Leaving behind politically stable DR Congo will cement Uhuru's legacy

President Uhuru Kenyatta receives his DR Congo counterpart Felix Antoine Tshisekedi before the Signing Ceremony of Treaty of Accession by the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the East African Community at State House, Nairobi on April 08, 2022. [PSCU, Standard]

As a source of regional instability, Democratic Republic of Congo affects Kenya greatly. It seemingly is geographically far and close at the same time, bordering some of Kenya’s neighbours. It is the reason white powers met in Berlin in 1884 to agree on how to claim territories in Africa without killing each other.

Since Congo was given to Belgian King Leopold as personal property, it was known as Leopold’s Congo. He later sold it to his country to avoid possible big power dispossession, and it became Belgium Congo. Its minerals such as uranium that was used in making the Hiroshima/Nagasaki atomic bombs raised its strategic value in post-World War 2 Cold War. The Congolese remained pawns in geopolitical rivalries and still are.

When chaos flared up recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta called a meeting of regional leaders. Kenya has had direct interest in Congo, from the anti-colonial times to the present. It was Tom Mboya who reportedly arranged for Patrice Lumumba to attend the 1958 anti-colonial All Africa Conference in Accra. The chaos that followed Congo’s independence in June 1960 directly affected political events in Kenya as refugees flocked to Nairobi for safety, thereby raising concern over whether Mau Mau Chief Jomo Kenyatta would make the land of the Mau Mau worse than Congo.

Prospective Kenyan policymakers then went out of their way to assure the world that Kenya would not be another Congo. Instead, the newly created Organisation of African Unity requested Jomo to use his offices to mediate between the warring factions in Congo involving Katanga secessionist Moise Tshombe on one side and the followers of the slain Lumumba on the other. With Tshombe reportedly enjoying his Tusker more than discussions, the talks collapsed and paved the way for the emergence of strongman Joseph Mobutu Sesse Seko as Congo’s post-colonial Leopold.

Mobutu, a proxy for extra-continental powers in Africa, was dumped once he lost his usefulness. A short-lived alliance that included Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Congo’s Laurent Kabila managed to drive Mobutu out. Although the alliance had looked solid, it was inherently weak due to pursuit of colliding ‘national interests’ in Eastern Congo. ‘Allies’ accused each other of ill intentions as extra-continental powers and their institutions fueled suspicions and supplied weapons for factions to fight.

Occasionally, suspicion turned violent, increased regional instability, and generated anguish on what to do in the Great Lakes. Kenya found itself in the middle playing peace maker to former friends who had turned on each other. Kenya has great interest in Congo that keeps eluding stability.

This includes commercial undertakings, individual deals for influential deal makers, and geopolitical leveraging of Kenya’s ‘soft power’. Besides persuading Etienne Tshisekedi and Joseph Kabila to ‘shake’ hands, it worked hard to have Congo join the East African Community, EAC, although Congo is geographically not in East Africa.

Thus the EAC, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, lost its geographical meaning and was transformed into a geo-strategic entity. The enlarged EAC is potentially an enlarged market to encourage coordinated regional productivity, infrastructural development, and even common approaches to political and security challenges. While the supposed easing of trade restrictions enabled commercial and individual operators to go into Congo big, however, it did not ease mutual suspicions.

When fighting broke out, Uhuru called EAC leaders to reconcile Kagame and Tshisekedi. They discussed the concept of ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, and ‘Rules of Engagement’ to defeat the rebels but logistical and technical challenges of implementation remained. Since Congo puts the EAC in security limbo, Kenya remains concerned. For Uhuru, success in making Congo stable would be part of his legacy in foreign policy.