By the time Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi signed the deed to formally join the East African Community, his people had already cited centuries of close ties, thanks to common languages and ethnic groups.
“We are similar people. I can speak in my local language and be understood in DRC. And [Rwanda President Paul] Kagame can speak Kinyarwanda and be understood in Rutshuru, DRC. We are a people who are linked. But above all, we have what Europe doesn’t: A common language, Swahili. Why can’t we use all this to work towards two goals: prosperity and sustainable security,” said Uganda President Yoweri Museveni in Nairobi at the signing.
These common things and the DRC’s expansive resources and markets mean a new market of more than 90 million people will be added to the bloc of seven members.
However, there are fears that a potentially conflicting competition between countries to capture large parts of the new market may in fact become a regional problem of insecurity.
At the signing ceremony, leaders spoke of economic ambitions including widening integration. But they were also equally concerned about security at one another’s borders.
The signing of the treaty by the DRC took place at a time North Kivu, in the east, was rocked by the M23 rebellion. This rebel group, which arose 10 years ago resurfaced just as Kinshasa received approval to join the EAC. That resurgence means thawing ties between DRC and neighbour Rwanda are tense again.
On March 28, the Congolese army accused Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) of supporting the M23 rebels – which did not go down well with Kigali, which refuted the allegations.
In Kinshasa, officials later adopted a diplomatic position to ease the tension. Nevertheless, on February 26, while opening the diplomatic conference in the DRC, President Tshisekedi, without mentioning any names, denounced the destabilisation of the region by neighbouring countries.
“It is unrealistic and unproductive, even suicidal, for a country in our sub-region to think that it will always benefit by maintaining conflicts or tensions with its neighbours,” Tshisekedi said.
In the DRC, following the resurgence of the M23, the Congolese Association for Access to Justice, a rights lobby, called on the EAC to “adopt a global common strategy to neutralise all armed groups, mainly the M23 in eastern DRC,” according to a statement on April 11.
Some experts think the M23, which had relaxed attacks in the past few years, is not to be ignored.
“M23 has military equipment for operations at night,” Nicaise Kibel Bel, an expert on military issues in Kinshasa said.
After conquering several localities, the rebel group, which calls itself the Congolese Revolutionary Army, surprisingly announced Sunday April 10 it was withdrawing from its “conquered positions” to occupy only those held before April 6, to allow its concerns to be addressed through “frank and fruitful” talks with the Congolese government.
“The M23 leadership reminds the public that it has never had the intention of conquering spaces to run them, but its motivation is a peaceful resolution of the crisis,” added the statement signed by Maj Willy Ngoma, M23 spokesman.
According to M23, “There is no military solution to the crisis between the government and the M23. Only dialogue can lead to a compromise and offers our people new and happy prospects,” said Bertrand Bisimwa, the M 23 chairperson.
Despite its declared ceasefire, in 2012 how it took over major towns including Goma, albeit briefly. Thierry Vircoulon, researcher for the International Crisis Group for Central Africa, said a few years ago that “the strategy of the M23 is not to topple the government in Kinshasa, but to force it to talk”.
Countries jostling for DRC’s wide market must play a role in solving the conflict situation. Presidents Kagame and Museveni have repeatedly stated that armed groups hostile to their respective countries train in the forests of Kivu. For almost 30 years now, almost all bloodshed in the DRC has originated in the Kivu provinces.
After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, remnants of the genocidaires fled into forested areas of eastern DRC and created a rebel group called the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda).
For Uganda, a rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces fled into DRC too. And in November last year, DRC and Uganda launched a joint military operation, targeting the group’s fighters.