Many good things must have come out of the recently concluded emergency meeting of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in Kampala.
For me, though, two stand out: The facilitation of a meeting between Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and the success of efforts to get the Kabila government to send its representatives back to Kampala for talks with the M23 insurgents.
For Rwanda and Tanzania, after several weeks of a standoff whose secondary effects have raised the spectre of ethnic cleansing in some quarters and questions about the meaning of good neighbourliness and where the East African Community is headed, it was heartwarming to see pictures of the two presidents shaking hands and smiling.
A source close to the preparations but with no clue what had transpired between the two presidents behind closed doors, intimated that President Kagame had looked content as he left the meeting. He said nothing about President Kikwete. Either he did not look at his facial expression, or he preferred not to talk about him.
As for the DRC government and the M23 rebels, what could possibly be better for the long suffering fighters on both sides, Kivutians in general, especially residents of Goma, its hinterland and other contested areas, than talking?
Last week, I had a long chat with a resident of Goma of more than 50 years. Responding to a question about what life in the city was like, she summed up her sentiments in one short sentence: “Tunachoka na vita” (we are tired of war).
All that she and other ordinary citizens caught up in the long-running conflict between the DRC government and the different permutations of the same rebel groups that have been fighting it for years want, she said, was peace and the resumption of normal life as they knew it before the troubles began.
The same wish for a resumption of “life before the troubles” can be heard, I am sure, from Tanzanian citizens and bona fide residents languishing in displaced people’s camps in Rwanda and Uganda, courtesy of the Tanzanian government’s recent decision to expel “illegal aliens” from its territory.
It is tempting to think that the two outcomes have necessarily kick-started processes that will lead to a resumption of life as the respective victims knew it before politics in its nastiest form came calling. But have they? There are some indications and firm evidence in some instances, that this is not the case.
As far as the eviction of illegal aliens from Tanzanian territory goes, within a space of a few days after the Kampala meeting, Rwanda’s New Times newspaper was reporting renewed efforts by local authorities, assisted by members of the country’s security forces, to send Wanyarwanda back to their country.
As with earlier evictions, some victims crossed into Rwanda with stories of beatings, theft, destruction of property, and of being targeted because of their “Tutsi looks.”
And just as the state-owned Daily News was shifting from its belligerent stance towards Rwanda and hailing the talks, a local Kiswahili tabloid, Mtanzania, was reporting that SADC had warned Rwanda against attacking Tanzania. Whatever the degree of their validity, such reports coming out on the heels of what is supposed to have been a successful meeting, give even the most incorrigible optimists pause.
Talking of optimism, given what has been going on there for so many years, the DRC inspires very little of it. Let’s assume, for instance, that the talks between the M23 and the Kabila government go well and hostilities end.
That would still leave important questions unanswered. For instance, what happens to the FDLR and the ADF, the two groups that Rwanda and Uganda respectively accuse of threatening their security, and which in the past have provoked their incursions into the DRC?
It is also important to remember that at least part of the justification M23 give for taking up arms is to defend their community of Congolese Rwandophones, Tutsis specifically, against the FDLR, whom they accuse of importing their genocidal agenda from Rwanda into the Congo.
An estimated 70,000 Congolese Tutsi are in displaced people’s camps in Rwanda, fearful of returning home as long as the FDLR remains armed and able to roam freely.
For all their supposed interest in protecting civilians against attacks and abuse by all negative forces, the international community and Western human-rights campaigners prefer to concentrate on M23.
The UN, its Force Intervention Brigade included, have failed to disarm the FDLR or shown no real interest in doing so, even as they continue to commit crimes against ordinary Congolese.
Will they seek to disarm them if the Kampala talks succeed, or will they continue to look the other way? And if they look the other way, how long will it take before another insurgent group claiming to want to protect their community against attacks emerges? Plaudits aside, the Kampala talks are but one step on a very long journey.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]