EACRF struggles with a belligerent host already seeking Plan B

Saturday May 13 2023

Graphic illustration of soldiers entering and exiting doors. PHOTO | NMG


Countries contributing troops to the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) have found themselves arguing for a need to have the mission stay in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), amid a move by Kinshasa to seek a Plan B – a force with combat capabilities against rebel groups.

The frustrations from Kinshasa, which could signal an imminent command structure chaos, emerged this week as DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, seeking to buttress his political campaign for re-election, embarked on a shuttle diplomacy in Southern Africa for backup. He was seeking an alternative regional force that will specifically target rebel groups, such as the M23, Kinshasa wants neutralised.

With elections due in December 2023, Tshisekedi must woo his voters in eastern parts of the country, whom he promised four years ago to end the menace of armed rebels. He had initially banked on the EACRF, deployed in November last year, but the troops have stuck to their buffer role, much to his chagrin.

“The head of state said that under the terms of the EACRF’s mandate if the results of its mission are not satisfactory by next June, this contingent which came to the rescue of the DRC will have to leave the territory for good,” the DRC presidency said of his meeting with Botswana counterpart Mokgweetsi Masisi on Tuesday, as part of the shuttle diplomacy.

“The mandate of EACRF is ending in June. If by that time we assess that the mandate was not fulfilled, we will send those contingents home with honour and thank them for having tried to bring their share of contribution to peace in DRC,” it added.

On Monday, a summit of the Southern Africa Development Cooperation (SADC) in Windhoek, Namibia, approved the deployment of its member troops to the DRC, although there was no clarification on which countries would send them. Tshisekedi’s office later announced that the SADC troops would have “an offensive mandate”.


Read: Why Kenyan commander has exited EACRF

Troop-contributing countries in EACRF and the East African Community secretariat, however, say the mission will stay until stability is achieved.

Soldiers from EACRF DR Congo

Soldiers from EACRF on patrol in Bunagana, Democratic Republic of Congo, on April 19, 2023. PHOTO | GLODY MURHABAZI | AFP

EAC Secretary-General Dr Peter Mathuki said in Mombasa this week that the bloc will seek a formal extension of the EACRF mandate, which expired in March, and Kinshasa verbally accepted a three-month stay.

“We are concerned about the insecurity in the Eastern DR Congo and this week we held a meeting which sought extension of the force agreement. This will be in line with EAC’s mission to ensure all its member states remain peaceful,” Dr Mathuki told The EastAfrican.

“Instability in any country will be detrimental to our programmes for regional integration. The EAC is committed to the restoration of peace in eastern DRC and extends its full support in the pursuit of a sustainable solution to the protracted security situation,” he added.

At the 11th High-Level Summit of the Regional Oversight Mechanism of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Heads of State and government was in Bujumbura last week, Kenya, the biggest contributor to the mission, defended EACRF, warning that externalising the conflict beyond the immediate neighbourhood will make it difficult to solve.

Kenya’s Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi told the meeting that political goodwill and maximum support from the region is needed to end the DRC conflict, adding Nairobi is best placed to serve there because it has no direct interests in the country.

“We must be able to support our own processes, as it is only us who can deliver lasting peace for eastern DRC,” Mudavadi said at the meeting attended by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat and all DRC neighbours.

Read: EACRF: M23 withdrawal progressing well

“Illicit exploitation and trade of natural resources, human right violations, and the precarious humanitarian situation mainly characterised by protracted displacements and fragile livelihood remain issues of serious concern in eastern DRC,” he added.

When SADC deploys, there could be problems. Troops from the bloc once deployed to eastern DRC but still failed to end the scourge of armed groups. And an independent UN team once accused Zimbabwean soldiers at the time of looting. In 1998, Zimbabwean, Namibian and Angolan troops intervened to stop the advance of the RCD rebels in Kivu and Kinshasa. But that war ballooned into multiple factions, creating lawlessness.

Tshisekedi on May 8 told the SADC Summit that he had accepted the EARCF to accompany FARDC “to impose peace by trying to stop M23, which Rwanda supports”.

“But unfortunately, we have noticed certain contingents among this force except Burundi, who are putting all the efforts in the mission as it was defined, are now living with M23 and collecting taxes in the zone that they are illegally occupying. That’s a genuine problem and it also compels us to question the purpose of the EAC mission,” he said.

Some experts fear that too many troops from different countries intervening could lead to widespread confusion on the ground. SADC troops will come where there are already East African Community troops. The EAC force found UN peacekeepers (Monusco) in DRC. In addition, they will work in a region where more than 120 armed groups operate.

“It’s going to be a Tower of Babel,” warned José Nawej, a Congolese political analyst, reflecting on the nightmare of the command structure.

Leaders of the AU, the SADC, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the EAC and the Economic Community of Central African States are due to meet in Luanda, Angola, on May 15, to deal with the imminent confusion.

Read: EACRF denies M23 clashed with Burundi troops

A communique issued earlier from Luanda said the May 15 conference will “address the latest developments in the region, particularly the political and security situation in eastern DRC and the Republic of Sudan.”

IDP camp in Goma, eastern DR Congo

Muslims who fled attacks by the M23 rebels at an IDP camp in Goma, Eastern DRC on March 27, 2023. PHOTO | ALEXIS HUGUET | AFP

Observers in the DR Congo say deploying SADC troops could add problems.

“It is illusory to think of any SADC force in the DRC. SADC troops could fight the M23, but if Rwanda’s troops are on the side of the rebels, SADC will not fight,” Omer Nsongo die Lema, a Congolese political analyst said.

“The ball is now in the DRC’s court. From this moment on, we have the right to ask what we should expect from the SADC regional force,” said Lema.

The SADC deployment will have to get a nod from the AU which effectively means the mission must have some form of cooperation with existing entities, experts say.

A diplomatic source said the May 15 meeting will iron out coordination and harmonisation of the interventions of the actors in the DRC.

Angolan President João Lourenço, an influential member of SADC and current chair of the ICGLR tasked by the AU to mediate between the DRC, Rwanda and the M23, said on Monday that everything will be done “to avoid a confrontation in the region.”

President Lourenço, although using diplomatic language, has been very clear saying “the M23 respects the ceasefire”.

Read: Kenyatta, UN envoy discuss DRC peace

Conditional deployment

The Angolan head of state said Kinshasa has so far kept its commitment on the peace bid, but criticised delays in the cantonment of the rebels to begin the process of reintegrating them into the Congolese society.

“This stage has not yet been completed. It does depend on the M23. It also depends on the country, the DRC,” he said. “What we would like is for the timetable for setting up the cantonment to be shortened. However, we must remain confident,” he added.

Angola had promised to deploy 500 troops to the east of the DRC. But Lourenço said this week that “the conditions must be met before the deployment”.

SADC, meanwhile, says it wants “a more coordinated approach, given the multiple deployments under multilateral and bilateral agreements in the eastern DRC”.

It said the DRC government must put in place “the conditions and measures necessary for effective coordination between sub-regional forces and bilateral partners operating in DRC.”

And, as Kinshasa hunts for M23 tacklers, the rebel group this week accused the Congolese army of targeting civilians while collaborating with other rebel groups.

Political spokesperson Lawrence Kanyuka alleged that there have been ongoing targeted killings of civilians since the beginning of this month. He blamed the killing of people in Kizimba and the killing of cows on the Kalengera-Tongo route on the government forces. The EastAfrican could not confirm these allegations.

Read: M23 claims DRC army hindering peace deal

‘Not our mandate’

The EACRF has been under pressure from civil society activists in the DR Congo, who consider it ineffective. Deployed in the DRC from November 2022 to track down armed groups, including the M23

M23 rebels in Kibumba, eastern DR Congo

M23 rebels in Kibumba, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO | GLODY MURHABAZI | AFP

 which continues to expand its influence, the EAC force has not been involved in combat, a mandate it does not have.

In the DRC, many are calling on the president to rely on their “natural allies” in the SADC.

EACRF’s commander Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah left his station in unclear circumstances and his replacement Maj-Gen Alphaxard Kiugu had yet to report on duty by press time.

“We also have some officers of EACRF who, when they reached DRC, said that they were not coming to fight M23, which was not part of the plan. That was Gen Jeff’s problem,” said Tshisekedi. “Gen Jeff left spectacularly. He is talking about threats but has never told us about those threats,” he added.

A leaked letter said to be his resignation was disowned by the EAC and the Kenya Defence Forces, who termed it fake. But Tshisekedi responded to it, nonetheless.

“As if it (EACRF) only belonged to Kenya. There must be a problem. So, we need to talk about it to clarify the situation. Because you can see that, up to now, we subscribe to the process of peace, because we want to see peace soon,” the president said.

Kinshasa says if the question of both missions serving concurrently becomes problematic, the EACRF will have to leave.

“With this evolution, the situation will be in favour of Kinshasa and, in turn, the days of the EAC are numbered, especially now that their presence has not satisfied the Congolese community, which only asks for their departure,” said Paul Diakese, President Tshisekedi’s information officer.