The latest peace bid for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s troubled eastern region appeared headed for a solid footing after 24 armed groups gathered in Nairobi to express their grievances, in a meeting endorsed by the UN and the African Union.
But the conference between the government of President Felix Tshisekedi and the rebel groups, brokered by President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, was also an arena for blame games, amid feelings of isolation by some.
In a speech delivered virtually to the more than 81 participants at the Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi on Wednesday, President Kenyatta told the armed groups to choose peaceful means of airing grievances.
“Without laying down weapons and forging an unbreakable national compact to secure the DRC, the fruits of prosperity — which you deserve — from the teeming rich endowments will remain elusive,” he said.
“Without working towards unity and cohesion among all the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, every separate section will forever remain a loser. The DRC deserves to claim and assert its rightful place in Africa and the world at large. This is just but a first step towards that attainable goal.”
Dr Angela Muvumba Sellström, the senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, told The EastAfrican the gathering signalled a united front among the region’s leaders to combat the persistent presence of the so-called negative armed forces.
This conference had been preceded by a conclave of EAC leaders from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC. They agreed that all armed groups in DRC dialogue or be annihilated by military means through a joint regional force.
“The armed groups should take up the option of a negotiated political solution, their options for continued [armed] activities, are narrowing. For, with this move, regional leaders may also be signalling that they will not use their respective territories and resources to support these groups,” said Dr Muvumba Sellström
A dispatch from the meeting said there is a general feeling that most of the rebel groups took up arms because there is no government presence to provide basic services, including security; that the government refused to honour previous peace deals; and that, while most of those groups would want to resume normal life, the presence of foreign fighters means an external hand will continue to fuel violence.
“All the armed groups called for repatriation of refugees in the DRC to their countries. Furthermore, and emphasised by most groups, is the need to repatriate Congolese returnees from other countries to participate in the development of DRC and to help deal with the insecurity issues,” said the dispatch.
“Most groups identified the presence and operations of foreign forces as a threat to peace in the region, and as a reason for these groups to take up arms for self-defence. The FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), Allied Democratic Forces, Red Tabara (composed of ex-Burundian soldiers) are the major groups mentioned.”
In the DRC, ethnic relations with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi mean there are common peoples across their borders. But, while that may be good, it has caused pockets of violence in eastern DRC.
The M23 faction that exited the meeting on Saturday is based in Uganda. The other factions had fighters based in Rwanda and Burundi, according to a source close to the talks.
As part of their resolution, the leaders endorsed a call for all foreign fighters to leave DRC immediately and local armed groups to participate in dialogue “unconditionally.”
“There are also many parallel and related political and security developments in the past months that suggest this (dialogue) may be a big turning point. There is increasing insecurity in eastern DRC, despite the coordinated efforts of the DRC government and the UN,” said Dr Muvumba Sellström.
The region has faced violence from groups like the Coopérative pour le développement du Congo (Codeco) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the latter is considered a terrorist group currently being pursued by Uganda and DRC in a joint military operation.
The relaunch of violence by a faction of M23 means three main groups are active.
The Nairobi talks, Dr Muvumba Sellström said, are motivated by the fact that Ukrainian troops in Monusco, and who had better aerial equipment, left the mission to deal with the Russian invasion back home.
“On the other side of the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda appear to have repaired their relations, reopening their border and having high-level meetings of military commanders and their executives in Kigali and Kampala. In my opinion, the combination of increasing insecurity, a vacuum in the military capability of Monusco, and better relations between Rwanda and Uganda suggest that change is coming,” the scholar said.
In ordinary DRC political talk, however, there are those who feel the dialogue has left out some groups.
Dady Saleh, a North Kivu-based politician and economics lecturer, says that isolation ignores the regional dimension in the conflict.
“Given that there are Rwandan armed groups in the DRC, the issue of Rwanda must be discussed. The same goes for Uganda and Burundi. Beyond the region, there are bound to be multinationals with huge geostrategic interests. These companies may have an interest in the continuation of the unrest,” Mr Saleh told The EastAfrican.
Akilimali Chomachoma, a political commentator in North Kivu, told The Eastafrican that it is “inefficient” to organise such a dialogue outside Congo because it would exclude some armed groups due to logistical and literacy shortcomings. Several militia groups are led by illiterate people.
He noted that North and South Kivu have about 140 armed groups, with Ituri having 10 active ones but the Nairobi talks involved only 24 groups, including two factions of the M23.
“Any observer will tell you that this dialogue is for the M23 and that the other groups are just there to look good in Congo. The M23 is one of the few groups with an agenda. The other armed groups only exist to blockade and attack groups they consider foreign, notably the FDLR, the ADF and even the M23,” said Mr Chomachoma.
Some Congolese believe that in Nairobi, Kinshasa is “handicapped”.
An editorial in The Post newspaper claimed the EAC was tying down the DRC and that “the Congolese government is embarking on a dead-end street that will lead to the mixing and mingling of Congolese troops with the rebels”.
“This will complete the infiltration of our defence forces. It is totally unjustified,” the editorial declared.
In some cases, it shows the mistrust of neighbours. Les Coulisses, another news magazine specialising in security issues, wrote: “Hopes for peace in the DRC are receding farther. The DRC is once again being cheated and trapped by Anglophone neighbours who, one might bitterly conclude, are trying to have it balkanised.”
Some of President Tshisekedi’s opponents believe that the negotiations with the armed groups is a plan “imposed” by the East African Community on the DRC.
Albert Mukulubundu, spokesman for Nouvel Élan, the party of former prime minister Adolphe Muzito, which accuses President Tshisekedi of handing over the DRC to the East African countries, is calling on lawmakers to “activate” the process of impeachment against the head of state for “high treason”.
Now the Congolese president finds himself in a bind. He has to show support for the initiatives of his peers who want to help him defeat insecurity while, at the same time, he has to face those opposing negotiations.
On Thursday, President Tshisekedi’s office said he was only “consulting” and giving an opportunity for rebels to disarm. This is even as some of the groups resumed violence.
The DRC government says that its priority is to proceed with the implementation of the disarmament, demobilisation and social reintegration (DDR) programme, according to Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde. This aims to reintegrate rebels and members of armed groups into civilian life, on condition that the government respects its commitments to the end. But this was chaotically implemented in the past.
Mr Akilimali argued: “Fifty percent of these groups surrendered voluntarily to the FARDC to make way for peace. But they regrouped after the failure of the DDR process. The cantonment centres where they were going to stay for three weeks ended up holding them for two months on average, without food and no sanitary facilities. All these armed groups returned to the forest and the localities they controlled because the army did not deploy in those areas to boost security. The failure of the disarmament and demobilisation process has facilitated the rapid development of armed groups.”