The EU has gone to great lengths to support stability in the African Great Lakes region, yet there is little return on this investment, writes Bram Dijkstra.
Bram Dijkstra is Research Assistant on Africa at the Open Society European Policy Institute.
Twenty years after the genocide which dragged Rwanda and its neighbours into a series of brutal conflicts, regional peace and stability remain elusive in the African Great Lakes region. Despite intensive engagement, the EU has failed to achieve its policy objectives in the region.
Earlier this month the EU backed the international call on the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) to start military action against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The rebel group is one of the countless militias vying for control of Congo’s restive east, where some of the world’s worst human rights violations are happening. Last week’s escalating demonstrations in Kinshasa against a controversial review of the electoral law give a glimpse of the explosive potential of a deepening political crisis in the DRC.
But instability is not confined to the DRC. In Burundi, reports of aggressive and armed political youth wings add to a climate of fear ahead of elections in July. In Rwanda, too, allegations persist over its implication in cross-border conflict, and the extrajudicial killings of dissidents abroad.
Across the region, space for civil society is shrinking and internal violence is on the rise. The prospect of constitutional reform to prolong presidential mandates risks undermining multiparty democracy, so upcoming elections present a pivotal moment for the region. They will either lead to further entrenchment of repressive politics of fear and violence or allow for some consolidation of democracy and political stability. Sadly, current developments suggest the former.
The EU has gone to great lengths to support stability in the region. Since the signing of the 2002 Sun City Agreement – an incomplete attempt to bring peace to the DRC – the EU has deployed five civilian and military missions to the DRC; including its first military operation ever, supporting army, police and justice reforms. This is more than in any other country. It has sent eight election observation missions, including technical and financial electoral assistance. Over the coming 6 years, the EU committed over €1.5 billion. At the diplomatic level, the EU Senior Coordinator for the Great Lakes region works closely with a team of international envoys, whose role has proven crucial, for instance, in ending the M23 rebellion in the eastern DRC.
Yet there is little return on this investment. Alarming trends across the region, such as leaders’ attempts to cling to power, challenge the EU’s democratic values. Despite a parliamentary rejection of proposed changes to the constitution in March 2014, fears over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s intention to seek an unconstitutional third mandate contributed to the worst political crisis in Burundi’s post-conflict era.
In the DRC President Joseph Kabila may seek to prolong his position not through constitutional means, but by exploiting the system to delay the electoral process. The recent breakdown in communication services has caused suspicion of a deliberate attempt to cover up the violent protests in Kinshasa. The controversial bill at the heart of the protests required a census to be conducted before the 2016 elections, which would almost certainly delay them. It has since been dropped under strong international pressure, whilst reminding the world of the tinderbox that is DRC politics.
The massive EU investment combined with regional regression exposes the weaknesses in the EU’s approach to governance assistance in the Great Lakes.
First, it’s regionally inconsistent. The security and governance crises in the eastern DRC are regional, though this is not always reflected in EU actions on the ground. The EU should stop treating some leaders as having better governance credentials than others, and formulate a coherent and firm message to all regional leaders which unequivocally condemns the unconstitutional or undemocratic extension of presidential terms. Within the DRC itself, support tends to be piece-meal and uneven; governance is centred on the restive eastern provinces and Kinshasa, but runs the risk of ignoring other, poorer provinces.
Second, the EU’s approach is internally contradictory, often undermining itself. The recent controversy over the Likofi case is illustrative of the lack of coordination between European donors and the gap between discourse and action in the EU’s governance agenda. Two reports by the UN and Human Rights Watch, which exposed the extrajudicial killing and disappearance of over 50 civilians during police Operation Likofi in Kinshasa, in combination with the subsequent expulsion of the head of the UN human rights office from the DRC, prompted the UK and US to suspend their substantial support for police reform programmes. The EU, however, confirmed its commitment of €11 million to its police programme. The EU should demand more from governments in the region, and make budgetary aid subject to clear benchmarks. Otherwise it undermines its commitment to protection of human rights.
Third, the EU is running against the limits of its own technocratic approach to democratisation. In 2013, the European Court of Auditors found that the majority of examined EU aid projects in the DRC fell short of delivering their intended results. But even in the case of Rwanda, which scores above all sub-Saharan African averages on technocratic governance indicators, performance remains dismal. It is crucial that EU governance assistance moves beyond a technocratic ‘fix’ and becomes embedded in a durable political process. Part of this approach should be greater willingness to work with civil society, especially in view of impending elections.
The African Great Lakes region has to compete for its place on the European policy agenda. More urgent crises closer to home easily deflect EU attention away from spiralling mismanagement in a region where national histories of state collapse and violent conflict have shown to be intimately interconnected. However, the EU has made a considerable human and financial investment to promote human rights and democracy. If it wishes to maintain international credibility, it has to act on its own investments.
To underestimate the governance challenges of the African Great Lakes would be a big mistake. To take them as an excuse for inaction would be an even bigger one.