The East African Community is facing renewed pressure to avert simmering violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and save the various tracks of diplomatic processes launched in Nairobi and Luanda aimed at solving multilayers of conflict.
But, amid renewed fighting between the Congolese army (FARDC) and rebel group M23, the regional bloc has signalled that military action in the DRC will be the last resort. Officials said they are concentrating on pushing the armed groups to join the negotiating table instead.
From November 2, Nairobi is expected to gather the various warring factions in a second attempt to convince them to abandon war for political talks.
The challenge, however, is that Kinshasa has said it will not accept M23 to the table, saying the group is being externally financed to continue the war.
A mostly Congolese Tutsi group, the M23 resumed fighting in late 2021 after lying dormant for years. It has since captured swathes of territory in North Kivu Province, including the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June.
The group's resurgence has destabilised regional relations in Central Africa, with the DRC accusing Rwanda of backing the militia. Rwanda was still fighting these claims this week.
On Friday, French news agency AFP reported that Congolese troops clashed with the M23 rebels around a strategic highway in the east.
"The M23 fired a lot of bullets into our village, so we were forced to flee for our lives," the AFP quoted Anita Sikuzote, a mother of six.
No official toll was given, but residents said at least 10 people had been killed since October 23 and dozens more injured.
Farhan Haq, spokesperson for Monusco – the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC – said "at least nine civilians were killed during clashes".
The frontline between Congolese troops and M23 rebels had been calm in recent weeks until last week when clashes erupted again. On October 23, M23 fighters captured the village of Ntamugenga in North Kivu's Rutshuru area, according to local officials. The village lies about four kilometres from the RN2, a strategic highway leading to the provincial capital Goma.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the DRC said this week that about 34,500 people had fled the Rutshuru region.
Fighting between soldiers and the M23 spread to the highway itself on Thursday.
"Clashes are ongoing on the RN2," said local official Justin Komayombi, who added that the road was blocked because M23 fighters were in the settlements of Kako and Kalengera.
Samson Rukira, a civil society leader in Rutshuru, confirmed the road had been blocked.
"The situation is tense," he said.
The Kivu Security Tracker, a respected violence monitor, also said that M23 activity had cut access to a portion of the highway. The militia is occupying the settlements of Rubare, Kalengera and Kako, it added, which all lie on the highway.
The Kenya talks, known as the Nairobi Process, have been endorsed by the East African Community, which began tackling the Congo conflict under the chair of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Mr Kenyatta is now the peace envoy for Kenya and new President William Ruto has promised to seek a lasting solution in the Congo.
The EastAfrican understands that the November 2 meeting is being planned as a priority over the proposed military deployment in the eastern DRC, even though officials say both dialogue and military action are still on the table.
“The priority for the Nairobi Process is political and not military,” one official familiar with the EAC efforts told The EastAfrican this week. “The idea is to avoid any military action and that the military deployment is merely to give confidence to the political decisions that have been and will be taken moving forward. Any military action will be a last resort.”
Rwanda, DRC public spat
Both dialogue and military action, though, may be challenged by the re-emergence of a public spat between Rwanda and DRC.
On October 24, Rwanda issued a statement dismissing allegations of fuelling M23 rebel attacks, saying the Congolese forces' build-up to renew attacks on M23 is in violation of the agreed regional security mechanisms, including the Nairobi and Luanda processes.
“Continued public incitement on the basis of ethnicity, use of heavy weaponry, targeting of Rwanda’s border zone, and baseless accusations against Rwanda are unacceptable,” Kigali said in a statement.
In response, Kinshasa expressed surprise that Rwanda continued its “strategy of permanent interference in the internal affairs of the DRC to maintain a climate of terror in this part of the country and thus continue the work of plundering that is recognised worldwide.”
“How can we understand that a foreign government takes the defence of an armed group, moreover [a] terrorist, in another state? How can we want to deny a national army its legitimate duty to fulfil its constitutional mission, to protect its population and the legal institutions of the Republic against terrorists whose only objective is to sow death and desolation?" asked Congolese government spokesperson, Information Minister Patrick Muyaya.
Roadmap to quell tensions
The resumption of fighting runs counter to a positive trend in the rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda, a few weeks after the EAC adopted a roadmap to quell rising tensions in the region.
The roadmap under the leadership of Kenya dictated a ceasefire to allow consultations between the DRC and armed groups as well as establishment of a regional force.
On Thursday, the US raised concerns about the renewed fighting, and accused Rwanda of fuelling the conflict by arming M23.
“State support of armed groups is unacceptable and we'd like to take this opportunity to reiterate our concern about Rwanda’s support to the M23,” Ineke Margaret Stoneham, a press officer at the US Embassy in Kinshasa, told The EastAfrican.
“The United States supports the African-led mediation efforts to address the regional tensions in eastern DRC, including those efforts led by the East African Community, Kenya and Angola. We encourage countries in the region to work together to restore peace, security and trust while respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Rwanda has denied these allegations in the past, but its public defence of the group has miffed Kinshasa.
The new tensions may hurt a mediation by Angolan President Joao Lourenco, who had led Rwanda President Paul Kagame and DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi in July to sign a commitment to dialogue and diplomatic channels.
They may also affect the planned deployment of regional forces. In September, EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki and DRC’s Deputy Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs Christophe Lutundula signed in Kinshasa the status of forces agreement (SOFA) for this regional force.
“The agreement envisaged an initial deployment of the EAC Joint Regional Force for a period of six months after which the deployment will be evaluated,” the Dr Mathuki said.
The EastAfrican understands the forces would need at least four months from the day of the agreement to deploy, could extend their stay by at least two months, and would need another four months to disengage.
This week, both Nairobi and Kinshasa rejected claims that Kenyan troops initially deployed to the DRC had withdrawn. The Kenyan government instead said there has been no formal deployment as it is awaiting parliamentary approval. Officials said the deployment would be based on the EAC protocol, reasoning that this would provide constitutional cover to circumvent seeking UN approval.
Under the Nairobi Process, however, EAC officials say progress has been made, and this will be regardless of whether Rwanda and DRC quarrel or not.
“That there is still fighting and bickering around the presence and the actions of the M23 is neither here nor there,” an official said. “It is the reality in the field. This does not signal failure; it signals the challenge that we must take up.”
The EAC is categorical that its mission will not be about “military action” from the outset. Instead, it will be a deployment for presence, with armed groups still being persuaded to abandon fighting. Ideally, the military force is to be supported through the EAC Peace Fund, a pool of finances that is open for contributions from across Africa and beyond.
Analysts say the main hindrance to regional efforts remains the political climate in Congo ahead of the presidential election in 2023.
Postpone DRC elections
While President Félix Tshisekedi has maintained that the country will go to the polls in 2023, when he is expected to run for a second term, analysts say addressing the insecurity in eastern DRC may be used to postpone the elections – effectively extending Tshisekedi’s term in office.
The deployment of FARDC, however, could give President Tshisekedi a chance to demonstrate that he has made progress in bringing stability to the country.
For Rwanda, a defeated M23 could become a domestic problem, and Kigali would wish them to be active elsewhere.
“Regarding the planned East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), we remind contributing countries of their obligation to notify these deployments to the UN 1533 sanctions committee,” Stoneham said. “We also stress the need for the EACRF to coordinate operations with the UN peacekeeping mission (Monusco) so it can fulfil its mandate to protect civilians.”
The France and US have previously asked the parties to withdraw from occupied positions since the resurgence of fighting, including the town of Bunagana. But M23 remains the political headache.
Since the resurgence of the M23 attacks at the end of 2021 in North Kivu, Kinshasa and Kigali have been engaged in a diplomatic row at international for a, including the UN Security Council. At various Security Council meetings, the two countries have accused each other, against the backdrop of the existence of rebel groups, led by the M23 and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR.
If the diplomatic spat were to turn into a military escalation, it would derail external measures to pacify eastern DRC.
Massive civilian displacement
In October, the violence reached a peak causing massive displacement of civilians. The resumption of the war after two months of ceasefire has prompted Rwanda to accuse the DRC of military aggression.
In a government statement issued on October 24, Kigali said, "Contrary to the assertions of the president of DRC that his country is focused on a diplomatic solution to the insecurity in eastern DRC, recent statements and actions show that the DRC government is decided on a course of continued military escalation.”
Rwanda further said that the Congolese army continues to operate alongside irregular armed militias, including the FDLR.
The DRC ruled out any negotiations with the M23, which had been described as a terrorist movement.
In the region, for the past 30 years, security issues have not ceased to damage relations between countries, particularly Rwanda and the Congo. The various economic agreements that some experts have presented as the ultimate solution have not succeeded in restoring trust and peace.
Meanwhile, the EAC Summit has designated the facilitator to undertake mediation in DRC and will work with special envoys to help parties negotiate.
For Kenya, the deployment will be significant because they will operate in an area where M23 is active. It is also the only troops contributor without a common border with the DRC.