The Long Road to ‘Umoja Wetu’
After a protracted war both Rwanda and Congo embarked on a long journey to normalize relations. As alarming as it was, the situation in Congo during the conflict phase of the Rwandan-Congo relationship starting from August 1998 did not elicit the kind of attention it deserved from the international community.
The situation on the other hand elicited a more Africanized response. It must be recalled that within days of the outbreak of the second war, other African leaders initiated efforts to broker peace.
The matter of bringing the war to an end was thus dealt with through an all-African peace process, which achieved a cease-fire agreement at Lusaka, Zambia, on July 10th 1999.
In the light of the complexities of the Congolese wars, it was a major step forward that the Agreement on a Cease-fire in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, commonly known as ‘the Lusaka accord,’ was finally signed by the DRC, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda.
The Lusaka accords can thus be said to have been the first of the building blocks which led to the ‘Umoja Wetu’ initiative which has brought the relationship to a 360 degree signaling a return to the cold war era of romanticism between the two neighbouring countries. Oluoch-Jiwah Fred writes.
Building block number one: Lusaka Accords
The agreement stipulated that forces from all sides in the conflict, under a Joint Military Commission, would cooperate in tracking, disarming and documenting all armed groups in the Congo, especially those forces identified with the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
For Rwanda, the genocidal rebel group was to be tracked down and disarmed. War criminals were to be handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha.
Within the larger call to a return to normalcy, a Congolese national dialogue was to begin that would result in a new political dispensation for the DRC.
On behalf of the Congolese parties to the conflict, the OAU asked Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana, to act as the neutral facilitator to organize and oversee this process.
The Congolese peace process largely remained an African driven initiative, led by then Zambian President Frederick Chiluba and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki.
However the process appeared to have hit a dead end. As at the end of June 2000, four months after UN’s force, the MONUC’s Phase II had been approved by the Security Council, it remained inactive.
President Kabila seemed keen not to back such moves. For instance, President Kabila stated in mid-July 2000 that he did not see the need for UN forces in the country.
He said at the time that the UN forces ‘shine in their laziness here and … do not know what to do on the territory they are supposed to defend.’
In any case, the lack of support from Kinshasa for MONUC meant that the mission’s next phase of deployment would once again be delayed.
It was not until August 24, 2000, six months after the UN force was expanded, that Kabila provided written confirmation that MONUC would be allowed to deploy freely across the country.
Building block number two: The Congolese transition
President Laurent Kabila was shot during the afternoon of 16th January 2001 by one of his own staff who was also killed. His son, Major General Joseph Kabila Kabange, became president on 26th January 2001. The exact circumstances of the assassination were murky.
Eight years down the line analysts contend that although the succession left many important items of contention unresolved, so far the performance of Joseph Kabila is not nearly as negative as had been initially foreseen.
This is in as far as the restoration of the Rwanda-Congo cooperation framework is concerned. This also applies to quest of the larger sustainable peace process within the Great Lakes region.
No sooner was Kabila Junior anointed than the strongest doubts were expressed within and outside the Congo about his ability to lead his country out of the mess inherited from his father.
Commentators pointed to his youth, his lack of experience, his poor expressional skills in French, his unfamiliarity with the arcane politics of Kinshasa, all of which presumably disqualified him for the job.
Nonetheless, 8 years after assuming his father’s succession his achievements, call for a more pronounced assessment. An analyst pointed out that , ‘Where his father made a mockery of the Lusaka accords, consistently resisted calls to negotiate with the rebels and their allies, and heaped scorn on the UN-appointed facilitator, Joseph had shown himself surprisingly receptive to the implementation of the Lusaka accords and hence has been very instrumental in midwifing a sustainable peace process for Congo and her neighbours’.
Through Joseph Kabila former president Masire was called back to the Congo; the ban on political parties was lifted; preparations were instituted for a national dialogue; and, as a significant sign of good will, Rwanda and Uganda begun to pull back their troops.
The western media favorably contrasted Joseph Kabila— Western educated and English-speaking—with his father Laurent. Western media wrote that ‘here was someone who made diplomats ‘hope that things would change’.
They wrote that ‘whereas Laurent Kabila stood as the major impediment to a peaceful settlement of the war launched in August 1998 to unseat him, the only obstruction had been Kabila senior because the Lusaka accord called for the government’s democratic transition and that was a threat to his power.’
Breaking the deadlock
Eighteen months of deadlock in efforts to end the war in the Congo came to a sudden end with the assassination of President Laurent Désiré Kabila on 16th January 2001.
The late leader had been compelled to sign what he came to see as an unfavourable cease-fire agreement in the Zambian capital of Lusaka in July 1999, and had since obstructed implementation of its every term. His replacement by his then 29-year old son Joseph consequently gave new hope to the peace process.
The international community seized the opportunity afforded by the late president’s murder and re-engaged in the DRC.
Leaders in the U.S., Europe, and the United Nations immediately recognised the new president in order to give him the confidence to break from the policies of his father and implement the terms of the Lusaka cease-fire.
In return, Joseph Kabila agreed to join an Inter-Congolese Dialogue facilitated by the former President of Botswana, Sir Ketumile Masire, and welcomed a quick deployment of MONUC, the UN military observer mission for the Congo.
The UN Security Council responded to these gestures with the passage of Resolution 1341 on 22nd February 2001.
Resolution 1341, demanded the withdrawal of foreign forces and urged the parties to the Lusaka Cease-fire Agreement to adopt a ‘precise plan and schedule’ by 15th May 2001.
Building block number three: Kabila Junior’s character
At the heart of the dramatic changes that followed was the enigmatic character of Joseph Kabila as president of the DRC.
Whether an Inter-Congolese Dialogue could move forward depended upon his willingness, and his freedom, to enter into the discussions with other parties including Rwanda.
Within the regional dynamics and more so in the face of open doubts about his ability to succeed his father, Joseph Kabila quickly managed to tip the diplomatic balance in his favour.
After an early meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki in Kinshasa, Kabila launched a personal diplomatic offensive in Western capitals.
With an invitation to a U.S. Congressional prayer breakfast extended to his father in hand, the new president hastened to Washington. There he met President Kagame, who had also been invited. Along the way, Kabila stopped in Paris to meet Jacques Chirac, who praised him profusely.
In the U.S. he also met Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and presented himself to the Security Council.
During these meetings, he reiterated his commitment to the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and promised to work with MONUC to enable it attain full deployment.
At home Joseph Kabila invited all political actors and representatives of civil society to join him in Libreville for the preparatory phases of an eventual Inter-Congolese Dialogue.
Congolese media reported that he openly declared that ‘political problems of prime importance must find their solutions within the framework of an Inter-Congolese Dialogue’.
Media reports further indicated that he reiterated on the need ‘on all the political actors as well as members of the civil society to join us without hesitation towards crafting the preparative efforts for the success of this dialogue, namely pursuing efforts to ensure the conclusion of the Libreville (peace) process.’
Congo watchers are quick to point out that it would have been a surprise if Joseph Kabila had appreciably changed its views on the discussions centring around the Inter-Congolese Dialogue.
This is because the format for the talks outlined in the Lusaka ceasefire was expressly designed to unseat the regime of his father President Laurent Kabila by forcing him to negotiate on an equal status with his many opponents.
The same fate awaited Joseph if he entered into the dialogue. More so the watchers argued that even if Joseph accepted such a dialogue, it was unlikely that his father’s allies, on whom he was still dependent, would allow him to proceed.
Joseph Kabila’s acceptance of Masire’s role in the Inter-Congolese Dialogue nonetheless inspired euphoria among Congo’s well-wishers.
Resolution 1341 in fact ‘welcomed the expressed willingness’ of the DRC authorities ‘to proceed with the dialogue under the aegis of the neutral Facilitator, Sir Ketumile Masire’.
The DRC at this juncture had no time left for bickering and politicking.
Its politicians, neighbours and other international friends had to demonstrate their commitment to peace by supporting unreservedly such an agenda to foster a rebirth of the central African nation.
Joseph Kabila appeared determined to follow a different road from his father.
Congolese media reported that many in his father’s former inner circle, however, resented the new president’s apparent willingness to enter an Inter-Congolese Dialogue.
‘Until greater stability was achieved, no real dialogue or political relaxation was likely. As a result, the window of opportunity for peace created by the murder of Laurent Kabila was closing’, an analyst pointed out.
All the belligerents had invested prestige and resources in what had proved to be a disastrous war. None would leave until their individual interests were catered to. This could only occur within the much-anticipated Inter-Congolese Dialogue.
The format of those talks was equally important for peace efforts in the Congo. The task was to help bring about a return of responsible politics to the country and to give credibility to a transitional regime.
This could be best accomplished with a 90- day dialogue, as envisaged in the Lusaka Cease-fire, between a limited number of participants.
The dialogue could then lead quickly to the establishment of a genuine government of transition built upon a power-sharing agreement with the armed and unarmed opposition.
Similarly, the transitional government could be limited to a set term and could only be mandated to organise elections, restart the economy, and relieve humanitarian suffering.
The Congolese people’s interest in an Inter-Congolese Dialogue was clear. To protect the sanctity of the dialogue and safeguard it from the predictable efforts to obstruct its progress had to be the mission of all those who desired peace in the region. Rwanda was included in this group of nations.
President at 29
At age 29 at the time of his ascension to the DRC presidency, he was considered young and inexperienced.
Joseph Kabila subsequently attempted to end the ongoing civil war and to remove foreign troops from the country, with some success.
The 2002 peace agreement signed at the Inter-Congolese Dialogue in Sun City, South Africa, which nominally ended the Second Congo War, maintained Joseph Kabila as President and head of state of the DRC.
An interim administration was set up under him, including the leaders of the country’s two main rebel groups as vice-presidents (two other vice-presidents were representatives of the civilian opposition and government supporters respectively).
In February 2003, the new president met Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the United States. Rwanda, Uganda, and the rebels agreed to a UN pullout plan.
Uganda and Rwanda began pulling troops back from the front line.
The young Kabila immediately sought to distance himself from his father’s policy towards the war that was seen by many observers – as being either the main or sole reason for the failure of the Lusaka Accords.
The new president’s more lenient and flexible position in dealing with warring parties opposed to his government was immediately hailed in the west, with western media reporting that ‘French President Jacques Chirac announcing that France had ‘taken note of Joseph Kabila’s openness through his first declarations.’
Moreover, after Joseph’s ascension, while on a visit to New York, American media reported that President Paul Kagame told the UN that ‘one can give Kabila junior the benefit of the doubt that maybe he can do better than his father.’
Consequently , the Lusaka Accords mediator, Ketumile Masire, announced a few weeks later in August 2001 that he was progressing steadily in bringing together the various warring parties for the much-awaited Inter-Congolese Dialogue.
As things played out, the dialogue conference began sooner rather than later, on 15th October 2001 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In the next part of this article the writer will examine how the Congolese dialogue was played out.