East African leaders on Thursday issued a warning to armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, urging them to choose dialogue or be considered enemies of all.
Gathering in Nairobi, Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Felix Tshisekedi of DRC, Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta agreed to have armed groups hold dialogue with the government of DRC, or be annihilated militarily.
This decision was issued on Thursday in a joint communique after the leaders met under what is known as the Heads of State Conclave on the DRC, the first concerted effort by members of the East African Community to have armed groups in eastern DRC end the violence.
The leaders said they will proceed to “immediately” accelerate the formation of a regional force “to help contain and, where necessary, fight the negative forces" in the DRC, even as they asked rebel groups to lay down arms and participate "unconditionally" in political dialogue.
“Towards this end, the meeting directed that planning for such a force commence with immediate effect with the full consultation of relevant authorities in the region,” said a joint communique issued after their meeting in Nairobi on Thursday.
But while the leaders read a riot act to the rebel groups, they first offered an olive branch, saying that those who agree to negotiate will be given a platform to be heard.
President Kenyatta was on Friday expected to witness a first physical meeting, in Nairobi, between President Tshisekedi and armed groups who have contested territory in eastern DRC and rendered the expansive region that borders Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania constantly under violence.
The dispatch did not name the armed groups but officials ruled out “terrorists”, suggesting that proscribed groups like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which Uganda and DRC have been pursuing since November, will not be invited.
But there were suggestions that groups such as the M23, which recently laid down arms following weeklong attacks, will be invited as they had already suggested they wanted to pursue dialogue.
“All armed groups in the DRC participate unconditionally in the political process to resolve their grievances. Failure to do so, All Congolese Armed groups would be considered as negative forces and handled militarily by the region,” the communique said.
The DRC recently joined the East African Community, becoming the seventh member. And while it is the richest country by natural resources, it has also faced constant violence from armed groups both home-grown and those who fled neighbouring countries to seek refuge in the poorly policed eastern DRC.
When he signed the treaty of accession to the EAC two weeks ago, President Tshisekedi suggested that security should be priority for the region if they are to enjoy the fruits of integrating with the DRC.
On Thursday, leaders agreed that foreign armed groups must leave DRC immediately.
President Kenyatta will facilitate talks between the DRC government and armed groups who will agree to travel to Kenya.