DRC banks on bilateral army deals to secure defences in eastern flank

Saturday August 12 2023
kdf drc

Kenyan soldiers are seen at Goma Airport in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo on November 12, 2022. PHOTO | ANADOLU AGENCY via AFP

By The EastAfrican

The Democratic Republic of Congo is banking on bilateral defence and security cooperation with neighbours as it seeks to stem a decades-long rebellion in the eastern parts of its territory.

Experts say the new strategy is meant to dodge the bureaucracy that comes with the foreign military missions in the Congo and ensure coordination, but it is also a reflection that the missions themselves have come unstuck.

Yet it also offers individual countries an opportunity to ring-fence their economic interests in the DRC, leaving everyone happy.

Last week, Kenya signed a deal to train Congolese soldiers, with officials indicating it is part of a long-term strategy to free the region from armed groups and foster economic stability.

Read: Leaders bet on cantonment to end eastern DRC battles

The training that is part of a 2021 Defence Cooperation agreement between Kenya and DRC and will see Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) instructors help FARDC to respond to the complex situation in eastern DRC.


Kenya’s Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale on August 4 visited the trainers and revealed that the initial group of instructors had already been deployed in February at General Bauma Training Centre in Kisangani.

A total 771 troops of the Congolese army, FARDC’s Infantry Brigade, have been trained over 13 weeks.

“It is gratifying to note that selection of the second cohort is underway where 890 personnel will be trained. In my view, the progress this far is laudable and sets the tone for attainment of more secure living conditions for people across the region,” said the CS after signing the Kenya Military Assistance Training Team (KMATT)’s legal documents with Jean Pierre Bemba, DRC’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence and Veteran Affairs, in Goma.

“These legal instruments will provide an operating framework to guide the KMATT in the partnership with their Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) colleagues, by optimising mutual defence capabilities in the short, medium and long term for mutual benefit,” Mr Duale said.

The move came as troop contributors to the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) await an evaluation by Kinshasa on whether to extend the mission’s term, which ends on September 8.

Read: EAC extends stay of troops in DRC to September

This week, Duale told the National Assembly that Kenya is ready to pull out the troops if Kinshasa refuses to extend the deadline.

“Our mandate is up to September 8 and at the Defence headquarters, we always have a plan to make sure that in the event of the scenarios, we will bring back our troops safe and sound,” Mr Duale said Thursday. “If the extension is not granted, I want to assure this House and the country that our troops will come back home safe and secure.”

Vested interest

But he did admit deploying troops or supporting the Congolese army wasn’t free lunch.

“There was an economic interest, there was a need for peace in the region since the region largely uses the port of Mombasa, we had interest as a country,” he said. “Prior to the deployment of KDF in DRC, M23 was almost captaining Goma, strategic location as they were only 7km away from reaching the city an occurrence that could have destabilised DRC.”

According to Kenya, before deployment of KDF in the region, many routes were inaccessible due to the threats posed by the rebels, there was a high number of IDPs and a humanitarian crisis, which has all since been eliminated.

Read: DR Congo security situation still complex, EACRF chief says

Whether EACRF leaves or not, Nairobi says the parallel bilateral training programme is poised to benefit both nations economically by helping restore normalcy.

Mr Duale, who was making his maiden visit to eastern DRC since his appointment, also received a report on the situation in the region from EAC defence experts before visiting Kenyan troops deployed at Kibumba and Beni Mavivi accompanied by Kenya’s Vice-Chief of Defence Forces Lt-Gen Jonah Mwangi.

“From a broader outlook, it appears to us that EACRF, working alongside other partners of the DRC, has made some progress. I am saying this against the backdrop of the briefs by both the Governor, North Kivu and the Force Commander, EACRF, who have indicated a degree of success and highlighted the enormous task ahead.”

“In this context, it is our humble appeal and we believe that of other member States of the East African Community, that DRC considers extending EACRF’s mandate beyond September 7, 2023. This from, our perspective, will be a positive step in the collective resolve to consolidate the current gains following immense sacrifice by all, under the umbrella of the Luanda and Nairobi processes,” the minister said.

The DRC reluctantly agreed to extend the regional force’s mandate in March this year, accusing it of achieving minimal to bring peace to the Eastern DRC. President Felix Tshisekedi announced that a second extension will be based on his assessment of the force’s performance, having been critical of its alleged lethargy.

Read: Why military interventions fail to end DRC wars

The Lobito Corridor

“At a time the DRC is facing insecurity and terrorism, it is counting on sincere cooperation with friendly countries, because this situation affects the whole region. It is said that when a neighbour’s house burns down, if his neighbours do not pay attention, the fire is likely to reach them too,” Mr Bemba said.

Kenya is not the only one running a bilateral defence deal with Kinshasa. DRC also has defence cooperation with Burundi, signed on March 6, 2023, and another with Uganda for joint military operations between FARDC and the Ugandan army, UPDF, against the Ugandan ADF rebels since November 2021.

South Sudan, Burundi, Kenya and Uganda have deployed in the EACRF since November 2022 to combat armed groups, mainly the M23. The DRC has also had a UN peacekeeping force, Monusco, of more than 15,000 soldiers and police for 24 years.

In the meantime, the DRC is still theoretically awaiting the deployment of troops from the SADC countries and from Angola, still in the Kivu theatre, against the armed groups.

And Angola, which shares a 2,500-km land border, and belongs to the southern Africa bloc, SADC, just as the DRC, has said it is seeking common security fronts with Kinshasa to boost business. Both countries are also members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, ICGLR, which has sought to mediate the simmering diplomatic row between Rwanda and the DRC over the M23 rebels.

Angola had earlier announced it would send troops to help. Its parliament approved in March this year a fresh deployment of 500 soldiers to provide security in the cantonment areas of the M23 and supporting the activities of the Ad hoc Verification Mechanism on the ground, an international mechanism that monitors violations.

Read: Angola deploys 500 troops to DRC

No details of the cooperation between the DRC and Angola on troop deployment and its timeframe has been made public. Yet, Mário Caetano João, Angola’s Minister for Economy and Planning, said during a recent event that trade between the two countries now at $130 million would improve.

In July, Angola, DRC and Zambia signed a deal for the transfer of the Lobito Corridor railroad services and logistics to a support concession.

The Lobito Atlantic Railway consortium comprises Trafigura, Vecturis and Mota Engil, which will manage the Lobito Corridor for 30 years.

The consortium will be responsible for transporting heavy loads and for maintaining the infrastructure of the Lobito Corridor which covers the mining areas of Katanga province in the DRC and the Copperbelt in Zambia.

But there have been security squabbles between the two sides. Since 2008, DRC said nearly 65,000 of its nationals had been deported from Angola.

Angola said those expelled were illegal migrants while the DRC argued that the expulsions took place without prior consultations. In the past, both countries have also had maritime border conflicts, with the DRC saying that the Angola sea border demarcation was not fair.

An overflow of troops may not, however, guarantee peace. Over the past 30 years, the troubled provinces of eastern DRC (North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri) have recorded more than eight million deaths, according to some NGOs.

This is in addition to five million internally displaced persons, according to United Nations figures, and more than a million Congolese who have found refuge abroad.

Read: UN warns of humanitarian crisis in DR Congo

Incoherent strategy

For some analysts, the proliferation of defence agreements in the DRC is becoming a bad plan.

“It is a policy that is not coherent on the whole and proves that we are short of military and defence strategy in the DRC,” Prof Dady Saleh, a political analyst based in Goma, told The EastAfrican.

In an earlier ICGLR summit in Luanda in June, President Tshisekedi told his counterparts from member countries of the SADC, the ICGLR, the EAC and the Economic Community of Central African States that the missions must collaborate to avoid overlapping.

The DRC is a member all these regional blocs.

“Congolese authorities, based on the country’s recent history, in which certain East African countries were involved in the Congo war, want to rely on the countries of southern Africa and also Kenya, given that there has never been an armed conflict with Kenya, which does not share borders with the DRC,” argued Nicaise Kibel Bel, a North Kivu-based writer and expert in military issues.

President Tshisekedi has repeatedly stated that the EACRF is not effective and should be withdrawn from eastern Congo. He made this point forcefully while visiting Botswana in May. He convinced his SADC peers to send troops who would normally replace the EACRF.

The DRC is also pushing Monusco to begin its withdrawal. The mandate of Monusco will expire at the end of 2024. However, the SADC, which promised to send troops on May 8, now seems reluctant to come and fight in Congo.

Angola, too, has subsequently made it clear that it is “waiting for the conditions to be met” before deploying troops whose main objective is to “secure areas where members of the M23 are stationed” in the cantonment in the east of the DRC “and to protect” the members of a team tasked with monitoring compliance with the ceasefire, according to a press release issued by the Angolan Presidency in March 2023.

Read: Congo war: Enter SADC, exit EAC?

The SADC and Angola had also advised that they should refer to the EAC and the ICGLR, which have argued for political solutions known as the Nairobi process and the Luanda process as “the ideal path to lasting peace in the DRC.” Hence the great hesitation.

Kibel Bel also points out that “an intense military escalation by SADC member countries in the DRC against the M23 could greatly disrupt the region, Rwanda in particular, at a time when that country is engaged in the search for peace in Mozambique alongside a SADC mission”.
“We must not overlook this aspect. Perhaps there is a fear of a possible repercussion in the SADC region of the conflict in the Great Lakes region,” he said.

The other question that many people do not ask is that of the financing.

“Where would the money for the mission come from, given that SADC has already called on external sources to finance its mission in Mozambique?” posed Peter Fabricius, a consultant at the Institute for Security Studies, ISS, based in South Africa.

On the subject of the troops from Angola that are still expected, Dady Saleh told The EastAfrican: “If they come just to protect the M23 in their cantonment, we don’t need them in that format. In that case, their deployment would be useless. We already have Monusco and the EACRF there to observe. We don’t need more troops just to come and observe.”

DRC is rumoured to have deployed private militaries to tackle M23.

By Mary Wambui, Samwel Owino, Patrick Ilunga and Arnaldo Vieira