What you need to know:
- Some experts advise Kinshasa not to burn bridges with the troop contributors. Nicaise Kibel Bel, a military and security expert based in Goma, told The EastAfrican the onus is on Kinshasa to pep up its military capabilities in dealing with a problem that foreign forces have failed to address.
The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) will have left the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) entirely by January 8, 2024, allowing local authorities to secure the troubled east.
This week, military chiefs from the EAC troop-contributing countries met in Arusha to assess the departure programme after their mandate ended formally on December 8. They agreed for a month-long drawdown, hoping for an official handover to incoming troops from the Southern Africa Development Cooperation (SADC).
But the smooth departure was already being hurt this week as violence continued, with uncertainty on the arrival date of the SADC troops.
According to a statement from the EAC on Friday, the drawdown will be staggered until January 7.
Kenya was the first to withdraw 300 troops, and 287 South Sudanese were expected to arrive home by the end of the day Friday. Uganda and Burundi contingents “will continue their withdrawal and backloading of equipment by air and road.”
The latter two have parallel bilateral defence operations with the DRC and could redraft their soldiers to the same assignments under different mandates.
But, given that the EACRF wants to avoid leaving gaps that could be exploited by warring factions, it will depend on how soon the SADC troops arrive, a military source explained.
But the Arusha meeting raised concerns about the ongoing clashes in the areas the EACRF was deployed and urged the combatants — FARDC, M23 and other armed groups — to cease fire.
Congolese authorities are bracing for more violence in the region due to the gap the regional forces is leaving.
Analysts say Kinshasa may be relying on the very countries that had sent troops there to seek pacification of the Kivus.
Fighting has been almost daily since October between the M23 and the Congolese army or their allied self-defence groups.
Yet even as the troops leave, Kenya, Burundi and Uganda have, each, existing bilateral arrangements related to security and defence cooperation with the DRC. Those arrangements are set to come into play immediately in what points to the weaknesses in the EACRF as seen by the government of President Felix Tshisekedi.
Ahead of the departure, sources indicated some of the troop contributors grew frustrated with Kinshasa’s apparent disregard for the relative successes the mission may have brought the country. Kenya, for instance, didn’t like the public criticism of its forces by President Felix Tshisekedi’s senior officials while ignoring the fact that the Kenyan contingent had helped protect the Goma airport from falling into hands of rebels.
The DRC is now banking on the success of a truce with Rwanda, arranged by Washington, according to people familiar with the matter.
Tshisekedi promptly directed his military to stop any working engagements with the FDLR, a rebel group that arose out of remnants of perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 and which Kigali had often accused Kinshasa of backing.
The US released a statement calling on both Rwanda and DRC to stop supporting any rebels, after US Director of National Intelligence Avril Danica Haines toured Kigali and Kinshasa last month.
Some experts advise Kinshasa not to burn bridges with the troop contributors. Nicaise Kibel Bel, a military and security expert based in Goma, told The EastAfrican the onus is on Kinshasa to pep up its military capabilities in dealing with a problem that foreign forces have failed to address.
“The Congolese army should now train to become a deterrent army but, in security matters, it is always better to have allies,” he told The EastAfrican.
FARDC should continue to cooperate with the Kenyan army especially in training, he said.
So far, it is expected that troops operating under bilateral arrangements from these countries will remain in the DRC. Burundi had a running cooperation long before EACRF entered the Congo, and Uganda had a joint military operation with the FARDC that has been running since November 2021 to hunt for extremists loyal to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Kenyans, an official in Kinshasa indicated, will continue to train Congolese soldiers in Kisangani, in the northeast of the DRC, even though the initial parameters will not be changed to include any other troops on the ground.
In August, the DRC and Kenya signed defence agreements to strengthen military cooperation. Around the same time, the DRC and Burundi signed a similar agreement . This was an amendment to the earlier deal in which Burundi had deployed troops into the DRC.
On Sunday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said his troops would continue working with the DRC to target ADF inside the Congo.
Meanwhile, President Tshisekedi has been working behind the scenes to install military commanders loyal to his stable.
Last year, he changed the army chiefs, appointing Gen Christian Tshiwewe to replace Celestin Mbala. And after the massacres in North Kivu, Tshisekedi replaced Lt-Gen Constant Ndima, who had been the province’s military boss since May 2021. Peter Chririmwami took over in the interim. Tshisekedi has made several other new appointments in the army, especially they those serving areas away from the epicentre of the conflict.
Remain on the ground
As elections approach on December 20, the headache now is how to ensure voters participate in elections in eastern parts of the country. The SADC force was mooted in May but it took a decision last month to finally give direction — with an announcement after a Summit in Angola that of a maximum of 5,000 soldiers would be deployed. SADC did not say when the forces would arrive and experts say the EACRF contigents are likely to remain on the ground until they hand over to the SADC colleagues.
At the beginning of November, before the heads of state meeting in Angola, President Tshisekedi urged SADC to deploy troops, at least to rout the M23, considered a terrorist group by Kinshasa.
The Status of Forces Agreement between SADC and DRC indicates that the SADC Mission will be deployed for an initial 12 months to “neutralise negative forces and armed groups” in Eastern DRC and protect vital infrastructure and civilian populations under imminent threats of attacks.
President Tshisekedi has in the past said that “the process for the arrival of SADC troops in the DRC has reached its finalisation phase”.
Some uncertainty surrounds the deployment of the SADC troops, given the amount of money needed. Some countries like Namibia already signalled they have no resources for that and therefore they will not be sending any troops.
During the Force’s stay in the DRC, the Congolese authorities sometimes acknowledged that “the presence of the troops of the East African Regional Force has helped to strengthen the ceasefire.” Yet, very often, the Congolese authorities have also criticised this Force for being “ineffective against the M23 rebels.”
At times, it looked like the Congolese political leaders were picking cues from frustrated masses. The civilian population in Goma held protests several times to demand for the departure of the troops under EACRF.
In fact, they had made similar protests against the UN Stabilisation mission in the Congo (Monusco), sometimes becoming deadly. Monusco will also begin leaving from this month until end of next year.
Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah, the first commander of the regional force, was replaced after resigning following “threats to his security and campaigns to denigrate his mission,” as he stated in a leaked letter to the Secretary General of the East African Community (the bloc once declared the letter fake, but we confirmed it was authentic). Nyagah was replaced by Maj-Gen Alphaxard Muthuri Kiugu.
In over a year of stay in the Congo, the EACRF limited its losses. One soldier from the Kenyan group died by a mortar strike in October, leading to a blame game between FARDC and the M23.
That success of having minimal losses may also have cemented a bad perception locally as Kinshasa pushed for EACRF to attack M23. That is not how the troops see it, however.
On a trip to Goma on Saturday, Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces Francis Ogolla said the troops had largely followed their mandate.
“I am happy that Kencon (Kenya contingent) troops have undertaken the given EACRF mandate with great responsibility. As KDF we are satisfied to have delivered our role professionally with minimal collateral,” said General Ogolla as he visited Kenyan troops at EACRF headquarters in Goma, at their Kibumba Forward Operating Base and Kibati Logistics Base.
“When given a mission, be focused, keep track of your progress, and do your part until the mission is complete. In any international mission, we must always respect and appreciate each other’s values, culture, and customs,” Gen Ogolla said.
During the visit, Gen Ogolla lauded the Kenyan contingent for their achievements in Eastern DRC noting their significant role in protecting civilian lives in their area of operations and denying armed groups freedom to commit atrocities.
EACRF troops say they brought longer, relative, stability, even though they didn’t fire a shot.
At the time of deployment Goma city was on the verge of collapse as the M23 seized territories in North Kivu and moved its defense headquarters to Kanyamahoro hills, about 20 km to Goma, and just three from Mama Olivia where FARDC had established their last defence base.
M23 had further moved inwards to Rumagambo where they had taken charge of a strategic FARDC military base and military training facility from the local army. This maneuvers helped stall the construction of a key road from Rumagambo to Goma and halted the movement of goods and people along the Sake-Kilolirwe-Kitchanga both of which serve as the main supply route of food to Goma city.
The militia had also stalled the construction of the country’s second power plant and stalled government services. At the time, senior EACRF officials say Kinshasa had genuine concerns eastern DRC could splinter especially were M23 to take control of Goma airport.
EACRF say they averted the threat by offering a buffer. The forces also say they captured Kibati, Virunga-at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo an active volcano, Kibumba, and Mulimbi following the partial withdrawal of M23. The militia’s withdrawal is in line with the EAC Heads of State’s call for a ceasefire.
Now they say plenty of lessons have been learnt here, one of which is the fact of the complex nature of conflict in eastern DRC, making political process a more ideal solution. EACRF said it lacked authority of the EAC Heads of States and government to fire on armed groups unless they were attacked first. Instead, it focused on facilitating the resumption of government services and political dialogue, which didn’t happen.
The ceasefire between the rebels and government forces, for example, had been brokered by Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta through what is known as the Nairobi Process, last year. This was later cemented through the Luanda Process; a mediated dialogue between Rwanda and the DRC under President Joao Lourenço of Angola. It has been broken several times since October.
Local armed groups are still clashing, leaving thousands of the local population trapped in refugee camps.
In its latest statement, the M23 accused the local army FARDC of teaming up with other armed groups and mercenaries to commit atrocities against civilians in Masisi, Kilorirwe, Rutshuru, and surrounding areas vowing to defend themselves against similar attacks.