America’s new ‘superman' in Central Africa has little time to change the locks as he's handed hot potato region

US appoints Tom Perriello as special envoy for the Great Lakes region, but he has little time to even put on his shirt

THOMAS PERRIELLO has worked in the hotspots of Sierra Leone and Sudan’s Darfur among others, but he will rarely have seen as much action as awaits him when he takes up his new posting.

Perriello becomes the United States’ new special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, a position that makes him responsible for implementing several aspects of US policy in Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

His predecessor, Russell Feingold, resigned to launch his bid to rejoin Congress, with his brokering of a peace deal between the Congo government and the M23 rebels seen as the highlight of his stint. Kinshasa proved it has a short memory, accusing him of meddling in its internal affairs after he reminded president Joseph Kabila, who is eyeing a third term, that his time was up.  

Analysts are still wrangling over Perriello’s suitability for the job—one academic  thinks his lack of experience is “worrying” but  others have seen it as “filling a major hole in US foreign policy”.

Perriello himself will have little time to worry about his credentials—he has been flung into the deep end of a region which even in the quietest of moments rarely makes for dull times.

The most urgent issue is that of Burundi, where president Pierre Nkurunziza has doggedly stared down all opposition to his controversial third term bid, including surviving a coup attempt.

Regional mediators are frantically pursuing a political solution to a crisis that has claimed at least 70 lives and sent nearly 170,000 people fleeing as refugees into neighbouring countries, but Nkurunziza skipped the most recent talks by the five-state East African Community, which Burundi is a member. 

The EAC has been pushing for a two-week postponement of the July 15 presidential elections, but Nkurunziza on Saturday set the new date for July 21, in a grudging nod to their effort while pointedly communicating he is in charge.

Sitting pretty: Burundi president Nkurunziza.

He is unlikely to back down—his ruling CNDD-FDD party scored a landslide win in parliamentary elections held on May 29 but which the opposition boycotted, and that were widely criticised by the international community.

The US has limited leverage in Burundi, which has traditionally been of weak strategic interest to it, and can only back the efforts of other stronger players such as the African Union, 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.

The DR Congo holds much more interest to Washington, where American multinationals straddle the country’s rich resource industry, helping retrieve minerals such as coltan, which are essential for the world’s billion-dollar electronic and military industries.

 The presence of these firms goes back to the Mobutu Sese Seko regime, with who Washington maintained cosy ties during the Cold War era. Their stay hasn’t been entirely uncontroversial—scores of US corporations were named by the UN as far back as 2002 for “violating standards of good corporate behaviour in the trade activities” of the country, which struggles to control its vast resources.

Perriello will have to figure out Kabila’s intentions quickly—protests against a perceived third term bid in elections schedule for next year claimed as many as 36 lives according to rights groups, but he should arguably have more latitude here - the US is the country’s largest bilateral donor, and a major influence in the multilateral institutions present there, including the UN and the World Bank.

Another Great Lakes election scheduled for next year is also making headlines for controversy. Last week two challengers to veteran Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni  were arrested for allegedly planning campaign rallies without permission.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni: Giving Robert Mugabe a run for longevity

The opposition leaders, former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, and Kizza Besigye, a leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, were later released, but it is a time-tested pre-elections harassment tactic for Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

Mbabazi, a deep-pocketed former close ally of the president, announced last month he would challenge the 71-year-old incumbent for the ruling party’s nomination, while Besigye is a three-time presidential election challenger and a former personal doctor to Museveni.

Barring a major upset, Museveni is expected to extend his enduring rule—he has now been president longer than all seven previous leaders before him combined.

Uganda has long been an ally of the United States, but relations have somewhat cooled in recent years, including a very public fallout over anti-homosexual legislation last year, which Museveni signed into law then hastily rolled back before heading to the US-Africa leader’s summit in August.

His messy military role in the drawn out conflict in South Sudan, which the US midwife into being but has since steadily lost influence, has further complicated the relationship, but ties over battling terrorism in Somalia remain a safety net.

Rwanda also lurks in the shadows for the new envoy—the country is debating a third term for president Paul Kagame. The constitution does not allow for a third term, so it would need to be modified, but Rwandan officials have strongly denied that it is Kagame who is seeking a third term, insisting that there is “popular” demand for him to stay.

He is regarded by his supporters as a guarantor of stability and economic development after he put an end to the 1994 genocide that left an estimated 800,000 dead.

Two million people - 17% of the population – have signed a petition for him to stay, but last week the opposition said they  could not find a lawyer to handle its challenge to the bid. ( Read: Rwanda opposition says can’t find lawyer for Kagame 3rd term case - one said ‘God was against it’)

Washington has long supported 57-year-old Kagame, in part attributed to guilt over its failure to intervene in the genocide and for which Bill Clinton apologised for in a 1998 visit. Kigali has been quite adept at exploiting this, but the relationship is just not as cosy before.

The US, which expressed alarm over the killings of Rwanda dissidents in recent years, has now waded into the third term debate, with a State Department diplomat saying that it was opposed to the attempt.

“The United States believes that democracy is best advanced through the development of strong institutions, not strongmen,” the unnamed diplomat told news wire AFP last month.

“Changing constitutions to eliminate term limits in order to favour incumbents is inconsistent with democratic principles and reduces confidence in democratic institutions.”

Add this minefield to Kigali’s acute concerns over Burundi rebel elements, and the touchy topic of eastern DRC, over which the US suspended aid to Kigali, and Perriolli will be sweating on what lies ahead of him.

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