Encountering Obasanjo, Tshisekedi and the war in Congo Kinshasa

Festus Adedayo (second left), interviewing former President Olusegun Obasanjo (right) after his meeting with President Felix Tshisekedi of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in company of Patrick Michel, Press Secretary to the President (3rd left) at the Presidential Lodge, Kinshasa on Tuesday.

By Festus Adedayo

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC’s) Presidential Villa is a highly fortified palace. Like in many parts of Central Africa, the Congolese have turned their disadvantaged hilly and mountainous topography into aesthetic wonder. At every point in the expansive Villa, you confront menacing-looking, gun-toting soldiers who radio authorities before allowing you entry. White-painted effigies of four lions by the Villa gate compliment this menacing ambience. The Villa itself is an old but well maintained structure, painted white and probably built in the 1970s. Language barrier limited the satisfaction of my curiosity as to whether Mobutu Sese-Seko ruled from this same Villa.

That perhaps is where the aesthetics end. Like Nigeria, DRC is in dire security straits. In features, both countries are twined like Siamese twins, as if from same umbilical cord. While Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, DRC has the largest land mass on the continent. With its 2,344,860 km square, compared to Nigeria’s 923,770 km square, Congo is more than twice of Nigeria’s land mass. It also has two time zones. Blessed with abundant mineral resources, since gaining independence however – again same time in 1960 – both countries have been challenged by scant supply of leadership. As a result, Nigeria and Congo are a caricature of Providence’s design for them as Eldorado. Since 1960, they have not been able to appropriate their humongous God-given resources.

As Nigeria suffocates under the apparently superior firepower of Boko Haram insurgents and bandits, DRC is muzzled by an armed militia group called the M23. While M23 operates in the eastern flank of the DRC, Nigerian terrorists’ domicile is in its Northern part. Between mid-June and July, 2022, M23 summarily executed at least 29 civilians in Congo while in Nigeria, thousands of lives have been tethered by the bloodthirsty grove of terrorists.

In the midst of this tension, it was thus a pleasant surprise last Tuesday to see Nigeria’s military General and two-term president, Olusegun Obasanjo, at the DRC Presidential Villa. He was guest of President Felix Tshisekedi.

Having been in Kinshasa on a different assignment, ferreting out what Obasanjo was about became my preoccupation. Armed with a background of the unpleasant time the DRC seat of power was going through in the hands of rebels, Obasanjo’s presence raised some rebuttable conclusions that he had come as an amicus curiae of sort of the Congolese government, in its time of tribulation. A top Congolese government source indeed confirmed to me that Obasanjo had been invited to help mediate in the DRC crises with the M23.

My reportorial instinct and logic, added to the quip from my source, made me agree that the august visitor had indeed come on that mission. Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, had in November, 2008 appointed Obasanjo as peace envoy to the DRC. Obasanjo’s task was to mediate a deal between regional antagonists like M23 and government. Global apprehension had been on the upsurge that, if not urgently trapped, the tens of thousands of civilians who fled into camps as a result of violent activities of the militia might be in jeopardy. In that assignment, Obasanjo worked with the African Union to tease out a peace deal between the Congolese government and eastern Congo Tutsi rebels, as well as the Rwandan government, suspected to be their funder.

Also, Obasanjo, as current UN High Representative for the Horn of Africa, has been playing huge mediative role in the ongoing Ethiopian crisis, a role assigned him by the African Union (AU). A few weeks ago, specifically on August 4, the Ethiopian media reported that Obasanjo briefed the Peace and Security Council (PSC) on the Ethiopian crisis and what he had done after PSC’s last meeting. As High Representative, he had earlier briefed the AU during its 1064th session held in February. In June, Obasanjo had flown to Ethiopia to interact with Tigray’s Regional State President, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael and his Ethiopian counterpart, the country’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde.

M23 is a codename for the March 23 Movement or the Congolese Revolutionary Army. It is a rebel military group of mostly Tutsi ethnic group that operates in the province of North Kivu. It was given birth to on March 23, 2009 through the political party, National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) signing a peace treaty with the Joseph Kabila government. With this, it translated into a political party, with its members getting integrated into the Armed Forces of the DRC called FARDC, M23 thus got its name from the day of the signing of the agreement. It has had commanders like Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, General Makenga Sultani and General Bosco Ntaganda, popularly known as The Terminator. The M23 opposed the Hutu power militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda whose members, the Interahanwe, majorly carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Since its founding, M23 has terrorized DRC. Between 2012 and 2013, its attacks led to the displacement of thousands of people. On November 20, 2012, it annexed Goma, the capital of the Province of North Kivu, with its over a million population. The rebels were however repelled a few weeks after by Congolese army, fighting alongside UN troops and retook control of Goma. In its report of the crisis, the UN stated that Paul Kagame, whose Rwanda borders DRC, was the sole sponsor of the rebellion. M23 resumed its offensive in 2017 and, about two months ago, captured the DRC border town of Bunagana. Though Kagame withdrew his support for M23 after intense international pressure in 2012, he is alleged to have meandered back into sponsoring the rebels. Ugandan army commanders were also alleged by the UN to have reinforced the rebels with troops and weapons, as well as assisting them with recruiting of soldiers.

On June 21, 2022, as the rebels fought Congolese forces in Ruvumu, a village in the eastern province, the M23 rebels allegedly summarily executed about 17 civilians, a figure that included two teenagers. It executed even more within a spate of two weeks. The guilt of the victims was that they allegedly acted as informants to the Congolese army about the rebels’ whereabouts. Some other civilians got shot dead as they  fled, with others executed at close range. Both the M23 rebels and the Congolese army-backed UN troops fighting in North Kivu have been alleged to have deployed explosive weapons like mortar fire and artillery shelling in their fights, which most times hit civilians and civilian structures.

There is no government worth its onions that would not be bothered by the incursion of the M23 into its territory. President Tshisekedi surely is. In November 2020, during a trip to the North Kivu town of Goma, I had seen firsthand indications that Goma would soon get back to the trenches. Closer to be accessed from the Ethiopian ancient capital city of Addis-Ababa, Goma habours virtually all the paradoxes and trajectories of Walter Rodney about underdevelopment and the underdeveloped. It is beautifully scenic, situated in an idyllic location and grafted by nature on the leafy green shores of an equally arrestingly beautiful, salty Lake Kivu. Kivu is 90 km long and 50 km wide, covers a total surface of about 2,700 km² and 58 percent of its waters lie within DRC borders. The lake is also 1,460 m above sea level.  Inside the hilly, smouldering and menacing mountains of Goma hide treasures, globally scarce mineral resources which the modern world uses to accentuate its modernity.

Goma is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, being home to the Nyiragongo, one of the deadliest volcanoes. It has hidden in its belly a potentially devastating threat of its mountains which contain Africa’s most lethal volcanoes. In the year 2002 for instance, over 100 people got killed when an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo swirled around Goma. People dropped dead one after the other. The lava from the periphery of Nyiragongo emitted gaseous fumes down to the centre of the city and destroyed more than a fifth of it. Fires and explosions followed and by the time the wrath of Mount Nyiragongo subsided, about 120,000 Goma inhabitants had become homeless. Not minding this danger, Goma is paradoxically home to a beehive of foreigners, a stupendous number of whom you may never encounter in any of the suffering Third World countries. It is a common sight to see white UN soldiers in Goma, with huge epaulettes on their shoulders.

Congo is about the richest country in Africa. Those scary mountains of its are reputed to hide inside their bellies huge reserves of cobalt, gold, gems, copper, timber and uranium. Its most valuable resource is its large reserve of diamonds. Indeed, the Congo has the world’s second-largest diamond reserves, at 150Mct, or 20.5% of the global total. Substantial diamond reserves can be found in Kasai Occidental and Kasai Oriental.

At about 10a.m, Obasanjo was ushered into the expansive and chic waiting room of President Tshisekedi by one of the Congolese president’s envoys, Pacifique Kashasha Birinda. A few minutes after, he was led to the office of Tshisekedi, with press photographers alone allowed to take shots of their immediate convivial exchanges. Thereafter, the press was asked to excuse them. After about two hours of talks, Obasanjo and Pacifique came out to address a battery of Congolese and Nigerian journalists waiting for them.

Obasanjo and Tshisekedi met for about two hours. Immediately Obasanjo came out of the meeting to address the press, my question to him was why he was in Congo and what he and Tshisekedi discussed. Chaperoned by Pacifique, who also acted as his interpreter, the old warhorse however filibustered of sort as his response was omnibus. He brushed it off in diplomatese.

“Since the President became head of the Republic, this is my third visit. I’ve used every opportunity of my visits to discuss issues of mutual interest to his country and mine… We talked at length about the issue of insurgency and insecurity and border issues. We have insurgency in Nigeria, insecurity and we have areas where we have to cooperate and collaborate, especially in the Northeast of Nigeria where Nigeria borders Chad, Niger Republic and even Cameroon. They have to work together.

“Here, we have similar issues of insurgency and they have to see what they can do together with Uganda, Rwanda. In both countries, we have to look at the fundamental causes of insurgency; is it lack of education, acquisition of skills, employment of youths or is it as a result of ideological issues? We looked at this. What we are talking about in Nigeria is what they are talking about here. We have to look at carrot and stick issues. Areas we have to carry them along and areas we have to knock them. I was in Maiduguri two weeks ago. What is happening there is slightly different from what is happening in the Northwest. Where are the insurgents coming from? Where are they based? Who is managing and supporting them? These are the questions we have to answer. The insurgents are not only nationally-based, some come from outside the nation where they operate and we must be alert to that,” he said.

As the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, (IITA) Ambassador, Obasanjo, on his way to the airport to fly back to Lagos, visited the institute’s expansive acres of citrus and cassava farm located on the outskirts of Kinshasa. Asked again why he had come to DRC, he said, among others, that he came to congratulate Tshisekedi as the newly appointed Chairman of SADC. “Apart from that, we talked about security issues of concern to our countries, to Africa and the whole world. One of the issues we talked about was food security. It goes beyond personal security but all gamut of security and we talked about how we can ensure peace, stability and security in Africa.”

Obasanjo further espoused how agricultural security, through agribusiness, can bring food on the table in Africa and how the misbehavior on the part of the youths is due to lack of employment. One sector that can provide this security, he said, is agribusiness. He lauded IITA and its DRC-born Director General, Dr. Nterenya Sanginga, for the institute’s contributions to food security in Africa and said that from what he had seen, especially in IITA-pioneered cassava farming, he would copy it in his farm in Nigeria. He said that the ongoing war in Ukraine exposed a huge gap in Africa’s agriculture, revealing that Africa depends on Ukraine and Russia for a great chunk of its wheat consumption. However, according to him, he was gladdened when, on a recent visit to Ethiopia, he was told that the country, in the next two years, would not only be self sufficient in wheat production but would be a net importer of wheat.

The day before this, in the evening of Obasanjo’s second day in the DRC, President Tshisekedi had hosted him and his entourage to a sumptuous dinner beside his presidential palace overlooking River Congo. On the other side of the river, about few kilometers, was Congo Brazzaville; the river being nature’s own way of bifurcating the two different nations. As we all waited for Tshisekedi, he appeared in a dark brown flown shirt, brown trousers and black slippers at exactly 6.02pm. A Congolese band was on standby to scintillate the audience. Obasanjo moved his body in consonance with the beat on the high table where he sat. At some point, Obasanjo and Tshisekedi again walked backstage and engaged each other in another round of mutual tete-a-tete for about 30 minutes.

A man many love to loathe, students of theology must be studying what the spiritual balm that makes Olusegun Obasanjo tick is. As he landed in Lagos on Wednesday, right from the Presidential Wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Obasanjo was reported to have again jetted to London. It was only the second day that pictures of him and Nigerian politicians in another round of rapprochement surfaced in the media. The curious question to ask is why the world is inviting the old warhorse to mediate in their crises but Obasanjo’s peacemaking talent is pining away by the Nigerian backyard. Or, are those inviting Obasanjo foolish and Nigerian current leaders, wisdom personified?

*Dr Festus Adedayo, journalist, biographer and public affairs analyst, writes from Ibadan