East African Community (EAC) leaders have expressed hope of finding a lasting solution to the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through peaceful means, but have signalled that they will not hesitate to use military action to achieve the goal.
The heads of state were speaking during the opening of the EAC-led Third Nairobi Peace Process, which brought together armed groups from eastern DRC, representatives of the local communities, civil society groups and government officials.
Other stakeholders at the forum were the African Union and the United Nations Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region, Huan Xia.
Presidents William Ruto (Kenya), Evariste Ndayishimiye (Burundi), Felix Tshisekedi (DRC), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Samia Suluhu (Tanzania) and former President Uhuru Kenyatta who is the facilitator of the Nairobi process, agreed to combine the ongoing attempts to negotiate peace through a political process.
Considering military action
However, they warned they were also considering military action targeting armed groups that have declined to heed to calls for a de-escalation of hostilities.
The military action will be conducted by the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), whose troops are still being deployed to eastern DR Congo. So far, only Kenya and Burundi have fully deployed their troops, with Uganda and South Sudan expected to join soon.
The force is under the command of Kenya’s Major General Jeff Nyagah and two deputies from the DRC, including Brigadier General Emmanuel Kaputa.
“We are cognisant of the high expectations the region and international community have in this process. I am appealing to all partners to commit to supporting initiatives aimed at promoting peace and consolidating stability in the region,” EAC Chairman and Burundi President Ndayishimiye said.
For his part, President Ruto said the instability in eastern DRC was limiting the potential of the EAC region not only in terms of trade and investment but also in degrading the dignity of the Congolese people through suffering and death.
He assured the Congolese leadership and citizens that Kenya would stay the course until the job is done.
“So long as DRC knows no peace, prospects for prosperity for the rest of the EAC and Africa will remain dim. This is why we have taken a decisive position as heads of state of the EAC to do everything possible to find a lasting peaceful solution to this conflict, and we will not relent,” he said.
Uhuru’s role admirable
Dr Ruto applauded Mr Kenyatta’s role in the peace process, terming it admirable.
“I salute your credentials as the champion of peace in our region, and, in particular, with regard to the Inter-Congolese consultative framework,” he said.
President Museveni attributed the conflict to the presence of illegal guns held by foreign armed groups, including the Allied Defence Forces (Uganda), Interahamwe (Rwanda) and internal Congolese groups.
“These groups can easily be defeated if we harmonise. The operation which has been going on for about a year now conducted by the Congolese army (FARDC) and the Ugandan army and in three sectors of North Kivu and Ituri has shown that we have the capacity to deal with these groups in spite of the difficult terrain, the forests, and so on. We can deal with these groups,” he said.
Even though Kigali has been accused of supporting the March 23 (M23) rebel group that took up arms last year after being dormant for years, President Kagame said there is hope that the ongoing political processes would end the conflict that has lasted for decades.
“I most sincerely believe that this time round these efforts are going to bear good results. The resurgence of one armed group among the many others has received a lot of attention globally and this comes on top of other unresolved political and security challenges,” he said.
For his part, President Kagame called on the dialogues to involve the root cause of the conflict.
Mr Kenyatta said since the start of the Nairobi process, there has been relative calm in the territories controlled by armed groups that are part of the talks.
“As a result of this, humanitarian actors have been able to have some access to these territories to provide much-needed assistance to the communities therein. No effort should be spared in restoring peace and security in eastern DRC. To you Congolese, peace will come from within. Let us unite towards that goal,” he said.
He further urged the countries yet to deploy their troops to do so.
The week-long meeting in Nairobi is aimed at creating an environment conducive to the disarmament of armed groups, consolidating support for local communities in the peace process and creating mechanisms for voluntary repatriation and settlement of internally displaced persons and refugees.
“For our brothers and sisters from DRC, your presence here to dialogues is a dividend of the entry of the DRC into the EAC family, so please feel at home and engage each other with unity of purpose,” said EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki.