DRC, faced with the threat of a subsidiary war over tension in the Great Lakes

The country is once again at the heart of the disputes between Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda

International Crisis Group asks Congolese President Tshisekedi to boost Luanda's diplomatic channel


The increase in tensions in the Great Lakes region, mainly between Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, threatens to spread again east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and lead to a subsidiary war, through the armed groups that operate in the area, shake stability and security in the region.

“The intensified hostilities between the states in the Great Lakes threatens a return to the regional wars that tore apart the region in the previous decades,” warns the 'think tank' International Crisis Group (ICG) to the deterioration of the situation and the crossing of accusations between these countries for their support of armed groups in the DRC.

DRC, faced with the threat of a subsidiary war over tension in the Great Lakes
DRC, faced with the threat of a subsidiary war over tension in the Great Lakes

The countries of the area have historically used militias in the DRC, where they continue to operate despite the end in 2003 of the last conflict – between 1998 and 2003, which left millions dead, mostly due to hunger and disease -, and the deterioration of relations only worsens the situation in the area, also shaken by an Ebola outbreak.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame accuses Burundi and Uganda of supporting Rwandan rebels in the Congolese provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu and has threatened to respond by military means, while Burundian and Ugandan authorities accuse Kigali of backing to rebels in DRC to launch attacks in both countries.

Upon his arrival a year ago in the Presidency of the DRC, Félix Tshisekedi opted for diplomatic channels – with the mediation of the Angolan president, Joao Lourenço – although it has stalled and recently opened the door to military cooperation with the aforementioned countries to fight against the different rebels.

In this sense, the ICG emphasizes that Tshisekedi “should prioritize the diplomatic channel (…) to calm tensions among its neighbors” since a subsidiary conflict “could further destabilize the DRC and even cause a major security crisis to regional level. ”

The deterioration of the situation took a new turn after an attack in October 2019 against the Rwandan town of Kinigi, which resulted in fourteen deaths and was blamed on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group with base in North Kivu composed of former members of the Hutu militias responsible for the 1994 genocide.


“The noises that are made from neighboring countries … there is not much I can do about it,” Kagame said in a speech given shortly thereafter. “However, everything that crosses our border and comes to destabilize us … we have shown that we can handle it. We will put you where you deserve,” he added, in a slightly veiled warning to Uganda, which Kigali accuses of supporting the group .

The Rwandan authorities also consider that Uganda and Burundi support the National Congress of Rwanda (NRC), mainly formed by Tutsi defectors from the Kagame Government. This group would have also established ties with the FDLR, according to Congolese and Rwandan sources, which worries Kigali even more.

Rwanda has also accused Burundi of a rebel attack in 2018 and of deploying units of the Imbonerakure – the youth wing of the Burundian government party, the CNDD-FDD – in South Kivu. Burundian official sources have stressed that, if true, it would be a defensive movement.

Meanwhile, Burundi accuses Rwanda of supporting the RED-Tabara rebel group, allegedly headed by Alexis Sinduhije, a Burundian Tutsi sanctioned in 2015 by the United States for instigating an “armed rebellion” in the country.

Just two weeks after the attack in Kinigi, RED-Tabara attacked in Burundi, an incident that left a dozen dead, while a second attack less than a month later resulted in the death of eight soldiers, which led to the Burundian president , Pierre Nkurunziza, to accuse Rwanda of instigating a “cowardly” attack.


The situation is even more complicated in the case of the rivalry between Rwanda and Uganda – countries that supported rival rebel factions during the Congolese war of 1998-2003, coming to face control of Kisangani in 2000–, given that relations have deteriorated dramatically and the potential for conflict is greater.

Both countries have maintained their support for rebel groups in the DRC for the past twelve years, including the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) – backed by Rwanda – and the M23 – surged following the defection of former members of the CNDP integrated into the DRC Army, in this case supported by both countries through different factions – defeated in 2013 by Congolese and United Nations forces.

During the last two years, according to the ICG, former members of the M23 have returned to the DRC, fueling the rivalry between the two countries, and UN sources have indicated that Kampala has allowed most of the 1,300 rebels who surrendered to return to the neighboring country, while former senior officials of the group move freely in Uganda.

The Yoweri Museveni government also accuses Rwanda of supporting the Islamist militia Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – about which information has arisen about alleged ties with the jihadist group Islamic State -, something flatly rejected from Kigali. “No agency has verified the accusation, but it itself fuels tensions,” says the ICG.

In this context, both Kagame and Museveni have carried out purges between their security forces for alleged ties to the neighboring country and, while Kigali closed a border post in February 2019 amidst espionage charges and his forces killed several Ugandans and Rwandans accused of smuggling, Kampala has arrested dozens of Rwandans.


In this context, the figure of Tshisekedi has seen his weight increase to try to play a mediating role, which is why Luanda started the process. In addition, it has strengthened ties with Kagame, which has led the Army to launch operations against the FDLR – which have resulted in the death of several senior members of the group.

This increased cooperation could have a negative effect on Burundi and Uganda if they believe that the alliance is too narrow, actually fueling tensions, so the ICG emphasizes the need to “prioritize dialogue” to avoid misunderstandings and help reduce the threat that weighs again on the region.

Thus, the ICG notes that “opening the door to military operations without a reduction in political tensions, which increases the risk of neighbors using armed intervention in the DRC to reinforce their subsidiaries at the expense of their rivals.”

He also argues that he could even “undermine the internal cohesion of the Congolese Army,” due to the presence in their ranks of reintegrated rebels.

“The Great Lakes region is getting closer and closer to the abyss,” he says, before stressing that Tshisekedi “should seek an agreement that entails, to begin with, that the eastern neighbors of the DRC undertake not to support armed groups in DRC and, in addition, a verification mechanism to investigate allegations about this participation. ”

Finally, the ICG notes that “without these efforts, there is a real risk that rising tensions will feed a broader regional security crisis” and reiterates that if these countries receive a green light to carry out operations in the DRC “the danger will be even more serious, fanning the ghost of an intertwined subsidiary war in which each country of the Great Lakes supports the enemies of its rival. ”

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