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Pledging peace at Great Lakes summit

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Pledging peace at Great Lakes summit

In a region emerging from war, cooperation remains a challenge
From Africa Renewal: 
Reuters / Antony Njuguna
From left: Rwandan Three leaders sign pact at Great Lakes summit. From left: Rwandan Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, DRC President Joseph Kabila and Burundian President Pierre NkurunzizaThree leaders sign pact at Great Lakes summit. From left: Rwandan Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, DRC President Joseph Kabila and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza
Photograph: Reuters / Anthony Njuguna

Efforts to consolidate peace in Central Africa’s war–ravaged Great Lakes area took another step forward at the end of 2006 with the adoption of the comprehensive Pact on Security, Stability and Development in the Great Lakes Region. The agreement was signed by the heads of state of 11 countries in Nairobi on 15 December and came just weeks after another significant regional milestone, the successful presidential election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The region plunged into widespread armed conflict in the chaotic aftermath of both genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the overthrow of the dictatorial government of Mobutu Sese Seko in the DRC, then called Zaire, in 1997. By 2003, when a transitional government took power in the DRC as part of a UN–backed peace agreement, eight African countries and a score of independent rebel groups were involved in the fighting. The protagonists included Rwandan and Ugandan forces seeking to overthrow the DRC government, Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops fighting alongside government soldiers, Burundian troops operating in the Congo against their own rebel opponents and anti–government Rwandan militias in the eastern DRC, in addition to local ethnic militias (see box).

Four priorities, many challenges

The signers of the pact (Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Congo Republic, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) pledged to cooperate in four areas: security, democracy and governance, economic development, and humanitarian and social welfare. They agreed to detailed region-wide protocols and programmes of action for each. The assembled leaders also pledged to develop joint approaches to HIV/AIDS, the empowerment of women, environmental protection and human rights. The pact’s four main areas are:

Peace and security: Signers must renounce force in regional relations, abstain from supporting or tolerating the presence of armed dissidents of other states, cooperate in disarming and dismantling existing rebel movements, control regional arms transfers, eliminate and prevent hate speech and ethnic discrimination, and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly sexual violence and abuse of women and girls.

Democracy and good governance: The signatories must establish or abide by the rule of law and respect for human rights; enact or strengthen constitutional systems based on a separation of powers, political pluralism, regular and credible elections and transparency in political and economic governance; and establish a regional council on information and communications to promote free expression and media rights.

Economic development: Parties to the agreement must end or prevent the illegal exploitation of natural resources, respect national sovereignty over natural resources, establish the Great Lakes as a “specific reconstruction and development zone,” harmonize national and regional economic policies, cooperate in projects relating to regional energy, transport and communications, and enhance commerce and development among border populations to promote regional integration.

Humanitarian and social welfare: The signers must protect and assist internally displaced populations in line with international standards, protect and respect the property rights of returning refugees and displaced persons, establish regional early warning and disaster prevention systems, and guarantee access to basic services for populations affected by conflict and natural disasters.

Map of the Great Lakes region
UN / Africa Renewal

‘Long and difficult’ path

The pact is the product of a six-year, African-led diplomatic process aimed at reducing mutual suspicions between area governments and establishing a legal and political framework for addressing the region’s pressing economic, security and humanitarian problems. The first breakthrough came in 2002 in South Africa, when the parties to the Congo conflict agreed on a cease-fire, the withdrawal of foreign forces and the establishment of an interim government.

In 2004, regional leaders responded to a UN Security Council call for region-wide talks by attending the first International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Tanzania. That summit adopted the Dar es Salaam declaration, outlining the terms of a comprehensive regional settlement. It was at the second international conference in December that regional leaders agreed on the final details of the pact. The process has been supported politically and financially by a 28-country Group of Friends that includes South Africa, the US, Nigeria, and many members of the European Union.

In a message delivered to the summit on behalf of then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa Legwaila Joseph Legwaila noted that “the Great Lakes region has witnessed some of the bloodiest wars in the world. The cooperative mechanism embodied by this international conference reflects the centrality of the regional dimension in finding solutions to the various conflicts.” He acknowledged that negotiations “proved to be long and difficult because of the magnitude and complexity of the problems” and cautioned that the hardest part — implementation — still lies ahead.

The responsibility for implementation rests with the governments of the Great Lakes, aided by a conference secretariat that reports to a regional committee of cabinet ministers. This committee in turn advises the heads of state, who will meet in summit every two years. Civil society groups are expected to participate locally through national implementing bodies. Funding for the secretariat will come from mandatory assessments on signatory countries and donor funding. The pact also establishes a Reconstruction and Development Fund, to be financed by donors and Great Lakes governments and managed by the African Development Bank. The fund will help underwrite reconstruction, development and regional integration projects.

Failure ‘not a choice’

Although the complex peace agreement is fragile, there are signs of progress. In early February southern Sudanese authorities ordered Ugandan rebel forces out of the country, accusing them of mounting attacks inside Sudan. Several weeks later, the DRC’s newly elected President Joseph Kabila told a meeting of Great Lakes parliamentarians that the area’s conflicts were “blocking development” in the area. “Open war has come to an end, and dialogue has become the method of resolving conflicts,” he said. He added that his government is closely monitoring continuing peace talks in Uganda and Burundi.

According to press reports, the DRC’s armed forces have sought to expel the remaining Rwandan rebels from its territory and complete the demobilization of former combatants. Some 20,000 UN peacekeepers remain in the DRC to assist the new government with security. A 6,000-strong UN force completed its peace mission in Burundi at the end of 2006.

In an interview, the head of the conference secretariat, Tanzanian Ambassador Liberata Mulamula, told Africa Renewal that while implementing the pact is “a huge challenge,” there are prospects for “quick dividends” in a number of areas, “including the establishment of joint security management of common borders,” the creation of “transborder development basins” to ease poverty and discontent along porous and insecure national boundaries, and early-warning mechanisms for conflict prevention and humanitarian emergencies.

“The signing of the pact was seen as a new beginning for the Great Lakes region and indeed the African continent,” Ms. Mulamula said. But success will hinge on adequate funding for the agreement and its development programmes and on the political will of regional leaders to respect its provisions. “The world has witnessed the devastating effects of war and intractable conflicts in this region,” she concluded. “Failure is not a choice!”

Africa’s first ‘world war’

The Great Lakes region earned the unenviable title of host to “Africa’s first world war” after the collapse of the Mobuto dictatorship in 1997 triggered a scramble for control of the vast, mineral-rich Zaire (later called the Democratic Republic of the Congo). But the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes is really a series of interlocking conflicts involving virtually all of the countries in the region. Relations between the Sudanese and Ugandan governments, for example, were badly strained by allegations of Ugandan backing for the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army and charges that the Sudanese in turn supported the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency that has taken more than 10,000 lives, displaced 2 million people and fuelled the kidnapping of upwards of 25,000 children into the rebel army. Uganda hosts nearly 200,000 Sudanese refugees, plus tens of thousands more Congolese and Rwandans, which places an enormous strain on Uganda’s modest resources.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Tanzania — among the poorest countries in the world — has for years hosted more than 600,000 refugees from countries in the Great Lakes. As of early 2006, Zambia and Kenya sheltered an additional 300,000.

In the DRC alone, upwards of 4 million people died from violence, starvation and disease, 1.3 million refugees decamped to neighbouring countries and 4 million internally displaced people, including 1.4 million children, were driven from their homes. Many tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped and sexually assaulted over the course of the brutal conflict (see Africa Renewal, January 2007).