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DRC: A virtual regional summit for very real problems

Philipp Sandner
October 8, 2020

Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi had held a virtual regional summit about the conflict in the east of the country. Locals are frustrated by the lack of headway against armed groups in North and South Kivu.

DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi sits at a desk for a video conference call with regional leaders
Image: Giscard Kusema/Präsidentschaftspresse Kongo

DR Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi was greeted by thousands of supporters — but also by mockery — when he finally landed at Goma, the capital of the conflict-ridden North Kivu province on Wednesday. His trip had been postponed by more than two weeks.

"So basically, the president is coming to Goma to make a video call?" asked Fred Bauma, a Congolese pro-democracy activist, on Twitter.

His tweet refers to the decision to cancel a planned face-to-face mini summit with the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda and Angola and hold a video conference instead.

Safety concerns and coronavirus fears were given as the reason for the move.

Tshisekedi, along with Rwanda's Paul Kagame, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Angola's Joao Lourenco reaffirmed their commitment to work together to tackle armed groups in the region. They also promised to stop the illegal mineral trade in order to stem the flow of money to the rebel groups.

People in North and South Kivu are frustrated

More than 130 armed groups are fighting in the long-running North and South Kivu conflict, according to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch, "making the region one of the most violent places in the world."

Many living in eastern Congo don't believe the promises made at the virtual mini-summit.

"We're used to fantasy games and all these negotiations that don't result in anything," Vascos Saassita, a Goma resident, told DW.

DRC armed forces carry a wounded soldier on a stretcher in North Kivu
Congolese Armed Forces have been battling the ADF and other groups in North Kivu for yearsImage: Reuters/G. Tomsaevic

Massacres continued just this week. On Monday, the day Tshisekedi arrived in North Kiva province, 11 people were killed in a dawn raid the village of Mamove near the embattled city of Beni, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Goma. 

Although it's not clear who is responsible for the killings, people are pointing their fingers at the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels. The group, which originated in Uganda and later expanded into DR Congo, has been the target of military offensives by the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO.

The ADF has been blamed for more than 1,000 civilian deaths in the Beni district since 2014.

People there are demanding Tshisekedi visit them while he is in the region.

"We hope that there is a solution and that the complaints of the population will be heard," said Beni resident Philemon Kitenge.

"[Tshisekedi] is the supreme commander and he has the last word. He can tell the soldiers: 'Go on your way and fight the enemy, the ADF and the armed groups'," he said.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame appears on a computer screen during a video call
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speaks at the virtual regional mini-summitImage: Giscard Kusema/Präsidentschaftspresse Kongo

Relations with neighbors remain tense

Burundi, the fifth member of Africa's Great Lakes countries, didn't attend the virtual summit, saying it wanted a bilateral meeting with DR Congo first.

Gesine Ames, the coordinator of the Ecumenical Network for Central Africa, says this is symptomatic of the Congolese president's weak power base.

 DRC: President Tshisekedi's first year in office

"Tshisekedi is a president without sufficient power," she told DW. "He doesn't sufficient influence on the key institutions in the country - the parliament, the military and the judiciary. To divert attention from this weakness, he is increasingly looking for alliances, especially in the neighboring nations of DR Congo.

"This political weakness is causing armed conflicts to flare up again," she said.

More success internationally

Tshisekedi committed to one thing above all in his second year in office - reaching out to countries outside of Central Africa.

There is one glimmer of hope in this regard. On Tuesday, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, labeled peaceful conflict resolution in DR Congo a "policy priority" and announced that the US would continue to support the UN by better equipping MONUSCO.

Read more: DR Congo: Felix Tshisekedi moves closer to the US

Mike Hammer, the US Ambassador to DR Congo and a consistent supporter of Tshisekedi, even managed to visit Beni at the beginning of the week.

"Hearing from the local communities, it is clear more needs to be done" to end insecurity, Hammer told AFP.