Veteran Algerian diplomat Said Djinnit recently stepped down as United Nations Special Envoy to the Great Lakes (UNSEGL). PSC Report asked him about the situation in the region and the role of African Union (AU) institutions such as the Peace and Security Council and regional economic communities.
After three years in the role of UNSEGL, how would you describe the state of peace and security in the Great Lakes region?
At the political level, conflicts and political crises in the region, most notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi, but also in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), have had a significant impact on regional stability and on efforts to advance the implementation of the regional commitments under the peace, security and cooperation framework [PSC Framework].
Over the past year, significant opportunities for consolidating regional peace and stability have emerged, including through the holding of peaceful elections in the DRC; the signing of the revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and the peace accord between the government of the CAR and 14 armed groups facilitated by the AU-led African Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation. These are results of the leadership and political will displayed by the national stakeholders, accompanied by adequate support from regional and international partners.
These achievements, however, remain fragile. We need to capitalise on the opportunities and not waver in our support to the respective parties to live up to their responsibilities.
What do you think is the greatest source of instability in the region?
The greatest source of instability remains the presence and activities of non-state armed groups in the eastern DRC, including allegations of proxy support to them. This is further compounded by competition over access to natural resources in the area.
How central is stability in the DRC to stability in the wider Great Lakes region?
Stability in the DRC is indispensable for regional stability. Not only is the DRC the biggest country and geographically at the heart of the region, but its wealth of natural and human resources – if exploited in a legal and sustainable manner – could also provide the engine of economic growth and development of the region. Conversely, internal shocks to economic activities, as well as political and security crises, create ripple effects throughout the region. Particularly, insecurity in the eastern DRC perpetuates mistrust between some countries of the region and thereby fuels renewed cycles of insecurity.
How do you assess the situation in the DRC?
Since he assumed office, President [Felix] Tshisekedi has been giving the right signals and has done a number of right things. He visited all the neighbouring countries and expressed his strong commitment to regional cooperation and stability and to the PSC Framework. In turn, the leaders of the region seem to be ready to support him in his efforts to effect the change that the people of DRC voted for. The decision of Tshisekedi to release political prisoners was in line with the 31 December  agreement. It is important that he continues to promote reconciliation among all sons and children of the DRC. Addressing the economic and security challenges of the DRC requires the contribution of all Congolese people and the support of the international community.
Do you think that the PSC Framework is still relevant, and that the core countries of the Great Lakes remain committed to it?
I am fully convinced that the PSC Framework remains relevant. The commitments made by the countries of the region under the PSC Framework, most notably the regional commitments, are not tied to a specific situation or period but rather define conditions that would enable the countries to ensure systematic cooperation on issues of mutual concern to them, most notably the root causes of conflict in the region. Most recently, participation in summits of the Regional Oversight Mechanism of the PSC Framework, as well as the leadership demonstrated by countries of the region in addressing challenges in the implementation of the PSC Framework, such as for example the question of disarmed foreign combatants in the eastern DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, attest to the importance the region attaches to this agreement.
How do you assess the effectiveness of the East African Community’s (EAC) mediation in the Burundi political talks?
Despite all the efforts deployed so far, the situation in Burundi remains of concern. This is as a result of continuing differences between the government and the opposition about the political and economic dispensation of the country and, most importantly, a consensual path towards peaceful, credible and inclusive elections in 2020. In order to move ahead, the EAC should fully use its influence and the tools at its disposal, including through putting the political weight of its individual member states behind the mediator and the facilitation team. After all, regional economic integration, which remains at the heart of the EAC, will not be successful without creating an enabling environment that allows all of its member states to participate fully in regional economic trade and investment.
What do you think needs to be done before the 2020 elections in Burundi to ensure a return to stability and political freedom in that country?
First of all, conducive conditions have to be created that will allow for a dialogue between the government and the opposition. This requires full respect for human rights in the country and the opening of political space. Second, the Arusha Peace Agreement needs to remain the basis of the country’s political dispensation and of any dialogue that may be taking place. Third, it will be important to find ways to bring all the Burundian stakeholders to the table to enable dialogue on how they see the path towards peaceful, credible and inclusive elections in 2020.
The Great Lakes countries are members of several regional economic communities, including the EAC and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) is the only regional body that includes all of the core Great Lakes countries, but it remains weak. Is the absence of a strong regional body a contributing factor to instability in the region? Could the AU fill this gap?
Indeed, the region’s voice remains fragmented and sometimes weak. This is partly due to the absence of a strong unifying regional body, but also a result of a lack of political will in some instances. There are a number of regional security-related and confidence-building mechanisms; however, many of them lack the ability to effectively discharge their mandated tasks. This is as a result of a lack of member state contributions, both financial and in terms of personnel, as well as adequate political support to their respective mandates. Support from the AU will continue to be useful, but I do not believe that the AU would be able to cover the gaps the region itself is experiencing. These responses have to come from the region to be accepted and thus effective.
Are the problems and dynamics in the Great Lakes region different from dynamics in other regions you have worked in; West Africa for example?
The Great Lakes region is unique in many aspects, including due to the absence of a strong regional economic community such as the Economic Community of West African States in West Africa or SADC in Southern Africa. The intertwined history of the countries in the region, as well as of their leaders, further accentuates the region’s peculiarity and makes it difficult for external parties to help. To achieve lasting peace and security in this region, the relations between the countries of the region at all levels should be strengthened and mistrust between countries overcome. This will require the strong commitment of leaders to address the issue of residual mistrust. They should allow existing confidence-building mechanisms such as the Expanded Verification Mechanism to function effectively.
What would be the most effective contribution the AU could make to peace and stability in the Great Lakes region?
As a co-guarantor of the PSC Framework, the AU has a pivotal role in the Great Lakes, beyond its overall mandate as the body in charge of peace and security of the continent. The AU’s voice remains key and should continue to be used on core issues of concern. While regional communities should act in the first instance to address challenges affecting peace and security, it should always be with the support of the AU. And when the regional community fails to address a situation such as in the case of Burundi, the AU should be called to assist.
Do you think South Africa has a role to play in the Great Lakes and, if so, what is this role?
South Africa has longstanding historical ties with the region and should continue to use its influence over the regional stakeholders to promote good neighbourliness and political and economic cooperation. In recent years, it appears South Africa has not been as involved as previously. On my part, I have always endeavoured to encourage South Africa to maintain its pivotal role in support of peace and stability, including as a signatory of the PSC Framework and a guarantor of the Arusha Agreement.