Kinshasa (AFP) - Across central Africa, a belt of countries is casting a wary eye at the political crisis brewing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), fearing the impact on their security and economy if the situation explodes.
Nine countries share a border with the DRC, one of the biggest and most troubled nations in Africa -- and the theatre of two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that sucked in countries around the region and led to the deaths of three million people.
From the Republic of Congo and Angola in the west to Uganda and Rwanda in the east, memories of that traumatic period remain razor sharp today as their vast neighbour's political future hangs in the balance.
"The DRC is the mother of all crises," Angolan Foreign Minister Manuel Domingo Augustos told the French daily Le Monde in January. "What happens there affects the entire Great Lakes region."
DRC's neighbours are already hosting around 600,000 people who have fled conflicts in the centre and east of the country, and struggle to cope with rebels, traffickers and other criminals who also seep across the border.
The country's problems, many fear, could careen out of control if President Joseph Kabila seeks a third term in elections in December in defiance of constitutional limits -- or if the vote is postponed for a third time.
- Talks -
A diplomatic ballet is starting to unfold as clouds darken on the horizon.
The leaders of six southern and central African countries -- Angola, Republic of Congo, the DRC, Gabon, Rwanda and South Africa -- will "in principle" meet in Luanda on June 17, an informed source in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, told AFP.
"We are all awaiting the confirmation from Kinshasa for this decisive meeting," the source said.
Leading the dynamic are Angolan President Joao Lourenco -- current head of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) which includes the DRC -- and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is also the current chair of the African Union (AU).
The leaders, whose countries are observers in the DRC's troubled election process, have separately been on tours of Europe, where they talked to the region's former colonial powers France and Belgium.
Both have also, and discreetly, signalled that it is time to bring the curtain down on the Kabila era.
In talks in Brussels on Monday, Belgium and Angola stressed the "importance of free, credible and transparent elections in line with the New Year's Eve agreement" -- a deal reached on December 31, 2016, under which Kabila was allowed an additional year in power before the long-awaited elections.
"If we can understand, as neighbours, how to aid the transition in Congo without affecting ourselves, this is what we should do," Kagame has said.
Angola has had up-and-down relations with Kabila. It supported the then 29-year-old political neophyte after he succeeded his assassinated father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, in 2001.
But in late 2016, it withdrew its military advisors from the DRC and in May 2017, it sent troops to the Congolese border as a bloody crisis flared in the Kasai region.
Relations between Rwanda and the DRC have been similarly fraught.
Kigali accuses Kinshasa of providing a haven for rebels who played a part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered.
The DRC accuses Rwanda of using its influence to pillage the valuable mineral coltan in the restive province of North Kivu. The two countries clashed briefly at the border in February.
- Suspicions -
The DRC last week reacted with concern to the talks in Europe, apparently suspecting that a deal was being cooked up behind its back.
"No one has the right to envisage solutions to our problems without us," government spokesman Lambert Mende said after Kagame met French President Emmanuel Macron.
He condemned "people who are nostalgic for the colonial order" and "closed-door meetings and open plotting against our country's sovereignty."
Those words find an echo in Tanzania, with which the DRC has cordial relations -- the Kabila family lived there in exile.
"No solution to the intra-Congolese conflict should be envisaged behind the back of the country concerned and without associating regional organisations," a senior Tanzanian official said.