Over the past decade, the Great Lakes region has relatively enjoyed peace and stability that has facilitated economic growth and expanded opportunities, improving living conditions for millions of people.
However, the region currently faces significant risks characterised by continuing emerging patterns of instability that could wipe out these gains.
The larger East Africa is facing mounting risks of unrest and violence as a result of a massive population displacements with thousands fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo into Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania as tensions rise over intimidation and violence.
At least 23 people were killed recently in renewed fighting between ethnic groups in eastern DRC, days after clashes between the armies of DRC and Rwanda, neighbours who have had a tumultuous relationship.
Besides DRC, the region’s prospects for peace and stability are threatened by the prolonged political tensions in Burundi and South Sudan, which have already created a regional refugee crisis.
The current internal political tensions in Ethiopia also mean that Addis Ababa could set back regional efforts to bring stability in Somalia, a country that remains a fertile ground for terrorism. Already this week, Al Shaabab attacked two police camps in northeastern Kenya and killed four security personnel.
Moreover, despite members of the East African Community claiming to be actively involved in regional peacebuilding efforts, the region is increasingly looking fragile with governments consistently using the might of the police and justice system to repress political opposition.
There have been increasing reports of extrajudicial killings, harassment of the media and manipulation of the judicial system for political ends in EAC member states, meaning no country in the region has the moral authority to play the watchdog role.
While it is an open secret that countries in the region are culpable in some of the conflicts due to their strategic interests in South Sudan, DRC, Somalia and Burundi — which further complicates peace efforts — the cost of inaction is, and will be, overwhelming.
Yet if the current tensions across the region escalate, it may not only defuse a refugee time bomb but also raise the risk profile of the region, dampening its prospects as an investment and tourism destination.
The region must act with urgency and act decisively to avert further escalation of the refugee crisis and escalation of violence.
There is a role for countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa in addressing political instability in the region. Rwanda as the current chair of the African Union must take an upper hand by demonstrating leadership in galvanising regional efforts to resolve the crises. This will minimise foreign intervention which rarely solves conflicts in Africa.
The recent changes in leadership in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola; countries that have historically been active players in the DRC conflict, provide a golden opportunity by engaging in preventive diplomacy.
Intervention in DRC is critical and urgent being as it is at the heart of the fragile Great Lakes region, and conflict here could have a domino effect across the region. And perhaps more importantly, strengthening democratic accountability is key.