Tutsi monarchy and saw over 20,000 Tutsi killed and nearly 330,000 flee into exile. President Paul Kagame was two years old at the time. He fled with his family to Uganda. Museveni was 15 years old.
The two men were united a second time after October 1990, when the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army launched its return-home war from Uganda. After a rocky start to the campaign, a 33-year-old Kagame, then an officer in the Uganda military on a training course in the US, returned to take charge. The rest is history.
The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and corrupt Congolese autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko’s support for the genocidaires who fled to DRC, partly explains the war led by Rwanda and backed by Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and others that ended in the dictator’s ouster in 1997.
Virtual war with Mobutu
It’s often forgotten that, even before 1994, Kampala was at a virtual war with Mobutu and the left in Museveni’s government and military heavily invoked the spirit of Lumumba to de-legitimise the Congolese leader as a Western neo-colonial stooge.
At the time, Museveni was the regional ideological hegemon, and the vision he espoused was of a “confederation of East and Central Africa”—most prominently in his 1996 campaign manifesto. The EAC revival in November 1999 was a minimum programme, in that context. The joining of Rwanda, Burundi and, lately, DRC brought the fruition of that 1996 East and Central African confederation closer.
A line runs from the “Rwanda Revolution”, the country’s independence, the assassination of Lumumba, Museveni’s rise to power, the 1994 genocide, Mobutu’s fall, the end of the last Cold War hot war in Africa with the killing of Jonas Savimbi in Angola in 2002 (Angola was a Cold War battleground with the US, apartheid South Africa and Mobutu backing Savimbi while the ruling MPLA received support from the former Soviet Union and Cuba), the crisis that led to Robert Mugabe’s ouster in 2017. The list is long.
We cannot tell what might become of Lumumba’s tooth in the years to come, or the forces it might unleash. As Tshisekedi received a bear hug from Kenyatta, we also couldn’t help but wonder how much he was aware of the historical demons he is stirring.
The Monday meeting might turn out to be just a bleep in the long, unfolding East and Central Africa saga. Or it might not.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3