A non-military approach to bringing peace in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has recently been gaining momentum at the regional level and within the United Nations.
In May 2021, experts from the countries of the African Great Lakes region, namely Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, launched the Contact and Coordination Group (CCG) for non-military measures to end conflict in eastern DRC.
The establishment of the CCG was in response to the need for a non-military approach to complement the military action against illegal armed groups in eastern DRC. The CCG’s non-military measures include the ongoing implementation of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes for ex-combatants.
At an October 2021 meeting on the situation in the GLR, the UN Security Council developed five courses of action to renew the Council’s commitment to supporting peace in the Great Lakes region, among which was the continued support for the non-military approach identified by the CCG.
In April 2022, the Second Heads of State Conclave on the DRC was convened in Nairobi. It was hosted by the President of Kenya and attended by the presidents of the DRC, Burundi, Uganda, and by the Rwandan foreign affairs minister. The meeting discussed how to promote peace, stability and development in the eastern DRC and the greater East African region. One of the conclusions reached during this meeting was that a consultative dialogue between the president of the DRC and the representatives of local armed groups in the DRC would take place at earliest opportunity. These consultations have started and are now ongoing.
Although commendable, the non-military initiatives that have been undertaken will not on their own address the root causes of conflict in the Great Lakes region, in particular in eastern DRC.
The UN recognises the root causes of conflict in the eastern DRC to be linked to historical grievances that date back to the colonial era and the post-independence period relating to exclusion from access to land, power and resources in the Great Lakes region. In addition to these concerns, weaknesses in governance as well as limited or absent state authority have been found to have an impact on the protection of human rights and to impede efforts to strengthen the rule of law in some countries of the Great Lakes region. This situation has fuelled corruption and contributed to the impunity of perpetrators of serious crimes, including crimes against humanity.
Although commendable, the non-military initiatives that have been undertaken will not on their own address the root causes of conflict in the Great Lakes region.
As a result, local armed groups and others of foreign origin—some of whom are allegedly serving as proxies for the DRC’s neighbouring countries—have been able to create insecurity in the eastern DRC. However, while the UN has identified armed groups as one of the principal drivers of instability in the eastern DRC, it does not recognise them as being the root cause of the insecurity. However, the illicit exploitation and trade in natural resources from the eastern DRC has enabled armed groups to finance their operations with the complicity of local and external actors, including the DRC’s neighbouring countries, as has been reported by the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Given the foregoing, it is unclear how a non-military approach that only focuses on DDR programmes for ex-combatants would contribute to tackling the fundamental causes of conflict in the eastern DRC that originate from weaknesses in governance across all the countries of the Great Lakes region.
While the consultations between the president of the DRC and representatives of local armed groups are commendable, if the root causes of the conflict are not tackled, and the states neighbouring the DRC do not effectively play their part, peace in eastern DRC will remain elusive.
Moreover, the DRC is not solely responsible for the conflicts in the eastern DRC; internal problems in neighbouring countries have also contributed to fuelling conflict in the region. The presence of foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC whose intent is to use force to overthrow the leadership of their country of origin, as well as the presence of foreign armed groups allegedly serving as proxies for countries neighbouring the DRC, shows that without the engagement of its neighbours, peace will not prevail in the eastern DRC.
The Second Heads of State Conclave was clear on how to deal with foreign armed groups: they must disarm and return unconditionally and immediately to their respective countries of origin. Those that fail to do so will be treated as negative forces and handled militarily by a regional force to be established.
If the root causes of the conflict are not tackled, and the states neighbouring the DRC do not effectively play their part, peace in eastern DRC will remain elusive.
It is not the first time that there has been military cooperation between the countries of the GLR to fight against armed groups in eastern DRC. However, the efficiency of these operations has been routinely questioned, particularly because they have been characterised by a surge in human rights abuses, the proliferation of armed groups as well as persisting insecurity in the east of DRC. It is not clear how a regional force will confront foreign armed groups some of whom are alleged to be serving the interests of specific regional states.
Given that armed groups are one of the drivers—but not a root cause—of instability in the eastern DRC, the recent call for a comprehensive political strategy to address the structural causes of the conflicts in the eastern DRC made to the UN Security Council by the top UN envoy in the DRC is to be supported.
Indeed, to avoid a situation where the symptoms of the problem are dealt with while ignoring the real causes, and for a lasting peace to be reached in the eastern DRC, individual GLR states should engage in concrete actions to eliminate the internal social, economic and political issues that lead their citizens to form armed groups inside the DRC to fight their own governments. This can be achieved through political dialogue.
The governments of the GLR should engage in frank discussions with their citizens and, in particular, with dissenting voices both within and outside the country on the governance challenges they face and how these should be resolved. The ultimate aim of such a highly inclusive national dialogue would be to remove the reasons for which political opponents from countries in the region engage in political activities outside their home country, including resorting to armed struggle against their governments.
National dialogue has been shown to open the door to resolving long-standing conflict. A good example is the Tunisian national dialogue between the Islamist-led government and the secular opposition facilitated by the Quartet. It successfully enabled these opposing forces to agree on a roadmap to managing Tunisia’s challenges thus bringing the country back from the brink of civil war in 2013. For their efforts, members of the Quartet were awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
Thus, holding highly inclusive national dialogue in each GLR state to tackle internal governance weakness that cause instability in the eastern DRC would make a significant contribution to consolidating peace in that region.
The international community, especially the United Nations and members of the International Contact Group on Great Lakes region, which work to address political, diplomatic, security and development in the region, should also play their part.
In December 2020, the UN Security Council adopted a new strategy for peace consolidation and conflict resolution and conflict prevention in the GLR. The strategy affirms that effective and sustained dialogue among citizens is key to fostering trust, addressing underlying grievances and facilitating actions for peace, stability and prosperity and, therefore, members of the Security Council should support highly inclusive national dialogue to tackle governance weaknesses across GLR states that are the root cause of conflict in the eastern DRC.
Moreover, in their partnership with the member states from GLR, the US and the European Union should also include highly inclusive dialogue in their action plans as they work together in their quest to promote security, peace and good governance in the Great Lakes region.