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Dealing with DRC, seeming reluctant partner of East African Community

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DR Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi speaking during a past news conference. PHOTO | REUTERS

When the East African Community (EAC) held its 23rd Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State on June 7 to appoint Veronica Mueni Nduva as Secretary-General, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi neither attended nor sent a representative.

That Kinshasa did not attend a virtual meeting or offer an apology was viewed as the latest hint that it wants out of the bloc.

The Summit, to be fair, came as Kinshasa prepared for the inauguration of the new government, which finally took office on June 12. New officials seem to be caught up in the task of getting the new government into office, six months after the December 2023 elections.

Sources at the EAC Secretariat told The EastAfrican that the DRC rarely takes part in meetings. DRC became the seventh EAC member in May 2022 and Somalia followed about 18 months later.

But Mogadishu has gone on to file its roadmap for implementing various EAC protocols that will enable it enjoy a full range of privileges such as free movement of people, goods and labour and lower trade tariffs.

Somalia, with a delegation of 25 high-ranking government officials attended the one-week meeting from June 17 in Nairobi. Sources say the DRC were expected to join Somalia, but were a no-show and without apology.

This, among many other hints, has set off murmurs that Kinshasa, which is yet to align its legal instruments with the EAC as per the Treaty, is not keen on integration.

Apart from offering reciprocal visa-free travel to partner states that give it the privilege, Kinshasa has done little to get into the EAC system.

During the extraordinary summit happening against a backdrop of financial constraints at the Secretariat due to non-remittance of dues by some partner states, some members, such as Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan, voiced their discomfort with the likes of DRC, who, incidentally, have not remitted a cent since joining the Community.

They owe over $14 million spanning two fiscal years, and are about to enter the third.

President Samia noted that there was a lack of shared perception on the benefits of integration in the bloc.

“Madam Secretary-General,” she told the new EAC boss in her welcoming remarks, “you are taking over at a time when progress is deemed exceptional. The deepest challenges before you include improving the visibility of our community. There is also a lack of a shared perception of the benefits of the integration and even the East Africans are not sure of such benefits.”

Analysts of regional issues believe that Kinshasa’s absence from the summit had nothing to do with a busy calendar.

“President Tshisekedi boycotted the summit to protest against his Kenyan counterpart William Ruto’s stance on the M23 war in the eastern part of the DRC,” said Edmond Izuba, a Kinshasa-based commentator.

Dr Ruto has not sided with M23 rebels in this conflict but, in a mid-May 2024 interview with the pan-African magazines Jeune Afrique and The Africa Report, the Kenyan leader commented on the war in Congo: “As Heads of State (of the region), we asked in a meeting, are the M23 Rwandan or Congolese? And the DRC said they were Congolese. End of debate. If they are Congolese, how does it become Rwanda’s problem?”

These comments are said to have greatly irritated Congolese officials, who are particularly sensitive to the issue of security in the Kivu provinces. Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of fanning the M23 rebellion and now considers them terrorists, and refuses dialogue with the group. The US, France and a UN panel of experts did corroborate the accusation but Kigali has always rejected it.

Whether missing a summit is a protest against Rwanda and Kenya, or a sign that Kinshasa has fallen out the bloc is yet to be seen.

Nicaise Kibel Bel, a Congolese expert on military and security strategy in the Great Lakes region, said DRC won’t pick a fight with all EAC members. In fact, he says, being in the blocs to which Rwanda belongs is the exact thing DRC needs, to “cancel out” Kigali’s influence.

Christophe Lutundula, Foreign minister until early this year, had earlier explained that the DRC strategy was “to join the Eastern bloc, of course for regional integration and economic reasons, but also to better plead the Congo’s security cause, where Rwanda is making its voice heard.”

Relations between the DRC and Rwanda have been strained for 30 years, with Congolese leaders accusing Kigali of supporting several rebellions in Congo, including the M23. Rwandan officials, in turn, accuse Congo of cooperating with the FDLR, remnants of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Six months ago, troops from the EAC were in the DRC, deployed in 2022 on the endorsement of Kinshasa to support the Congolese army in the war against armed groups, mainly the M23. But, since the departure of these troops, which were commanded by Kenyan generals, a number of issues have come up between Kenya and the DRC.

“Kenya has become our enemy,” argued Mr Kibel.

Congolese leaders don’t put it like that, however. Officials we reached out for a comment on the record promised to respond, but hadn’t by the time we went to press.

We had asked them to clarify the membership in the EAC and whether there are any plans to quit, or mend relations with the bloc.
But one who spoke on the background indicated a build-up of mistrust against some members of the EAC.

Congolese legislators at the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala) said Kinshasa was not considering quitting the EAC, even though all is not well within the regional bloc.

“To be in or out of the EAC is a decision to be made by the President. Whether it’s not going well or not, it’s the President who has the decision,” said Bertran Ewanga, leader of the Congolese chapter of Eala.

“Within the EAC, our people are enjoying free movement of goods and persons, business, especially the Congolese in Kisangani and Goma, are getting their goods through the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam without any major challenges,” the MP said.

He, however, pointed out that all was not well in the eastern Congo and cited Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya for their troubles.

“Our people are suffering in eastern Congo. Our troubles, we believe, are being caused by one of our neighbours, who is a member of the EAC. The other problem is what President William Ruto said during his state visit to the USA.”

It is not clear what President Ruto said that could have caused discomfort with President Tshisekedi.

But Mr Ewanga said Dr Ruto’s comments on his efforts to bring peace in the eastern Congo without consulting President Tshisekedi irked a section of the Congolese.

The DRC says there has been little progress in EAC’s peacebuilding efforts since it joined the regional economic bloc two years ago.
Last year, Government Spokesman Patrick Muyaya said the peace they hoped for in the country’s troubled east was taking too long to be realised and “some Congolese are now questioning why we even asked to join the EAC”.

“When we joined the EAC, it was to connect our country with the region. The regional bloc was committed to peacebuilding but unfortunately, we have little progress,” the Information minister said.

The Congolese blame Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni and the EAC Secretariat for failing to rein in their enemies. It would appear that the DRC is comfortable in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), where it is a member with Tanzania, than in the EAC, touted as the most progressive of the regional blocs.

“Do you see any of our neighbours to the west of Congo causing us problems? Of course not. It’s only our members to the east that are problematic. That is why the DRC is happier in the SADC than in the EAC,” Mr Ewanga told The EastAfrican.

Between Kenya and the DRC, their respective embassies are without top diplomats. The Congolese president has not sent back his ambassador to Nairobi after recalling him in December 2023, nor has he accredited the new Kenyan ambassador to the DRC, despite a recent attempt at dialogue.

Late last year, the two sides bickered after a rebel group launched the Congo River Alliance in Nairobi. DRC demanded that Kenya arrest and hand over the rebels to Kinshasa as well as cut out any rebel group activities in Nairobi, but Ruto said he would not curtail free speech protected under local laws.

When the DRC joined the EAC in 2022, the then Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is a friend of the Congolese head of state, played a crucial role. He helped Tshisekedi to strengthen the diplomatic axis with the countries of Eastern Africa in order to act as a sort of counterweight to the axis of predecessor Joseph Kabila, which was that of the countries of Southern Africa.

Dady Saleh, a lecturer in Goma in the east of the DRC, says Mr Kenyatta’s successor is seen as reversing that position.

Some Congolese officials are now also referring to Uganda as Congo’s “aggressor” in this Eastern bloc issue. Kampala is also accused of supporting the M23, according to National Assembly Speaker Vital Kamerhe.

“We must not forget either that Uganda still retains M23 leaders,” said Mr Kibel.

The Congo would therefore have to favour a diplomatic approach with Kenya and Uganda and continue to participate in meetings and commitments within the EAC, rather than creating a berth.

This approach is not shared by some Congolese political players, however.

Opposition leader Martin Fayulu has always criticised the DRC’s membership of the EAC, calling it a “big mistake”.

The circumstances of the war in the DRC have redrawn the picture differently. The Congo now relies on troops from the SADC, after it kicked out the EAC mission. But membership of the Eastern bloc is a question of natural and economic logic, argued Christophe Lutundula.

But can Congo be kicked out of the EAC if it continues being a “deadbeat” member?

Donald, CEO of the Pan African Lawyers Union, says there are no provisions in the EAC Treaty on how a member can leave.

“I don’t think that was something that was envisaged in the Treaty -- about EAC kicking out a membere. They talk of sanctions if you don’t meet the terms, if you don’t pay your dues and so on, but I don’t think they envisaged that someone can leave. But a member that wishes to leave can give a notice indicating its intentions.”

During the recent summit President, Kagame asked for an urgent retreat of the EAC Ministers of Foreign and Regional Affairs to discuss peace in the region.

“I just want to remind you that it is urgent to have foreign ministers and regional ministers meeting as soon as possible,” Mr Kagame said, in reference to peace efforts in the region.

“And I remember in my last discussion with the President of Tanzania she suggested and offered through her foreign minister to host that meeting in Tanzania and I think they had been in communication exchanges with our foreign ministers so I endorse that and I suggest that be done as soon as possible.”

President Museveni supported peace call and acknowledged South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s efforts in his capacity as the chairperson of the summit in suing for peace in Eastern Congo.

“I support the decision by the summit to refer the matter to the ministers. We need peace in Congo,” Museveni said.