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East Africa’s peace mission in the DRC: why it’s in Burundi’s interest to help

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BURUNDI was the first country to offer troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2022 as part of East Africa’s peace drive after a wave of attacks from the rebel group known as Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23).

Burundi shares a 243km border with the DRC. Most of it runs through the Rusizi/Ruzizi River to the north and Lake Tanganyika to the south. It has been described as one of the most porous borders in Africa’s Great Lakes region. This makes it particularly vulnerable to the spillover effects of conflict from one country into the other. Burundi currently hosts around 86,857 refugees from the DRC, a large number given Burundi’s population size of around 12.6 million.

Authors
PATRICK HAJAYANDI, Research Affiliate, University of Pretoria

CORI WIELENGA, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Mediation in Africa, University of Pretoria

The number of Burundian troops stationed within the DRC is not publicly known. The country already had troops in South Kivu – which hosts Burundian refugees – under a bilateral arrangement with the DRC. On 4 March 2023, Burundi deployed 100 soldiers to North Kivu in the eastern DRC as part of the East African Community’s regional peacekeeping force.

M23’s aim appears to be control of the eastern part of the DRC, which is endowed with strategic minerals. This area is near the border with Rwanda and Uganda. The group is believed to benefit from strategic and logistic support from the Rwandan government.

The Burundi troops deployed to the DRC have the mission of securing areas the M23 rebel group has withdrawn from.

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Apart from Burundi, only three of the seven East African Community members have offered to provide peacekeeping troops. Kenya and Uganda committed to deploy about 1,000 soldiers each. South Sudan promised to send 750 soldiers. Tanzania, the remaining East African Community member, had already provided its troops under the UN’s peace mission in the DRC.

Burundi is interested in seeing a stable and secured DRC, especially along the border area that the two countries share. Burundi’s government and army consider the absence of stability and security, especially in the DRC’s South Kivu, as a serious threat. It is one of the most important reasons Burundi is involved in supporting the peace process in the DRC. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/sgW5s/1/

Other reasons include issues related to bilateral trade and business, regional integration opportunities and the geopolitics of the Great Lakes Region.

Pursuit of rebels

The number of Burundian rebel groups with a rear base in South Kivu increased after 2015, when a military coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza failed. These armed groups have conducted incursions into Burundi from the DRC, increasing the level of insecurity.

The governments of Burundi and DRC agreed to collaborate in eradicating these rebel groups, through sharing intelligence and through joint operations when necessary. In its latest report the Burundian Human Rights Initiative says the government has secretly been deploying hundreds of soldiers and armed ruling party youths to pursue rebels in the eastern DRC since 2021.

Trade links

The DRC has a population of around 111 million people. This is an important market for Burundi and the whole East African Community.

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Economically important minerals from the DRC are transported through its neighbours like Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania. This trade involves both legal and illegal exchange of strategic minerals such as gold, coltan, cobalt and cassiterite.

Furthermore, Burundi, Tanzania and the DRC share a plan to build an electrified railway from Dar es Salaam’s port through Burundi to the DRC. This project is set to increase the volume of trade between the three countries. Without permanent security in the DRC, this project will not be realised.

In addition, the proximity of cities like Bujumbura (Burundi), Kigoma (Tanzania) and Bukavu and Uvira (DRC) has the potential to create an important triangular trade hub.

Regional politics

Being the current chair of the East Africa Community heads of state summit, Burundi’s President Évariste Ndayishimiye had to lead the DRC peace process. But there is also some regional history to it.

Since the 1990s, Africa’s Great Lakes Region has become a theatre for some of the bloodiest conflicts on the continent. The particular trait of these conflicts is their interconnectedness. The civil war that erupted in 1993 in Burundi and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda spilled over into the DRC and were closely linked to the 1996 and 1998 wars that devastated the Congolese people. An estimated four million lives were lost.

Political decisions in one country in the region inevitably affect other countries. For instance, discrimination against the Banyamulenge and the contestation of their Congolese identity seem to drive Rwanda’s support for M23. The Congolese refute this claim and accuse Kigali of having ambitions to annex the eastern part of the DRC (the so called balkanisation of the Kivus). The result is severed diplomatic ties between Rwanda and the DRC.

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Burundi’s interest is in demonstrating that it can be a reliable political ally for the DRC. Developing such political ties offer advantages linked to having an upper hand over the security situation and benefit from arising business opportunities.

Colonial heritage

Burundi and the DRC are the only countries within the EAC where French is used as a key official language and dominates political, trade and diplomatic exchange. The two still share a lot from the colonial era when they were both under Belgian colonial authority. These factors play a role in developing bilateral agreements and in building trust between the two countries.

In sum, Burundi has deployed troops to the DRC to protect its national interests and to implement bilateral agreements and the Luanda road map for peace (named after the talks between the DRC and Rwanda in the Angolan capital Luanda that unlocked a truce with the M23). The Angolan, agreement signed 23 November 2022, provided for the withdrawal of the M23 rebels from all the occupied areas of eastern DRC by 15 January 2023.

By The African Mirror

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