US wags finger at 'term-happy' Kabila and Nkurunziza, but is it only playing to the gallery?

In public Uncle Sam has a beady eye trained on DRCongo and Burundi's big men; in private realpolitik little stands in the way of 3rd terms for each.

RUSSELL D. Feingold, America’s special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, appears to have his 2015 agenda already fashioned out for him.

In public, he has the task of making sure the US message about “improved democratisation” as outlined in his country’s still new Africa strategy remains credible, while in private juggling a plethora of competing interests in Central Africa, with the mandate that the outcome presents the best possible return for American investment.

A key goal remains convincing—at least outwardly—two leaders in the region to step down at the end of their current terms. In private, American interests may be better served by their remaining in place.

In a December 30, 2014 conference call with journalists covering Africa, he urged the Burundi government to ensure that upcoming presidential elections are “consistent with the Arusha accords, including its provisions regarding term limits”; a veiled message to its eccentric leader.

The accords, signed in 2000, have been the foundation of Burundi’s decade long but frail stability, Feingold added. President Pierre Nkurunziza is yet to state whether he will seek a third term, but analysts say that is foregone.

In May, Feingold strongly urged Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila to observe the country’s constitution that “provides for two terms”. Kabila last month questioned the “sound basis on which non-Congolese people invite themselves to take part in the [election] debate, however well-intentioned they might be”.

Kabila’s second five-year term runs out next year, and a vocal part of his entourage have been pressing him to run again. He is yet to comment on the calls, but were he to amend the country’s charter for a second time (in 2011 the second election round was eliminated) he would feasibly run into stiffer opposition than Nkurunziza.

Banana skins for America

Next door, the Central Africa Republic’s transitional government is struggling for traction, with the US remaining on message that a peaceful democratic transition there is the best bet for long-term stability.

The Great Lakes region is braced for a military offensive against a rebel group linked to genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, making it a potential banana skin for the US as it seeks to protect its enormous interests.

On Saturday, a six-month deadline for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda to voluntarily disarm ran out. Days before, some 67 members of the group, known as the FDLR for its French acronym, had surrendered, but the US described this as an “insufficient step”.

The deadline had been imposed by the regional ICGLR and SADC blocs, together with the United Nations Security Council. Its lapse sets the stage for a military offensive by the Congolese Army and the UN Mission on Congo, MONUSCO, through its Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), the first UN offensive peacekeeping formation. 

Scenting blood, Rwanda, which maintains frosty relations with the DRC over the group’s cross border activities, at the weekend piled on the pressure by urging urgent armed action, citing UN resolutions that authorise offensive actions through the FIB “either unilaterally or with FARDC (Congolese forces)”.

“Having consistently objected to all manoeuvers used to protect or legitimise the FDLR, the Government of Rwanda urges the international community to ensure that hidden agendas are not allowed to stand, any longer, in the way of sustainable peace, progress and security for the citizens of this region,” Kigali said in a statement. 

It is the expected active role of the Congolese army, and the feeble Burundi peace, that may hand both Kabila and Nkurunziza another term, even as the State Department keeps up the protests in public. 

Feingold notably mentioned that Burundi’s constitution afforded room for alternative interpretation, hardly a cast-iron refutal of Nkurunziza’s credentials. Burundi the geographical land is of less strategic interest to the US, but Bujumbura plays a critical role in a theatre where America is highly vested - it is one of the main contributors to the peacekeeping forces in Somalia. But even without that, Washington is not keen on a new conflict front complicating efforts to stabilise Central Africa.

The fragility of the situation was highlighted over the weekend when the Burundi army claimed the killing of 100 members of an unidentified rebel group who had crossed into its territory from the chronically unstable eastern DRC region.

The US has come in for major criticism over its handling of South Sudan, the DRC’s northern neighbour and a country that it midwifed to birth but that has been bogged down by civil war since December 2013.

Continued stability in the region may thus trump calls for regime change, but the wider reasons for this are more grounded in US trade and geopolitical interests in the region.

Corrupt winds blow in Bujumbura

Following the introduction of a progressive investment code, American companies had sought to become active in Burundi,  originally the domain of fellow East African Community bloc members, India and China. 

But the first would-be US multinational into the country, GPS USA, run into rapacious corruption headwinds as it sought to take over the concession of the vital port of Bujumbura. The convoluted case is now in court, where the firm is suing the government.

American firms have had far better luck, and controversy, in the DRC, among the richest countries in the world based on mineral resources, many of which, such as coltan, are essential for the world’s billion-dollar electronic and military industries. Their presence in the country goes back to the Mobutu Sese Seko regime, with whom Washington maintained cosy ties with during the Cold War era.

Scores of US corporations were named by the United Nations as far back as 2002 for “violating standards of good corporate behaviour in the trade activities” in the country, in the thick of a free-for-all scramble for Congolese resources.

Influence in Central Africa

Continued influence in Central Africa is also a useful American bulwark against France’s renewed yet constant push for influence in the region. As the world focused on the US-Africa Leaders summit in August 2014, in the background, the White House launched two new security initiatives; the Security Governance Initiative for Africa (SGI) and the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership.

Still in their infancy and poorly funded compared to competing initiatives, they are a response to Islamic radical groups such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, against which France has sought to play a leading role, and also to regional peacekeeping weaknessess, especially in the Great Lakes. 

Among the goals of the SGI is to “advance US interests and strategic goals”—essentially to make African countries more secure for foreign investment.

All the players understand what is at stake, and have had to play their cards close to their chest. They can feasibly both complicate life for the other as the Burundi-GPS debacle showed, but they understand they need each other far more.

It certainly helps the Congo that while the US remains the dominant world power, the international system has shifted so far as to allow it its own political space, although Kinshasa is under no illusion that it is hostage to a variety of foreign interests, which while combustible, also ironically act to stabilise it.

The Great Lakes region has provided a rich playing ground for a host of nation-states—some six African countries were involved in its 1998 conflict. The anarchy has given rise to what celebrated international theorist Kenneth Waltz termed the security dilemma—where nations seek to increase their own security without increasing others’ fears.  

So the public finger wagging will continue, but in private the tango goes on. Both Kabila and Nkurunziza will be around in 2017, if they can position themselves as guarantors of peace in the Great Lakes. In always on-edge Africa, that is rarely a hard thing to do.

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