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Lawmakers from Africa's Great Lakes Region Discuss Challenges

Kenyan Senator Ekwee Ethuro supports regional legislative action to improve security and investment. (Photo: Kenyan Senate)

The debilitating political crisis that has wreaked havoc in the Great Lakes region became a top issue of discussion at a recent inter-parliamentary forum in Nairobi, bringing together legislators from 12 African countries within the region.

Officially, the meeting was called the 5th Ordinary Session of the Plenary Assembly of the Forum of Parliaments of Member States of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Besides politics, participants also talked about economic and security cooperation.

At the top of the agenda was the worsening political and security situation in the Great Lakes Region, with particular focus on the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

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Ekwe Ethuro, Speaker of the Kenya Senate, was the President of the Forum. He said the meeting came at a critical time when the region is facing many challenges related to security and youth unemployment.

“We have reviewed both the political and security situation as well as youth unemployment," he said. "People are so passionate that unless we address the issue of youth unemployment, this is a breeding ground for terrorism. All these things are related, so we would want as the political representatives of the people to give political support. We want when the respective delegations go home to be able to come up with specific legislation on the issues that we have agreed here.”

The participants included lawmakers, among them speakers of parliament and members of the national assembly and senators, drawn from 12 African countries. They stressed their commitment to providing a significant contribution towards promoting peace and stability in the Great Lakes region.

Prosper Higiro is the Secretary General of the Forum of Parliaments of Member States of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. He praised the role of parliaments in promoting peace and development, as well as in the fight against the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the troubled region.

"The major issue," he said, "is the contribution of the parliamentarians from the region in solving some of the conflicts we have in the region, including Central African Republic, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and of course there is the issue of illegal exploitation of natural resources. We think parliamentarians can do many things including some reforms of laws governing these issues of natural resources. Then, [as for] this unemployment [menace] in the region, parliamentarians have the capacity to promote some policies and programs, including budget allocations to youth employment promotion."

The regional conference was jointly organized by the Senate of Kenya, the General Secretariat of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, and the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA). It attracted representatives from Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Other issues discussed at the forum included youth unemployment, infrastructure development and investment promotion in the Great Lakes region.

During the Plenary Assembly, the delegates took time to strongly condemn acts of terrorism in the Great Lakes Region in general and in particular the recent attacks in Kenya by the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group al Shebab.

Mr. Higiro said the situation in the region remained dire, decrying the widespread violent loss of human life.

"The security and violence in the region remain a concern despite the ongoing combined search for peaceful solutions to disputes between parties," he said. "The current crisis situation continues to exist and have a negative impact on both civilians and the proper exploitation of natural resources with which these countries of the regions are endowed. War has claimed a heavy toll of human life, causing the displacement of communities, the destruction of economic fabric, the uncontrolled flow of weapons and ammunitions, and has traumatized populations."

The Parliamentary Forum was established in 2008. Since then, the Forum operates as a framework of dialogue between parliamentary institutions, while supporting the efforts of their respective governments, in particular the efforts relating to conflict prevention.

Mr. Higiro cited an example of the success stories achieved by the parliamentarians.

"We have been able to mobilize the international community towards the conflict in the Central African Republic," he said. "We sent a delegation led by the former President of Burundi – that was in 2013 – and at the end we were able to mobilize not only the governments of the region to send troops to CAR but also the international community [ the UN] to step in. Also, we have been promoting peace and security in DRC and South Sudan. We have sent parliamentary delegations and fact-finding missions there."

Addressing delegates at the forum, Speaker of the Pan-African Parliament, Bethel Nnaemeka Amadi commended the parliamentarians for their concerted efforts aimed at surmounting the challenges facing the continent.

“We must together begin to find a multi-dimensional effort to bring about peace," he said, "because you cannot separate Africa’s development framework from the conflicts that are ravaging our continent. Therefore I applaud this Forum for making security, stability and development in this region a central focus of the conference. Over the years, the Pan African Parliament has played its own role in promoting peace and security on the continent by sending fact-finding missions to many countries with security and human rights challenges.”

Meanwhile, the parliament of Angola became the latest member to join the inter-parliamentary grouping after attending several sessions of the forum as observers over the last few years.

Mr. Ethuro welcomed the membership of the southwest African nation.

“Angola has been with us for a long time as an observer," he saids, "and then they took a decision last year that they needed to become a full member. I think that’s one indicator of the success of the Forum. Angola also brings quite a huge experience in terms of a post-conflict state in terms of a desire to ensure that there’s stability in the country.”

Between 2010 and 2013, member states of the inter-parliamentary grouping held four other Ordinary Sessions of the Plenary Assembly in Khartoum, Kampala, Kinshasa and Bujumbura, respectively.

The fifth forum of the Forum was hosted in Nairobi by the Senate of Kenya from 20th to 22nd January, 2015.