Challenges of Regional Peacebuilding: A Case of the Great Lakes Region

Maurice Sikenyi

June 2013

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The Great Lakes Region

The Great Lake Region consists of countries in east and central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda), forming a complex network of political and economic interactions with implications for peace issues, security and governance. The name, "Great Lakes Region" was derived from the fresh water lakes and river basins within the Central and Eastern part of Africa.[1] However, the term now refers to a region with interlinked conflicts and common fundamental problems that emanate from post-colonial challenges to state- and nation-building.

Given the interrelationship between the conflicts within the Great Lakes region, peacebuilding activities have taken a regional approach rather than focusing on a single country[2]. This paper outlines the problems inherent in such an approach and proposes the need for a comprehensive peacebuilding strategy that takes into account the need to build healthy human relationships, the importance of involving the local agents, and a sustained attention to historical injustices.

The focus on regional approaches has often ignored the power of building relationships and involving local actors to address the root causes of conflict. Similarly, a regional approach tends to overlook issues that are unique to individual countries yet have an overarching influence in the region. While international organizations and governments are active in peace initiatives in the Great Lakes region, issues of land ownership, ethnicity, and reconciliation after genocide, extreme poverty, and underrepresentation need synthesis between bottom-up approaches and top-down approaches to peacebuilding. This point is well articulated by John Paul Lederach as a "transformational approach" — one that not only focuses on policies and top level initiatives, but also pays attention to understanding underlying patterns, causes, actors, and structure, hence creating a comprehensive mapping of the conflict.[3] Lederach further underscores the imperative by addressing the patterns that create injustice at both relational and structural levels.[4]

History of the Conflict in the Great Lakes Region

At this point, understanding the context of the Great Lakes conflict is important in order to devise the comprehensive approach that I discussed above. Literature on the history of conflict in the Great Lakes region is extensive. For the purpose of this discussion, a brief summary of the conflict in the region and its consequences will suffice, rather than an explicit description of the history of conflicts of respective countries in the Great Lakes region.

The history of conflict in the Great Lake Region goes back to the colonial times. The policies of the colonial governments in Rwanda and Burundi resulted in formalized hatred and discrimination between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic communities, causing brutal violence after the end of colonialism.[5] During the early 1990s in Rwanda, failed negotiations for the reparation of the Rwandese refugees led to guerrilla intrusions by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). In 1994, following the assassination of the president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, who had favored his ethnic group within Rwanda and Burundi, brutal violence led to the Rwandan genocide where 800,000 primarily Tutsi victims were killed.[6]

The Rwandan genocide resulted in refugee flows to neighboring countries.[7] Extremist militia groups in refugee camps and former Rwandan army officers attacked Rwanda and Burundi, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) forces, with the support of DRC president Kabila, launched an evacuation of refugees from the DRC that lead to an attack from Rwanda and Uganda. These actions attracted the involvement and interest of other governments in the region (Uganda, Burundi, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad and Sudan) who supported sides of the conflict. Given the shifting interests of various governments and rebel groups, the fighting in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda has now continued over 15 years with only some short breaks of peace.[8] Such instability is exemplified by violent rebel groups and militias that are active across the Great Lakes region - such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Uganda, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (DFLR) and the National Liberation Front in Burundi.[9]

Throughout the conflict, diplomatic and military agents, such as UN forces in the Congo and the establishment of an "an-Inter-Congolese Dialogue," have intervened to help the country run fair elections and transition into a democracy. In 2002, these interventions pressured Rwanda to sign agreements withdrawing its troops from the DRC, while the DRC pledged to disarm all Rwandese rebel groups hiding in the Congo, which resulted in the signing of the Lusaka ceasefire agreement. Despite this agreement, fighting has continued between rebels and defense forces from neighboring countries. In addition to high insecurity and political instability, a series of civil wars in the region have resulted in the destruction of productive infrastructure. At the peak of the civil war, it is estimated that over 2.7 million refugees flew into neighboring regions and about 4 million people were internally displaced. Furthermore, the continuous conflict in this region has resulted in illegal armed trades, gender based violence, political instability, and poor living conditions among the majority of the population.[10]

Given the magnitude of the conflict, it is important to address the key actors and factors challenging peacebuilding efforts in the region.

The Great Lakes Region Conflict: Actors and Factors

According to Tschirgi, a regional conflict is not limited to particular geographic or political entities.[11] It entails social networks of armed rebel groups that may be connected by common economic interests or ideologies that are region-wide and garner support from outsiders. In the Great Lakes region, Rwanda was in conflict in the early 1990s, but in the 2000s, the conflict has moved to the DRC, where fighting is ongoing; Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is also believed to be operating in remote areas on the borders of Uganda and Congo.

While countries involved in the Great Lakes region partly differ in terms of their history, extent of war and levels of development, there are also some similarities that characterize the Great Lakes region aptly articulated by Leeuwen.[12] First, countries within the region have failed to establish inclusive political institutions. This has resulted in unequal representation in decision making and access to resources. Secondly, ethnicity is regionalized and manifested in political violence. The Rwandan genocide has increased cross-border ethnic affiliations between Rwanda and Congo and regional ethic based rebel groups. Thirdly, the availability of mineral resources in the DRC causes enormous economic interests for neighboring countries who benefit from the illegal trade of minerals during civil wars.[13] Similarly, massive displacements and massive human mobility-refugee flows across borders in DRC also make the effects of the conflict spread within the neighboring countries.

The Great Lakes conflict mirrors the transnational nature of contemporary conflict, in which the consequences of conflict in one country affect neighboring countries through refugee flows and the regionalized rebel groups that operate within the conflicting zonesResearch on peacekeeping and armed conflict indicate that when conflicts spread across borders, the effect of contagion can be so severe that it becomes difficult to consider each conflict in isolation.[14]

Many internal conflicts are not simply internal conflicts because some of their causes and effects normally transgress national borders.[15] In this regard, understanding and engaging the multiple actors, factors, and agencies is part of the wide range of approaches to creative long-term solutions.[16] These actors are domestic, regional, and international, thus the conflict can be considered both internal and regionally internalized.[17]

Regional Peacebuilding Efforts in the Great Lakes Region

Peacebuilding is a full range of initiatives, strategies and activities that prevent, reduce and transform conflicts and develop institutions, attitudes and relationships that lead to a just and sustainable harmonious human environment.[18] Peacebuilding activities do not only aim to end violence, but also create structures that contribute to a just and sustainable peace, resulting from healthy relationships.[19] This is creatively done through the coordination of resources and approaches to accomplish multiple goals and address multiple issues for the long-term.[20] While looking at the Great Lakes conflict, it is important to pay attention to the nature of institutions and peacebuilding initiatives that have been carried out over time. In other words, looking at the actors, issues, and institutions that have animated and propelled economic and the security relationships in the region may point out some challenges and gaps in the peacebuilding initiatives in the region.

Much attention has focused on a regional approach to peacebuilding in the Great Lakes region since the 1960s. This has been through three major approaches: first, regional conferences to enhance regional cooperation and peace with support of the UN-Special Representatives; secondly, diplomatic missions by the UN, European Union (EU),established international development organizations, and donor agencies; and third, UN peace keeping missions.[21]

Regional and international organizations, mainly the Organization of African Union and the United Nations, have been on the front lines in responding to the cycle of conflict in the Great Lakes region. Regional peacekeeping strategies have included policy formulation by participating nations and heads of state meeting to support stability, control of small arms, refugee flows and economic development. Such strategies have been partly useful, especially after the 2004 Dar es Salaam meeting, in which heads of states committed to promote peace in the region.

The regional approach has resulted in regional networks of peacebuilding, such as CECI, COCAFemme, and Acipa,[22] who have jointly lobbied and advocated against human rights violations in the Great Lakes region. This regional approach of peacebuilding, however, has focused a lot on building modern forms of democracy and sound economic institutions involving domestic and international actors, regional political class, and armed rebel movements, but leaving out essential society actors.[23] Thus a cycle of conflict has often resulted.

Challenges of Regional Peacebuilding in the Great Lake Region

Most failures of peace negotiations in the Great Lakes region have been attributed to a lack of political will and the existence of spoilers within the region. Spoilers benefit economically and politically from continuous cycle of conflict and would do whatever it takes to keep the conflict heated.[24] The peacebuilding approach has often taken a universal framework beginning with a ceasefire agreement, transitional governments, demilitarization, and national security reform, reparation of refugees and constitutional reform and electorally democratic process.[25]

This framework focuses on power sharing and political agreements with rebel groups, while ignoring the fundamental role of local actors, victims of war and civilians such as the women groups, youths, religious actors, local non-governmental organizations, and advocacy groups. Yet, such actors are instrumental in the peacebuilding process. Similarly, political settlements and power sharing has proven inadequate to address historical injustices such as ethnic marginalization and land ownership for the returned refugees. In other words, representation in peace negotiations and peacebuilding after a conflict has often been left to politicians, the state and the rebel groups.[26]

John Paul Lederach aptly articulates the fact that conflicts happen for a reason.[27] This means that peacebuilders have to address the root causes of the conflicts to guarantee sustainable peace. In the case of the Great Lakes region, peacebuilding approaches should also focus on the reparation for the victims and resettlements of the refugees and formulating and effecting land policies.[28] Peacebuilding initiatives are likely to have a higher chance of success and/or long-term impact if a greater section of the civil society is included in the decision making process.[29]

These approaches should be complementary to regional and international diplomatic initiatives that take care of the challenge of mineral resources management, poor governance, and land ownership — which form core grievance in the Great Lakes region conflict. Strengthening the legal and political process to better address issues of refugees and democratic electoral participation are essential in strengthening long-term peace.

Summary, Recommendations, and Conclusion

In this essay, I identified three main challenges facing regional peacebuilding in the Great Lakes region. These are: first, inadequate participation of local actors and civil society in the peace process; second, failure to address historical injustices, issues of land and negative ethnicity; and third, lack of commitment to the implementation of peace agreements and institutional reforms. The Arusha Peace Accord of August 1993 is one example of a failed peace agreement. The aim of the accord was to end the war between the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Hutu led regime. This Accord had proposed reparation of Tutsi refugees, and an increase their participation in government. However, a majority of the Hutu elites in the government were reluctant to implement the Arusha Peace Accord that later contributed to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.[30] Similarly, the Lusaka Peace Accord of 1999 was only a ceasefire agreement without a peace agreement, thus it did not stem the violence nor result in lasting peace.[31]

The paper suggests that creating conditions for lasting peace in the Great Lakes region will emanate from the following four key recommendations: first, involving the civil society and local interest groups in the conflict transformation processes; second, addressing the root causes of the conflict, mainly issues of land, historical injustices, and resettlement of refugees; third, strengthening legal and political institutions to enhance good governance; and fourth a focus on healing and reconciliation to restore harmonious relationships within the communities.

Peacebuilding approaches in the Great Lakes region has focused more on regional cooperation and integration.[32] Given the existing gap between the top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding approaches in the Great Lakes regions, the paper advocates for a comprehensive peacebuilding approach that synthesizes both peacebuilding, at the policy level involving governments, and grass roots initiatives to address historical injustices and other consequences of the civil war in the Great Lakes region. [33]

The above initiatives can address hostility, insecurity and increase fair political transitions, resettlement of internally displaced persons and refugees, reparation for victims of civil war, and focus on trauma, healing and reconciliation resulting in healthy relationships and a just peace.[34]

Ansorg, N. (2011). How does Militant Violence Diffuse in Regions? Regional Conflict System in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 173-187.

Autesserre, S. (2010). The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beardsley, K. (2011, October). Peacekeeping and the Contagion of Armed Conflict. The Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1051-1064.

Daley, P. (2006). Challenges to Peace: conflict resolution in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Third World Quarterly, 27(2), 303-319.

Kamungi, M., Oketch, J., & Huggins, C. (2004). Land Access and Refugee Reparation: the case of Burundi. Nairobi: African Centre for Technology Studies.

Keen, D. (2012). Useful Enemies: When Waging War is more Important than Winning. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Khadiagala, G. (2001). Implementing the Arusha Peace Agreement on Rwanda. In R. Rothschild, & S. John Stedman, Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner.

Khadiagala, G. (2006). Security Dynamics In Africa's Great Lake Region. London: Lynne Rienner.

Laremont Rene, R. (2002). The Causes of War and the Consequences of Peacekeeping in Africa. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Leatherman, J. (2011). Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lederach, J. P. (1997). Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace.

Lederach, J. P. (2003). The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Lederach, J. P., & Appleby, S. (2010). Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview. In D. Philpott, & G. Powers, Strategies of Peace: Transforming Conflict in a Violent World (pp. 19-44). New York: Oxford University Press.

Leeuwen Van, M. (2008). Imagining the Great Lakes Region: discources and practices of civil society regional approaches for peacebuilding in Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 393-426.

Nzongola-Ntalaja, G. (2002). Civil War, Peacekeeping and the Great Lake Region. In R. Laremont, The Causes of War and the Consequences of Peacemaking in Africa (pp. 91-116). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Potter, J. (1997). Social Dynamics of Land and Land Reform in Rwanda: past, present and future. Oxford: Refugee Studies Program.

Prunier, J. (1995/1997). The Rwandan Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schirch, L. (2004). The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding: A Vision and Framework for Peace with Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Tschigri, N. (2002). Making a Case for a Regional Approch to Peacebuilding. Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, 25-38.

Valentino, B. (2003). Still Standing By: Why Americans and the International Community Fail to Prevent Genocide and Mass Killings. Political Science and Politics, 1(3), 571.

Vorrath, J. (2011). Political Trends in the Great Lakes Region. United States Institute of Peace. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.


[1] (Khadiagala, Security Dynamics In Africa's Great Lake Region, 2006)

[2] (Daley, 2006), (Leeuwen Van, 2008)

[3] (Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, 2003)

[4] (Lederach & Appleby, Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview, 2010)

[5] (Khadiagala, Security Dynamics In Africa's Great Lake Region, 2006)

[6] (Laremont Rene, 2002)

[7] (Prunier, 1995/1997)

[8] (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002)

[9] (Autesserre, 2010)

[10] (Leatherman, 2011)

[11] (Tschigri, 2002)

[12] (Leeuwen Van, 2008)

[13] (Leeuwen Van, 2008)

[14] (Beardsley, 2011)

[15] (Ansorg, 2011)

[16] (Lederach & Appleby, Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview, 2010)

[17] (Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies, 1997)

[18] (Lederach & Appleby, Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview, 2010)

[19] (Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, 2003)

[20] (Schirch, 2004)

[21] (Leeuwen Van, 2008)

[22] (Leeuwen Van, 2008) Center Canaden d’Etude et de cooperation Internationale (CECI), Action Citoyenne pour la paix (Acipa)

[23] (Daley, 2006)

[24] (Keen, 2012)

[25] (Daley, 2006)

[26] (Daley, 2006)

[27] (Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, 2003)

[28] (Potter, 1997)

[29] (Kamungi, Oketch, & Huggins, 2004)

[30] (Valentino, 2003)

[31] (Khadiagala, Implementing the Arusha Peace Agreement on Rwanda, 2001)

[32] (Daley, 2006)

[33] (Laremont Rene, 2002)

[34] (Lederach & Appleby, Strategic Peacebuilding: An Overview, 2010)