Why Congo's elections matter so much to neighbors
Tiny Burundi has seen a modest turnaround since it put a civil war behind it. But continued instability in Congo allows Burundi's rebel groups a safe haven to launch attacks.
As post-election turmoil rippled across the Democratic Republic Congo over the past week, no one was watching more anxiously than the country’s neighbors to the east.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Over the past several years, the Great Lakes region on Congo’s border has blossomed economically. Rwanda, once remembered for its 1994 genocide, has now become the new darling of international aid and investment, praised consistently by donors such as the World Bank for its efficient and transparent state. Uganda, whose economy is expected to grow by 6.4 percent this year, has also recently discovered oil. Even Burundi, the smallest and most impoverished economy in the region, has seen a modest turnaround.
Yet as the region has moved forward, one thing has often pulled it back: instability in the Congo – a country with an incredible power to affect, and be affected by, the region.
“The impact of the Congo on the region is basically [a story about] a failed state that continues to have its consequences,” says Filip Reyntjens, an expert on the region at Antwerp University in Belgium. Rebel movements and criminal rackets have long taken to the lawless jungles and twisted forests of Congo to organize, using the country’s vast mineral and other natural wealth to fund their addiction to war. The result has been a consistent cycle of violence, displacement, and exploitation that has helped turn eastern Congo – and at times the areas along its border – into a humanitarian disaster zone.
Just a stone’s throw from that same frontier, the tiny country of Burundi is nervous about that cycle destroying its calm once again. In 2010, one of Burundi’s main political opposition groups, the National Liberation Front (FNL), returned to its rebel roots and started to operate in the Congo. Two new self-proclaimed rebel movements also say they are trying to organize to oppose the government. Since the summer, a string of attacks by armed bandits – at least some of whom likely have links to this ragtag bunch of rebels – have left civilians and two European aid workers dead.
Government power declining
“The power of Kinshasa is only going to decrease [after the contested vote],” says an international expert in Burundi who was not authorized to speak on the record for his organization. “That fact favors the development of the group of rebels that has arrived there.”
And if those rebel movements return to fight, the fragile peace in Burundi could easily crumble. “All the conditions are there,” warns Leonce Ngendakumana, leader of the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), a coalition of nonarmed Burundian opposition parties. He is calling for urgent negotiations between the opposition and the government to avert armed aggression. Short of that, he says, and “if we have bad luck and there is trouble in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo … we’ll have a war.”
Burundi’s current crisis – and its links to Congo – trace back to Burundian elections in 2010. The armed opposition, including the FNL, had returned to civilian life and was ready to stand for office. But when they lost a local ballot that they had expected to win, opposition groups alleged misconduct and withdrew from the presidential contest en masse. Many opposition leaders went into exile; the leader of the FNL, Agathon Rwasa, headed to Congo, where his troops plundered and have helped mount attacks on civilians.
Since 2010, Burundi’s FNL has formed alliances with several rebel groups – most recently with the Mai Mai Yakatumba militia that controls much of Congo’s shoreline along Lake Tanganyika. They also control a lucrative gold trade and protection rackets, according to a regional expert working in Congo who was not authorized by his organization to speak on the record.