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.

Jerome Delay/AP
Supporters of Congolese president Joseph Kabila take to the streets in celebration in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Friday Dec. 9, after the electoral commission declared their candidate the winner. Neighbors in Burundi keep a close eye on Congo's elections over the past week.

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.

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.

Now, the DRC threatens to send that instability back over the border. Sporadic attacks in that country have become increasingly common since the summer. In the largest of these, in September, 39 people were killed in a bar in the city of Gatumba, between the capital Bujumbura and the Congolese border. The government has accused the armed assailants of having links to the FNL.

Growing instability

The recent attacks have caused a flurry of concern here in Burundi, a country that lacks the institutions and the robust economy to deter violence once it begins.

“When you have a country with our history, with [armed] movements who want to return to battle, You might end up with something very bad,” warns Pacifique Nininahazwe, the head representative of all civil society organizations in Burundi.
“We have so much unemployment today – there’s so much poverty. If there was a war, it would be easy to recruit the young for this – they have nothing to do today and nothing to lose by joining.”

The government in Burundi has sought to reassure the public amid discussions of slipping security. On Nov. 24, it issued an official statement claiming that Burundi had generally seen a “positive evolution of the security situation throughout the national territory, despite isolated incidents here and there.”
But the government’s response has alarmed many – just as much as the armed attacks. Civil society groups here say that at least 300 members of the opposition have been executed over the Past five months, allegedly by government security forces. In just the past two weeks alone, another 43 opposition members have been arrested for alleged “acts of terror.” Journalists and civil society leaders say they are harassed and threatened by the ruling party and accused of fomenting war.
Equally puzzling has been the government’s denial of the rebel groups all together; it refers to assailants merely as armed bandits and has yet to acknowledge that members of the opposition have rearmed.

“They don’t want to admit that Burundi is on the brink of a civil war,” said the international expert in Burundi. “They are inclined toward an authoritarian response, which risks exacerbating the opposition and encouraging those who sympathize with the opposition.”
The Burundian government has also so far resisted efforts by the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, to help demobilize and disarm FNL and other Burundian combatants, because they do not want to see those ex-combatants repatriated back home, according to a June 16 report from the UN Expert Monitoring Group based there. According to the regional expert in the Congo, this problem persists; even those FNL combatants who surrender are turned away from the demobilization process in Congo.

Interestingly, almost everyone in Burundi agrees on how to diminish the tensions: Get opposition leaders back in Burundi and out of Congo – and get them talking with the government. In July, the government issued a call for exactly such dialogue. Yet Ngendakumana of the ADC says that he has yet to hear from the government about a time and date. Meanwhile, the armed opposition shows no signs of wanting to forfeit their arms.
All this means that everyone here seems acutely aware that things could get worse before they get better. And as so often been the case in this region, much will depend on Congo.

Elizabeth Dickinson reported from Burundi on a Humanity United reporting grant.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.