The volcano that devastated the capital of eastern Congo has left in its wake a smouldering political climate.
Goma, DR Congo — More than six months after the Nyiragongo volcano eruption that claimed 32 lives and razed more than 6,000 homes and businesses, more than 2,000 families are still sleeping rough, amid torrential rains, lack of food, clothing and medical care, and with no means of rebuilding their lives.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s pledge to build a $30 million modern village in Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — to accommodate thousands of victims of the Nyiragongo volcano — has generated uproar and resistance in the vast, mineral-rich Central African nation.
The Congo government, often described by many Congolese as corrupt and dysfunctional has not fulfilled its promises to house the victims, who are still living in limbo and dependent on aid provided mostly by international humanitarian agencies.
The Rwandan Army has been tasked by Kagame to build the village, but the gesture, seen in many humanitarian quarters as an attempt to alleviate the volcano crisis, is highly politicised in the DRC.
Those who oppose his initiative, claim that the Rwandan president is not the right person to embark on such a sensitive project given his “dark” involvement with the east of the DRC.
Two humanitarian agencies, deeply involved on the ground in Goma, refused to comment, with at least one saying that it was a matter of scientific and governance policies.
Several regional experts and Great Lakes specialists contacted by TRT World declined or were reluctant to comment, describing the issue as highly politicised and sensitive.
"Everything we say as researchers is scrutinised by the governments in question and we therefore risk being blacklisted and trolled,” one expert who chose to remain anonymous said.
A DRC government source said on the condition of anonymity that the issue was highly sensitive to the extent that even members of parliament were in the dark about the real facts, which are thought to be coordinated between Kagame and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi.
“Everything that is being said on national TV or radio is a pack of lies. The two heads of state have already said what was supposed to be said and the ground is laid for the work to begin,” the source said.
“In addition, aid agencies and independent commentators will not say a word about this because they fear Kagame and Museveni (Uganda's president) as they know that they can be banned anytime from operating or doing any work in their countries.”
But why is a humanitarian gesture of such magnitude and importance is being politicised at the expense of thousands of volcano victims who still live in misery?
Political analyst Gideon Chitanga says it is a matter of trust.
“There is no doubt Rwanda and Uganda persistently play a polarising and destabilising role in the DRC, and have huge populations particularly of Rwandese origin with the DRC elites and citizenry. The two countries lack trust and credibility as a result of their plundering activities in the DRC.”
However, Chitanga, of the Johannesburg-based Centre for Study of Democracy, pointed out that while humanitarian assistance has always been political, and is inherently politicised, this gesture could be used to shift relations, particularly if it is executed through regional institutions, and as the basis for intra-regional diplomacy to end the DRC conflict.
“Given that both Uganda and Rwanda have a stake as neighbours who are involved in the perennial conflicts in the DRC, they could use this as an opportunity to work towards political stability and development in the DRC, which has the potential to lift the whole region and the African continent,” he said.
Despite acknowledging that the Rwandan government was not just playing the good samaritan by any standard, Chitanga urged the three countries to collaborate and work together closely to provide humanitarian needs for their citizens, who happen to populate the borders of the three countries.
However, despite sharing borders, that might sound easier said than done, as the average Congolese citizen sees any form of cooperation and collaboration with Rwanda and Uganda as an act of high treason.
In the streets of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu and home of the 3,470 metre deadly Mount Nyiragongo, anger continues to boil and frustration refuses to go away three weeks after the DRC government endorsed Kagame’s multi-million project.
“This is an act of treason, and it goes against the teachings of Mzee Kabila," Sylvain Kahindo, a motorbike taxi driver, who lost two family members in the 24-year-old armed conflict, told TRT World.
Although he's been dead for 20 years, many people in the DRC still consider former President Laurent Desire-Kabila as a true liberator and hero, and someone who had the potential to lift the Congolese out of poverty and misery.
Prior to Kagame’s announcement, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi launched a $500 million project aimed at paving the 150 km road linking the border town of Kasindi to Beni and Butembo. Sixty percent of the project will reportedly be funded by an Indian company based in Uganda.
“Here in the east as well as in the northeast, we have experienced so much suffering, misery and have shed tears so many times because of Rwanda and Uganda,” university student Viviane Masudi said.
“And now out of the blue, they are acting as good samaritans who are worried about the well-being of our people. These two guys have no shame,” she added.
Furthermore, those who oppose the modern village project allege that the former rebel leader might be using it as a strategy to 'balkanisation'.
Speculation has been rife in Central Africa for the past 20 years that Kagame and Museveni are involved in a project including the West to carve up Congo into pieces. The balkanisation, according to rumours, will allow Rwanda and Uganda to attach the mineral rich eastern and northeastern parts of the DRC to their countries.
Describing the project as the balkanisation in silence, opposition politician Prince Epenge was quoted by local media reports as saying that the village was a gift from hell, wrapped up by the devil himself.
"It is better to sleep outside than in a castle of humiliation built by Paul Kagame with the money looted in the DRC. Tshisekedi must be declared a traitor to the nation,” Epenge, who is allied to popular opposition leader Martin Fayulu, said.
As allegations of balkanisation have resurfaced in the wake of the modern village project, South Africa-based Chitanga called on the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority for Development countries (IGAD, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda), as well as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to play a key role to mitigate the balkanisation of the DRC, and protect its sovereignty as stated in the AU Charter.
Expectations were high that a change of leadership in Congo, which seemed to have pushed Tshisekedi widely into the hands of Kagame and Museveni, would bring a fresh impetus in the region, and perhaps leads to a permanent solution in the eastern DRC's armed conflict.
However, the situation on the ground appears to have worsened, with the mushrooming of armed groups and the resurgence of Rwanda and Uganda-backed M23, despite the two war-hit provinces (Ituri and North Kivu) being under a state of siege.
The DRC tops the list of the world’s most neglected crises, according to a report released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in May 2021.
“The Congolese are struck by a crisis of volcanic dimensions every single day due to violence and conflict. Sadly, when there is no volcanic eruption, the thousands that flee their homes each day goes unnoticed,” NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland said.
“They do not make headlines, they seldom receive high-level donor visits and are never prioritised by international diplomacy,” he added.