It is Thursday 22 May, first day of the Whitsun Recess. I am travelling to Kigali: first stop of the delegation from the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region of Africa. We will study and report upon the current peace process, the stabilisation efforts of the UN and others including the UK, and our UK development assistance to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With me are Mark Pritchard MP and Heather Wheeler MP both Conservatives, and Ian Lucas MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Africa. We have mixed experience of the region, but we are all here because we are concerned. Concerned about the constant, horrific violence and conflict in the Eastern DRC – the Kivus. Concerned about the fact that the DRC is rich in resources but populated by some of the poorest people on the planet. And concerned that Rwanda – which has done so many amazing things to recover from one of the fastest and most vicious genocides in human history in 1994 – has seen some development assistance suspended due to suspicions about its involvement in DRC.
Over the next week we will meet Ministers in Rwanda and the DRC. We will engage with international NGOs and local civil society representatives. We will listen to opposition politicians. We will question the UN, and our own Ambassadors and development teams. Most importantly we will learn what we can and translate it back to the UK. And we are very grateful to Christian Aid, and our own UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter Parliamentary Union for funding our efforts.
Our APPG – which I am honoured to Chair – covers these nations, with Uganda and Burundi, although our remit and interests could also reasonably cover the Central African Republic, South Sudan and others, as the Intergovernmental Conference of the Great Lakes Region covers 11 nation states. The ICGLR is currently a key partner in the peace process we are here to study. Any solution to the decades old conflict in the Kivus has to have the support of the whole region to succeed.
When the European colonial powers were dividing up this part of Africa in 1885 and again after 1918 they surely cannot have anticipated that their lines on maps, their arbitrary grouping of communities that had no previous connection, their overriding of traditional kingdoms and cultures, would have such an impact 100 years later.
When these nations finally shook off the exploitation of colonialism around 1960, who would have thought that Cold War alignments, and the egos and greed of national leaders, would leave them so vulnerable and abused by the time the Berlin Wall was torn down.
And who would have predicted the carnage that followed: genocide in Rwanda – the 800,000 slaughtered by clubs and machetes in 100 days in 1994; civil war in Congo, Uganda, Burundi killing 5 million in a decade; the Lords Resistance Army with their child soldiers in C.A.R. and Uganda; and so much abuse, corruption, rape and resources wasted.
So many people say to me that this is a hopeless cause. That this part of ‘darkest Africa’ will never change.
But I refuse to accept that. Rwanda is criticized for the domination in politics of the President and his party. But their record in development, economic growth and tackling corruption deserves praise. Uganda, Burundi and even DRC may not look perfect, and all have their tensions, but compared to the carnage of the recent past there are signs that democracy, economic growth and peace MAY replace the fear and failure of the post cold war years.
Our job is to be educated about the history and complexity of this region, to ensure the UK uses it’s development assistance – our investment in the future – wisely, and we use our international influence smartly, to make interventions count for ordinary people in these impoverished nations.
I hope this delegation can help us do that.