Recent military skirmishes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern territories, bordering Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, have triggered cross-accusations from the three Great Lakes countries of support for rebel groups operating in the DRC, to the detriment of each others’ national security. Félix Tshisekedi, the president of the DRC, recently suggested inviting the three countries to take part in joint military exercises to combat rebel groups operating primarily in North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces.
Such a move is extremely risky and could lead to each country supporting their preferred rebel groups to combat the others, turning a border insurgency into a regional proxy war. The last time such a conflict played out, 5.4 million Africans perished and two million were displaced, the largest loss of life in a single conflict since World War II.
Rwandan president Paul Kagame has accused Burundi and Uganda of supporting Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Rwanda National Congress (RNC) rebels who have launched cross-border raids. The FDLR comprises remnants of the Hutu militias who carried out the genocide against Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the RNC is made up of former Tutsi members of Kagame’s government. International observers suspect that an alliance is forming between the two groups. Rwanda has also faced threats from its southern border with Burundi, which it accuses of stationing FDLR splinter groups on its shared border.
Kagame has also maintained a long-standing feud with Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. Both men supported opposing rebel groups in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and the conflict has persisted for years within the DRC. Following the war’s official conclusion in 2003, members of rebel groups supported by either country won positions in Laurent Kabila’s transitional government. This was designed to unify the disparate groups, but has failed to prevent former rebel leaders from maintaining command structures in neighboring countries and control over their former soldiers.
Ongoing conflict between these rebel groups, with the blessing and aid of their Rwandan or Ugandan backers, has led to a tit-for-tat series of escalating actions between the two nations. Both have purged their security services of officials believed to be too closely linked to their national rival, many times carried out using rote ethnic distinctions. Major border crossings have been closed amid mutual accusations of spying. Rwanda also accuses Uganda of dragging its feet in resolving the inter-Burundi conflict, as Museveni needs Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza’s support in his feud with Kagame.
To calm these tensions, Tshisekedi invited Kagame and Museveni to Luanda, Angola, for discussions in July 2019, co-organized with Angolan president João Lourenço. The talks resulted in a memorandum of understanding that eventually collapsed, leaving both Rwanda and Uganda more embittered. Tshisekedi has moved more towards military solutions to address the conflict, which observers see as a high-stakes gambit that will in all likelihood exacerbate the violence. Instead, they urge Tshisekedi to build upon the talks started in Angola to facilitate further dialogue between the leaders of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Regional bodies like the African Union and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region should be brought in to mediate as well, and there should be an attempt to investigate and publish concrete evidence of support to rebel groups to more accurately resolve outstanding disputes. France, the United States, and the United Kingdom could also be incorporated given their permanent presence on the Security Council and ongoing interest in the Great Lakes region.