Three seemingly unconnected events came to pass in eastern Africa over the past four weeks.
The United Nations abandoned its ambiguous attitude toward the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan “Hutu” militia that includes perpetrators of the 1994 genocide based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and seeks to overthrow the government in Kigali.
In early August the UN chief of mission in DRC warned that the FDLR must disarm or face military action. It is a hard line that the UN, perhaps because of its peacekeeping mission in DRC, had largely avoided.
The US special envoy to the Great Lakes region, Russ Feingold, was even firmer, calling for the FDLR to be flushed out, and arguing that it had no justification to demand negotiation with the Rwanda government — a position that had been championed by Tanzania. He demanded the group demobilise by “no later than end of the year.”
Even Angola, that was thought to be the real firepower behind the “Tanzanian option” on FDLR, shifted position dramatically.
Angolan Defence Minister Joao Manuel Goncalves Lourenco, said he was “concerned by the slow progress of the voluntary surrender” of the FDLR.
The second event was the reversal of fortunes for South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar. When South Sudan went up in flames in December, in power fight between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Machar, whom he had sacked a few months earlier, the world and the regional grouping IGAD blamed the two sides almost equally for the ensuring atrocities. They also held them similarly culpable for the failure to enforce ceasefire agreements.
Indeed the view was that Ethiopia, and the US, were leaning toward Machar. In mid-August everyone turned against Machar, and everywhere he looked even formerly sympathetic leaders, were wagging fingers at him and casting him as the villain.
The third event was the US airstrike on a convoy in Somalia the other week that killed feared sl Shabaab militant and terror leader Ahmad Abdi Godane.
So what has changed? In all probability, it is the success of the extremist groups. Until about three years ago, the “terror divide” was the Sahel and the tip of the Horn of Africa.
But extremist groups are prevailing in Libya, have taken root in Egypt, have spread further south into West Africa – Mali, Nigeria, the Nigeria-Cameroon border area, and even into Central African Republic (CAR).
The view had always been that extremists were pushing eastwards and Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda were the “frontline” states preventing them from linking up with the terrorists in Somalia through Sudan.
The westward sweep and successes means that the frontline has shifted, and now the most critical point defence line is in central Africa.
The new push against al Shabaab and the killing of Godane, presumably, is hoped to free up resources from the eastern flank and focus them in central Africa and toward West Africa.
In this new reality, Machar and FDLR are flies in the soup. Generally, it’s not a good time to be a rebel or rebel-backer in East Africa. They are all being served as starters now. A year is, indeed, a very long time in politics.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3