What you need to know:
- The M23 rebel group resumed fighting in the restive eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in November 2021 and by the end of last year, the group had seized large swathes of the North Kivu province, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
- A November 2021 UN panel of experts report accused Rwandan armed forces of operating inside eastern DRC and extending support to the Tutsi-led rebel group, claims denied by Kigali. With both countries ramping up their military firepower, North Kivu has been turned into a tinderbox. Uganda, which currently has troops in the DRC, continues to tread carefully, writes Frederic Musisi
The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) in eastern DRC is under immense pressure to decisively deal with the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group that continues to capture vast swathes of the North Kivu Province in the eastern DRC province.
The EACRF, according to multiple sources, is “stuck” on the basis of some of the five East African Community (EAC) member countries having “selfish interests” in the restive eastern DRC. Rwanda has been singled out to support the M23, while Uganda which might have “leverage” over the former and has the capability to take on the M23 rebels is avoiding direct confrontation.
So far, Burundi, Kenya, and South Sudan have deployed armies under the EACRF to eastern DRC, one of the most volatile pockets on earth, while Tanzania— fence-sitters are “evaluating” the situation. Uganda is under immense pressure to deploy to North Kivu to buttress the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) currently stationed in Goma.
Largely a lame-duck force without much experience in asymmetrical warfare, the Kenyan force has not been able to halt the advancing M23 rebels.
Kenya, whose former President Uhuru Kenyatta is the facilitator of the EAC-led peace process, which does not share a border with DRC, was viewed a neutral arbiter and handed the overall role to coordinate the regional forces.
Highly placed sources told Daily Monitor that Nairobi is “highly” banking on the Kampala regime—Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) forces—for reinforcements in DRC, in case they get repulsed by the Rwanda-backed M23 rebel group. The international community, sources added, is also banking on the UPDF, which is expected to deploy about 2,500 UPDF soldiers, to play a decisive role in plucking out the M23 guerillas.
On the other hand, the Kampala regime which has just “normalised” relations with Kigali early last year is circumspect of the implications of direct confrontation with M23, which Kigali says has a legitimate cause to protect the Tutsi community in North and South Kivu against an ethnic pogrom.
Kampala-Kigali relations thawed in April 2022 with the visit of President Paul Kagame to attend First Son Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba’s 48th birthday at State House, Entebbe. Relations between the two countries deteriorated in mid-2017 and culminated in the border closure in February 2019.
Gen Kainerugaba has previously defended the M23 rebels. “As for M23, I think it is very, very dangerous for anybody to fight those brothers of ours. They are not terrorists. They are fighting for the rights of Tutsi in DRC.” His comments elicited a backlash among DRC politicians and civil society in Kinshasha who are against the deployment of the UPDF in the neighbouring country. In October 2022, Gen Muhoozi was dropped as Land Forces commander.
The problem at hand, multiple sources told Daily Monitor, is mainly due to the “national interests” at stake in the DRC conflict that has so far left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands displaced to neighbouring countries.
“To defeat M23 you need a strong army/armies on the ground. In the negotiating seat, you also need a leader who has leverage over presidents Kagame and Felix Tshisekedi, like in 1998 and in 2012 when they (M23) were first defeated,” a highly placed diplomatic source hinted.
The Washington-based Human Rights Watch detailed in a report late last year that the M23 has committed summary executions and forced recruitment of civilians while a 2018 UK government-backed report noted that the key challenge in resolving the M23 crisis is the ambiguity of the group’s character.
“Different readings of the M23’s origins, motivations and legitimacy led to significant confusion in determining the most appropriate response,” the UK government report noted.
Twenty-five years ago, following the ouster of the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, the then Laurent Kabila regime under pressure from the Kampala-Kigali military alliance, called upon Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations to intervene. The ensuing war termed Africa’s ‘first World War’ sucked in nine nations.
Fog of war
Uganda and Rwanda propped up different militia groups, which then led to clashes between the two armies between 1999 and 2001 in Kisangani over the control of strategic locations and mineral wealth.
“Kigali knows that Kenyans are just bluffing with their threats of military action. At best the solution lies in the goodwill of the two leaders [Kagame and Tshisekedi]. What Tshisekedi has done so far is raising the bar—attracting international attention, but then what?” a senior government official involved as part of the EAC-led peace process intimated.
The official added: “As long as Rwanda is interested in M23 it will take a major army to defeat them. President Kagame calculated and I think he was like; I don’t want the blood of especially the Kenyans on my hand. So, they (KDF) will continue like sitting ducks.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity further, said: “It is only the UPDF that Rwanda is wary about in the regional force. The international community is also on our side but we have our calculations to make; our main concern is Kigali with whom we have just normalised relations.”
The official added: “Officially we are keen to see how far the diplomatic processes will go or can work. We are also suspicious that the M23 could be supporting the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) which we are trying to get rid of which explains why we are alert. But the considerations are immense.”
Under the auspices of the EACRF, Burundi deployed boots on the ground in eastern DRC last July while Kenya deployed a force in Goma in November 2022 under the overall command of Gen Jeff Nyagah.
According to a 26-page classified Concept of Operations document signed by all army chiefs from the EAC member states in June 2022, eastern DRC was divided into six sectors with each country given a specific sector to pacify.
Rwanda, which has been accused of supporting the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group is to remain on its border with DRC along the province of North Kivu and South Kivu as a block guard. Last month, the Rwandan forces shot down a Congolese fighter jet from the border. On Wednesday last week, Rwandan forces in a statement said they had repulsed a group of Congolese soldiers who had reportedly entered into the No Man’s territory at the border.
Sources reveal that it is only the UPDF, which has the ability to fight M23 rebels as South Sudan’s army continues to confront internal conflicts across the country, Burundi is relatively weak and Tanzania has taken a neutral position.
The memorandum of understanding on the deployment of the EACRF also specified that each of the regional countries would meet the deploying requirements. Uganda is supposed to pacify Sector Two (Ituri region) and Sector three (Grand Nord region composed of Lubero and Beni territories) where the UPDF is currently engaged in Operation Shujja to weaken the ADF that recently paid allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) as a regional affiliate.
This comes at a time when pent-up frustration among the local population continues to rise across the North Kivu province over the failure of the EACRF to take decisive military action against the M23 rebel group.
The area continues to host hundreds of militias and mercenaries who have parcelled out the land for mineral exploitation and imposed taxes against locals.
The EAC Heads of State summit on February 4 stated that the “political process is the path” towards solving the ongoing clashes between government forces and rebels that has killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. A military solution although not ruled out, is the last resort.
The parameters for military action are yet to be defined which has fuelled anger in the eastern DRC.
A United Nations panel of experts in August 2022 accused Kigali of violating international sanctions by extending support including weapons and uniforms to the M23 rebel group. The 131-page panel of experts report prepared for the UN Security Council, the world body’s most powerful organ, detailed “solid evidence” of Rwandan armed forces operating inside eastern DRC since November 2021.
Kigali denies the allegations. The revelations came on the heels of deteriorating diplomatic relations between DRC and Rwanda. The border between the two countries remains closed.
While the Ugandan regime has a separate bilateral agreement with Kinshasa to deal with the ADF rebel, another government source added: “Now imagine if the UPDF openly deployed to deal with the M23. Rwanda doesn’t trust us all inasmuch as we don’t trust their intentions in Congo.”
The source added: “Of course Congo cannot provoke Rwanda because they do not have capacity to fight it. What they have done is to expose Kigali in the eyes of the international community, and now the eyes are on us—particularly Uganda.”
Several western countries including the United States, France, and UK have urged Kigali to stop supporting the M23 rebel group.
The US Department of State in a January 23 statement urged Rwanda “to cease all support to M23 and withdraw its troops from eastern DRC.”
“Finally, we underscore our concern about the worrying escalation of xenophobia and hate speech inciting violence against the Rwandophone community in the DRC which was highlighted in the report. We urge DRC officials to continue speaking out to condemn such discourse and to hold accountable those who employ violence,” the statement added.
The Qatari government—which is financing Kigali’s Bugesera International Airport—last month attempted to mediate the Kigali-Kinshasa warring principals. The meeting collapsed after President Tshisekedi opted out.
Prof Philip Kasaija, a regional security expert and academic in international affairs, told this newspaper that the situation in eastern DRC requires a political solution.
“It is a difficult situation in the sense that the eastern DRC has been unstable for more than 30 years. M23 is among the at least unsorted rebel groups, so sorting one group doesn’t address the problem,” Prof Kasaija averred, adding, “The current hope[s] is in that the Nairobi and Luanda peace talks are taking shape to bring both the state and non-state actors to the table.”
He further said: “But one has to understand that foreign forces are not going to sort out eastern DRC problems. At the end of the day what the region needs is a political process not a military one.”
Two highly placed diplomatic sources told this newspaper that while the M23 has “legitimate concerns, the ongoing crisis is being exploited by Kigali as a “bargaining chip.”
“You see Rwanda cannot survive on its own. So, there is much at stake. President [Felix] Tshisekedi comes from a well-to-do background so he first took all the crap—you saw him and Kagame trying to mediate Kampala and Kigali—but I think along the way he no longer wanted to be a puppet anymore,” a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity revealed.
The source added: “The Nairobi and Luanda peace process are going to go in circles, for all we know. Tshisekedi listens to the old man [Museveni] who is not keen on entering the conflict because there is so much at stake; Rwanda even screwed our road projects in Congo. But the bottom line is that you need a leader mediating who has leverage over the two warring parties; neither Lourenço [Angolan President] nor Kenyatta has an upper hand especially over Kagame. You need someone seasoned like ours but who doesn’t want to get involved.”
Prof Kasaija says revisiting the 2013 peace agreements could be key in resolving the conflict.
“M23 was created in 2009 and when they were first defeated a number of things were agreed upon on the Nairobi declaration signed between the Congolese government and the rebels. So, an audit of what was agreed and wasn’t achieved would be a good starting point,” he added.
On February 24, 2013, leaders of 11 African nations signed an agreement designed to bring peace to the eastern DRC. On March 18, 2013, M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda, whose cruelty and violence earned him the nickname Terminator, turned himself in to the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, where he requested transfer to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Diplomatic sources revealed that with the M23 defeated the former DRC President Joseph Kabila’s reasoning was “why should they be integrated in the national army.” The failed integration has been cited by the M23 rebels as one of the reasons for the recent armed incursions.
The M23 rebellion sprouted in April 2012 in Rutshuru, North Kivu when hundreds of largely ethnic Tutsi soldiers of the Congolese army— FARDC— mutinied over appalling living conditions and poor pay. Most of the mutineers had been members of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) another armed group that in 2009 signed a deal with the government, which the dissidents felt Kinshasa had not fully implemented.