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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

This year in the Great Lakes

This blog post was written by Yolande Bouka and Judith Verweijen, the Co-Directors of Studies for the Rift Valley Institute’s Great Lakes Field Course, which will be taking place in Sagana, Kenya from 3-8 June 2018. Yolande and Judith will be joined by a team of leading specialists to explore the contemporary complexities of the region as well as the gamut of social, economic, political and security trends, drawing on deep history and local knowledge to inform debate and discussion. The courses are designed for policy-makers, diplomats, investors, development workers, researchers, activists and journalists—for new arrivals to the region and those already working there who wish to deepen their understanding. For more information on the Great Lakes Course and RVI’s two other Field Courses—Sudan & South Sudan and the Horn of Africa—please visit RVI Field Courses.


A regional perspective is indispensable for understanding political, social and security dynamics in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda and Burundi. While each country has undertaken a unique socio-political and economic trajectory, in many ways, the four countries that are the focus of RVI’s Great Lakes Course continue to be interconnected. Burundi’s political tensions have sent refugees into the other countries, and combatants into the DRC. While Rwanda has decreased its military involvement in both of its neighbors, tensions along the DRC border have resulted in casualties this year. In Uganda, fractures among the elite have been sharpened by tensions with Rwanda. While largely shaped by internal dynamics, the ways in which the main issues confronting the four countries will unfold—Kabila’s succession battle in the DRC, the continued dominance of one political force in Rwanda, the undoing of the Arusha Agreement in Burundi and divisions among Ugandan political elites—have the potential to impact the entire region.

In the Great Lakes Region, deepening authoritarianism, widening fissures within ruling regimes and growing regional tensions threaten long-term stability, with dire consequences for the security and livelihoods of millions of people. These pressing political issues will be a focus of RVI’s course on the Great Lakes this year. However, in keeping with RVI philosophy, the Great Lakes Course will also explore broader socio-economic and security trends in the region, drawing on historical and contextual knowledge to inform debate and discussion. 

In all four countries there are tensions not only between ruling elites’ efforts to remain in power and demands for changes to the status quo but also among ruling elites. These tensions are most pronounced in the DRC, where President Kabila has remained in power after his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired in December 2016. It is uncertain whether the general elections scheduled for December this year will take place, and in what conditions. Political and civil liberties remain curtailed as peaceful protest marches are smothered and politically motivated arrests proliferate. The course will analyze the current political impasse, and look at its broader socio-economic ramifications.

In Burundi, the ruling party has all but closed political space since President Nkurunziza’s contested re-election in 2015. Tensions and repression are likely to mount in the run up to a referendum scheduled for this May that would effectively put an end to power-sharing and could see President Nkurunziza stay in power until 2034. Meanwhile, the Burundian regime is further isolating itself from Western donors, thereby limiting their leverage. By discussing the trajectory of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), the course will shed light on the current political crisis and explain the failure of negotiations between the ruling elite and the opposition in exile.

Although overt tensions are less visible in Rwanda, there are subterranean frictions within the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) regime. However, Kagame’s grip on power remains undisputed, as reflected in his re-election with 98.63 per cent of the vote in August 2017. Diane Rwigara, the only female presidential candidate, was barred from running and arrested shortly after the elections and remains in detention. Rwigara’s arrest highlights some of the contradictions of Rwanda’s policy of promoting female political participation, while keeping a tight grip on political space.

In Uganda, Museveni has struggled to ensure his continued hold on power, pressing parliament to adopt a law that removes age limits for presidential candidates. The new law will allow President Museveni—now 73 and in power since 1986—to run for a sixth term in 2021. Yet discontent about weak governance is on the rise, and Museveni is faced with opposition from core members of his own National Resistance Movement (NRM). The resulting tensions are particularly visible within the security apparatus, where frequent reshuffles testify to divided loyalties and distrust. The recent removal of controversial Inspector-General of the Police, Kale Kayihura, is the latest chapter in this saga.

While the Kagame and Museveni regimes were both at one point hailed as the manifestation of a new kind of African leadership, it is clear today that despite their status as donor darlings both leaders have used coercion and political manoeuvring to remain in power. During the course, we will compare the dynamics of the NRM and the RPF, both so-called ‘post-liberation’ regimes, and discuss differences and similarities of their trajectories, ideologies, policies and post-war transformations. The course will also explore the economic dimensions of these two regimes. Rwanda is often cited as a model of agrarian reforms through modernization. The impact of this green revolution on food security and small-scale farmers’ livelihoods, however, is not a straightforward success story. The same applies to the nascent oil industry in Uganda. While bearing promises of economic growth, there are concerns about redistribution and trickle-down effects. At the same time, oil exploration risks igniting tensions both at the local level, with communities in and around oil concessions, and at the regional level, with neighboring countries.

As the RPF regime tries to maintain tight control on opposition activity, including outside its borders, efforts to control the diaspora have sparked tensions with Uganda. Officials within the Ugandan security apparatus are alleged to have been co-opted by Rwanda to deport suspected Rwandan dissidents living in Uganda. Rwanda, in turn, has accused the Ugandan security services of illegally detaining its citizens, amidst rumours about their support to Rwandan insurgent activity. A regionalization of tensions is also evident from claims by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) to have conducted airstrikes on targets of the DRC-based Ugandan rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) last December, stating the group was planning to launch cross-border attacks. There is also ongoing Burundian insurgent activity on Congolese soil—notably in the region of Fizi and Uvira in South Kivu. This activity has triggered further cross-border military and intelligence collaboration between the Congolese and Burundian security services, but allegedly also induces less formal involvement, such as reaching out to proxy groups.

Undoubtedly the most important implication of political instability and insecurity is the burden on the population. More than 400,000 Burundians have fled the country since April 2015 and ongoing repression and economic downturn render the prospects for imminent return bleak. In the DRC, a stream of refugees has been generated by the conflicts in Kasai, in the country’s centre, and more recently Ituri, in the northeast. The Kasai conflict has led to more than one million people being internally displaced and 35,000 refugees crossing into Angola. While the government forces retook control of most of the conflict-affected areas in Kasai, tensions remain high at the start of 2018. Over a dozen militias—mostly mobilized along ethnic lines—continue to operate in the region, leading to clashes in February that sparked fresh displacement. In Ituri, tensions are similarly related to militia activity combined with the manipulation of ethnic discourse. A spate of ethnically targeted attacks pushed more than 50,000 people to cross Lake Albert to Uganda, while displacing another 100,000. On the course, a panel of experts will discuss and debate these trends in insecurity and armed group mobilization in the DRC, analyzing local, national and regional dynamics and implications.

Waves of displacement are not new to the region and continue to compound ordinary citizens’ struggles. An important consequence of these population movements is the strain they put on land management, particularly when refugees and internally displaced people attempt to return home. Each country has developed different mechanisms to cope with the resulting land disputes, which are often compounded by land shortages and other land conflicts. The course will discuss the management of land conflicts in the region from a comparative perspective, and assess the potential of land-related disputes to feed into wider dynamics of conflict and violence. A similar comparative approach is adopted in respect to transitional justice and efforts to commemorate and address accountability for past violence. How do these efforts—whether international, state-driven or more bottom-up—differ in each country and to what extent have they been successful in reducing conflict?

The course will also look into the actual and potential role of regional organizations in addressing these on-going regional challenges. On the one hand, states in the region understand the need to better economically integrate to create economies of scale and related trade benefits. As such, Rwanda, which is already a member of the East African Community (EAC), along with Uganda and Burundi, rejoined the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in 2016, while in 2017, Burundi unsuccessfully attempted to join the Southern African Development Community (SADC). These memberships offer important economic opportunities, but have also been leveraged by governments to mitigate the risk of regional intervention in their domestic affairs.

Similar tensions are visible in relation to crisis management initiatives, notably by the African Union (AU). On the one hand, states are committed to the AU and try to draw benefits from membership, including by participating in peacekeeping missions. On the other hand, they want to avoid interference in domestic affairs in the name of respecting sovereignty. During the course, we will analyze the different processes and initiatives of regional integration and cooperation under way, addressing both challenges and opportunities. This analysis fits with the overall approach taken by the course: acknowledging both the interweaving of formal and informal regional dynamics, and the paramount importance of local and national dynamics.

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