It is an African reality that our states are not designed to have citizens as such, but mere residents whose security and wellbeing remain at the mercy of whoever can physically control the territory in which they live.
The fighting in the DRC follows the now tragically familiar story of rural dislocation and the besieging of provincial towns. The equally familiar results — mass forced migration, lost harvests and missing children — would be almost banal if they were not so devastating for the communities of farmers and small traders.
The past few months have seen the DRC government battling a mutiny by members of eastern ethnic minority militias dissatisfied with the implementation of the agreement under which their forces were to have been integrated into the DRC army.
As things stand, the DRC army units in the border areas near Uganda and Rwanda have been routed with nearly a battalion — followed by hordes of refugees — seeking refuge in Uganda while Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, remains menaced by the mutineers.
There has even been a rebel threat of a full-scale march on Kinshasa to remove President Joseph Kabila.
All of this can be understood in a number of ways: We could be witnessing yet another bout of administrative instability as the DRC struggles to create post-Mobutu coherence. Alternatively, it could be looked at as a further development of the externalisation of the Rwanda genocide conflict that saw the losing side fleeing and regrouping in eastern DRC.
Finally, it could also be seen as a new attempt to organise the de facto breaking up of the mineral-rich country into smaller, more easily digestible portions, in which event the long-suffering peoples of the DRC’s battered eastern provinces may find themselves as residents of new countries without having moved an inch.
Overall, it reveals the wider security crises of the Congo Basin-Great Lakes region, coming as the latest effects of US foreign policy overreach, and the contradictions in the policies and practices carried out by the regimes in Kampala and Kigali since the fall of Mobutu.
In their quest to consolidate their strategic position in the region, the US may find that they have perhaps relied a little too heavily on the perspectives offered by the local “partners” serving as implementers and guarantors.
Apart from matters of scale, the DRC’s problems are not essentially different from the problems faced by most of the European-created states in the region: Trying to build a modern nation out of what was essentially someone else’s economic project.
However, this has been critically complicated by the self-interested meddling of its similarly unstable neighbours, which saw the creation of ethnic militias as the basic operational tool.
Uganda has called for a multi-nation conference to find a way beyond the failed previous peace initiative, and has appealed for international humanitarian assistance to cope with the tide of refugees.
But the country’s poor record in the DRC of instigating, and then failing to resolve disastrous conflicts, mean that no honest stakeholder should take its proposals seriously. For a start, perhaps if Uganda had not first participated in the further wrecking of the wreckage already left by Mobutu, then maybe this crisis would not have emerged in the first place.
Furthermore, if the Ugandan government had found the decency to honour the 2005 UN International Court of Justice ruling to compensate the DRC to the tune of $10 billion, then perhaps some of the reasons cited for the mutinies — poor pay and conditions — would not have developed to this stage.
The conference proposal therefore comes across rather like the notorious local burglar calling for a neighbourhood watch meeting.
Nevertheless, Uganda’s population and economy are likely to become the principal victim of a humanitarian crisis that can only grow with the further “successes” of the rebellion. This leaves the government with no option but to try to appear busy finding a solution.
Well-known advocates for the Kigali government such as respected journalist Andrew Mwenda have made the somewhat contradictory argument that Kigali is not promoting the rebellion, but understands the reasons why those involved are doing so, and will not do anything to prevent the ethnic Rwandese communities of eastern Congo from having a real capacity to defend themselves.
Documentation has also been in circulating indicating a Rwandese belief that if the Kinshasa government is not in direct collaboration with the reorganised genocidaires, then it is at least similarly prepared to turn a blind eye to their activities on Congolese soil.
However, Kigali seems unable to decide whether to base its own policy on citizenship or on ethnicity. If the latter, then it must abandon the pretence of non-involvement. If the former, then it must let the DRC citizens, irrespective of ethnicity, sort out their internal problems in their own way.
If the ethnic Rwandan-dominated Kivu provinces were to break away, it would not hurt the RPF government to have a greater percentage of vigilant citizens making up the population of a “greater Rwanda,” but this may engender discussions that some may find uncomfortable. After all, it is not clear if Kigali’s sympathies lie with the entire ethnic Rwanda population of the DRC, or just the Tutsi component of it.
Some Ugandan media outlets have began issuing editorial warnings about the full extent of the damage this instability may cause. The problem, however, is that all those with the means to fight, seem to have lost the ability to see how limited their vision has become.
Kalundi Serumaga is political and cultural activist based in Kampala