Leaders of the EAC on Friday celebrated the formal entry of the Democratic Republic of Congo into the bloc, as President Felix Tshisekedi used the occasion to voice Kinshasa’s security concerns and push for their prioritisation on the region’s agenda.
At State House in Nairobi, where he signed the EAC Treaty accession documents, President Tshisekedi pledged to play a leading role in fuelling regional development. But he also said that security will be crucial for his country, now the richest in the bloc by natural resources, but impoverished by conflict and plunder.
“Let me reiterate the desire of the DRC to see the creation of a new organ in the EAC that is solely focused on mining, natural resources and energy that will be based in DRC," he said in his speech, signalling his country’s determination to lead on policies on extractives.
“Our admission to the EAC will not only help our country economically, but also strengthen our peace and security within DRC and the region,” he added.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who witnessed the accession, said the entry of Congo into the bloc will boost markets, enable further co-operation and strengthen integration.
“With the accession of the DRC, our community's population now stands at about 300 million. Our combined GDP will now stand at $250 billion,” President Kenyatta said.
He pledged to have the EAC submit a joint policy framework on how to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.
Sources told The EastAfrican that President Tshisekedi’s immediate concerns revolve around the re-emergence of the M23 rebel movement, which attacked government troops the same week Kinshasa was admitted into the EAC.
There were also fears of political interference by outsiders, after the DRC recently arrested three Kenyans suspected of working with Congolese officials to “breach national security”. A delegation from Kenya had been trying to have the Kenyans freed, but President Tshisekedi has remained adamant that they should be brought to book, sources said.
A diplomat familiar with the Friday discussions in Nairobi told The EastAfrican: “It is true the President of DR Congo is concerned about security. Some of these groups have received support externally, so he feels there must be assurance that this will not continue.”
Patrick Muyaya, President Tshisekedi’s spokesman, did not respond to our enquiries on the subject of the talks among the four EAC leaders, but politicians in Kinshasa suggested that security was key in discussions with neighbours in the bloc.
“For us in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it will be a question of building prosperity together in the sub-region. Mistrust based on security considerations must give way to trade and economic exchanges,” Congolese legislator Gratien Iracan de Saint Nicolas, told The EastAfrican. “The time has come to build peaceful relations in the region. We hope that being a member of the East African Community will help build bridges and not walls.”
Mr Nicolas belongs to the DRC’s majority-controlling party in the National Assembly, which is led by former governor of Katanga Province Moise Katumbi.
The accession ceremony was also significant in bringing together the presidents of Uganda and Rwanda to a physical meeting since Covid-19 broke out in the region.
Although the two countries recently agreed to reopen their land border, and Kampala vowed to eliminate disruptive Rwandan dissidents hiding in Uganda, the two sides are accused by the DRC of abetting or doing nothing about forces hostile to Kinshasa, charges that both have denied.
Last week, Kigali rejected assertions by the Congolese army that the M23 attack had been aided by Rwandans.
Rwanda said the group had managed to regroup because of incompetent governance in the DRC.
Back on the front
The M23 had been on a lull for nearly 10 years after a ceasefire that involved gradual admission of the fighters into the Congolese army. However, since last November, they have been active: On March 28, their fighters attacked positions of the Congolese army in Rutshuru, close to the Uganda-DRC border.
The group has accused the government of not honouring an agreement to improve conditions in the army, proper disarmament and redeploying fighters to areas outside North Kivu.
The DRC signed on the accession treaty earlier than had been expected and President Kenyatta, current chair of the EAC Heads of State Summit, indicated that Kinshasa will work on the crucial protocols of the EAC as soon as possible.
The functioning protocols are the Single Customs Territory and the Common Market.
It was unclear whether Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda made any commitments on the Congo security, although they have publicly denied accusations of aiding the M23.
Uganda has in the past agreed to have the members of the M23 who are in its territory disarmed and repatriated. Bosco Ntaganda, a former M23 rebel, surrendered to the International Criminal Court while on Rwandan soil. He is now serving a 30-year sentence for war crimes.
According to multiple sources, M23 has been quietly reorganising to re-launch a rebellion, which could draw in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, the three EAC members bordering DRC’s restive eastern region. But tension between Rwanda and Uganda, as well as Kigali and Burundi, could undermine regional attempts to address the problem.
For instance, over the past three years, the tensions in Rwanda-Uganda relations have complicated efforts for dialogue.
The M23 issue could ruin the military and defence co-operation. However, Uganda and the DRC, which launched a joint military offensive against Ugandan terrorist group Allied Democratic Forces, continue with the operation.