How East African standby force could change conflict dynamics in Congo

Saturday June 18 2022

Congolese policemen clash with demonstrators at the border with Rwanda in Goma on June 15, 2022. PHOTO | AFP


The call this week by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for urgent deployment of the regional East African Standby Force (EASF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo as violence escalated in the country’s troubled east signalled a sense of fatigue in solving the problem politically.

But that deployment may face hurdles, say experts, owing to the challenge of legitimacy for deploying the Force as well as funding for its operations.

On Wednesday, President Kenyatta, the current chair of the East African Community (EAC) Summit, said he had spoken to his peers in the region and they had all showed “commitment” to finding lasting peace in the DR Congo. He then asked that the regional force be mobilised immediately.

The Kenyan leader argued he was saving the political track proposed earlier in April, when EAC members known as the Conclave (Kenya, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda) agreed to encourage dialogue between the rebels and the Congolese government.

“Recent developments, including open hostilities, create a serious threat to the success of the regional leadership’s work, including the promotion of outcomes of the Inter-Congolese consultations of the Nairobi Process,” he said in a statement released on Wednesday.

“The hostilities in particular threaten to undermine the ongoing political process aimed at addressing the security situation as provided for under the April 21, 2022 Communiqué.”


In his statement Kenyatta said: “I further call for the declaration of Ituri, North Kivu (Bunagana, Bugusa, most parts of Petit Nord, Masisi, Lubero, BeniKasindi main axis) and South Kivu provinces as a weapons-free zone, where any individual or group carrying weapons outside the official and legally deployed and mandated forces in the country will be disarmed.”

Read: Uhuru wants boots on ground in DRC

Kinshasa-Kigali hostilities 

The decision on exact timelines was expected on June 19, from regional military chiefs gathered in Nairobi to discuss the modalities. It was unclear by press time if Rwanda would be represented, given a raging hostility between Kinshasa and Kigali over allegations of supporting rebel groups in the DR Congo, namely the M23 and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

Kinshasa on Wednesday announced it was severing all bilateral deals with Rwanda, amid anti-Rwanda protests by Congolese over Kigali’s alleged support of the M23 rebels, who have recently reinvigorated their attacks on the Congolese army and civilians.

When these countries’ leaders met in Nairobi in April, they agreed “that a political process be commenced under the leadership of President Kenyatta to facilitate consultations to be undertaken between DR Congo and local armed groups”, according to a communique released then.

They also agreed on a “military and security enforcement track pursuant to an agreement to accelerate the establishment of a regional force to help contain and, where necessary, fight the negative forces.”

At the time, leaders indicated the force’s deployment would be “immediate.” After President Kenyatta’s call, only Uganda and Burundi came forward to express readiness. Rwanda, which was represented in the April meeting by Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, has not commented on the call.

DR Congo says it supports the deployment but will not accept a Rwandan contingent in the force.

Read: DRC agrees to EAC force deployment without Rwandan army

Problematic deployment

DR Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi has accused Kigali of sponsoring the M23, charges Rwanda has rejected and asked Kinshasa to sort out its “internal” problems.

Some observers think the EASF deployment would be problematic because it includes some of the countries blamed for “interference.”

“The deployment in eastern DR Congo of a regional force composed of countries at the root of the destabilisation, atrocities and the plundering of our resources will bring neither stability nor peace and risks aggravating the situation,” said Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for reconstructive surgery on women and children raped in the never-ending conflict.

“The reform of the FARDC and PNC is necessary,” he said, using the French acronyms for the Congolese armed forces and the police.

This week, the tiff between Rwanda and DR Congo spilled into parliament in Kinshasa, which declined to discuss recent memoranda between the two sides.

Patrick Muyaya, DRC government spokesman, announced several resolutions taken by President Tshisekedi and the High Council of Defence, who met on Wednesday.

“The High Council of Defence asks the Congolese government to suspend all agreements concluded with Rwanda,” he said.

These are mainly three commercial agreements that were signed in June 2021 between President Paul Kagame and President Tshisekedi on the exploitation of gold, including ensuring its traceability. This agreement provides for a Congolese company, Société aurifère du Kivu et du Maniema (Sakima SA), and a Rwandan company, Dither LTD, to mine and refine gold mined in the DR Congo in order to deprive the armed groups of the revenue from this sector.

The two countries also signed an agreement to avoid double taxation and prevent tax evasion. It will now stall.

Read:M23 war: DRC suspends bilateral pacts with Rwanda

Standby forces

The East African Standby Force was created under the African Union and includes countries beyond the traditional EAC, such as Ethiopia.

DR Congo is a member of the southern Africa standby force under the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The arrangement by the Conclave is such that the primary troop contributors are Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, although officials in Nairobi told The EastAfrican a wider invitation had been sent to other regional countries.

There are uncertainties, however, such as who should fund it, how long it will take to accomplish its mission and what will be its terms of reference.

“President Kenyatta's decision must be clarified by our government. How long do the East African troops want to come and stay? We do not want Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda among these troops. But do we have the right to exclude them?” Daddy Saleh, politician and university don in North Kivu posed to The EastAfrican. “Today, Rwanda is an enemy, but it is part of the East African Community. Everything must be clarified. We must no longer accept agreements without understanding their content".

"I must tell you, I don't trust the East African states. They take us for a cashcow. And then I wonder: Will the troops who want to come have more resources than Monusco? I fear that we are repeating a failure that risks weakening FARDC.”

While the force will seek to disarm rebels who refuse dialogue, some argue it might complicate the operations of Monusco, the UN peacekeeping operation.

Nicaise Kibel Bel, a Congolese military and security expert, says the many parties involved may proverbially spoil the broth, especially since not everyone is interested in peace in eastern DR Congo.   

The EastAfrican has learnt that French President Emmanuel Macron this week reached out to both Kinshasa and Kigali to have them end their public spat. This is just a week after Belgian King Philippe Belgian visited DR Congo for the first time since he came to the throne in 2013.

Belgian Co-operation Minister Meryame Kitir, who was travelling with the monarch, said the DR Congo had the right "to defend its population against armed groups and external interference.

“Both the DR Congo and its neighbours must make internal efforts to improve the security situation," she added.

 “It is a mistake to entrust our internal security to others. The Congo must fight. We must equip our armed forces properly. And, with the help of the population, we will bring peace,” Martin Fayulu, the Congolese politician, who lost to Tshisekedi in 2019, told The EastAfrican.

Uganda accused

DR Congo joined the East African Community this April seeking the desired peace and trade with its new partners but instead, tensions between Kinshasa and Rwanda have returned. Congolese authorities allege that Rwanda Defence Force troops aided M23 to invade the strategic town of Bunagana in North Kivu, on the border with Uganda.

Read: DRC rebels seize trading hub on Ugandan border

And the shockwaves from these clashes could have an impact on Uganda.

Some senior DR Congo officials also accuse Kampala of taking sides with Rwanda against Congo. Until June 14, the denunciation of Uganda for its alleged rallying with Rwanda was made by DR Congo officials, while some Congolese citizens said "Uganda has gone to the enemy," based on tweets by the head of the Ugandan Land Forces, Lt-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of President Yoweri Museveni.

DR Congo MPs have also threatened to shun trade deals with Uganda, with Christophe Mboso, the Speaker, saying: “We have received the agreement with Uganda in the National Assembly. We said, as a result of the pact that the son [Gen Muhoozi] signed with Rwanda, we are not letting this deal go through. He signed his pact, he betrayed us.”

Mboso was referring to the public support by Gen Muhoozi for Kagame, whom he calls “uncle”. Muhoozi, however, only referred to rebuilding relations with a country that until February had shut land borders with Uganda.

Splintered militia

One problem with the recent violence, President Kenyatta has admitted, is that parties may be unable to dialogue. The eastern DR Congo has more than 100 militia groups. Only 24 met in Nairobi in a set up facilitated by President Kenyatta. M23 was, however, splintered, with one group quitting the talks.

Meanwhile, demonstrations against Rwanda continue across DR Congo. French-Congolese rapper Youssoupha, son of music legend Tabu Ley Rochereau, cancelled a planned July 1 concert in Rwanda as part of his African tour.

Read: DRC soldier killed on troubled border with Rwanda

The fluid security situation in eastern DR Congo is also taking a toll on relations between the mineral-rich country and its neighbours, whose security and economic interests in eastern Congo could come unstuck. In just one week, Uganda moved from being a DR Congo ally to enemy by reactions in Kinshasa.

But will the EA standby force succeed where others have failed?

In 2013, as the M23 steamrolled the FARDC and captured major cities in eastern Congo, including the region’s largest trade hub Goma, it took the US and British intelligence to establish Rwanda’s involvement in backing the rebels, prompting the then US President Barak Obama to call for a stop to support for the rebels, despite Kigali’s protests of innocence.

A force drawn from SADC countries of Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa, alongside the Monusco troops, then militarily defeated the M23. However, analysts argue that global powers are currently distracted and unable to zero-in on who the backers of the resurgent M23 are.    

“Our attention has drifted; look at what’s happening in the world at the moment,” said Jason Stearns, founder of the Congo Research Group. “The M23 crisis arose at the time of many other great global geopolitical crises, especially the war in Ukraine, and people are distracted and not focused on this in the way they’ve been focused in the past.”

At the end of last year, Uganda deployed its forces in North Kivu and Ituri provinces for its security and economic interests, while over the past few months, Burundi has, in a muted fashion, also intervened militarily in South Kivu, leaving Rwanda in the middle, marginalised.

Analysts say DR Congo’s neighbours exploit the country’s weakness politically and militarily, but, while meeting Congo Brazzaville leader Denis Sassou Nguesso early this month, Tshisekedi warned a peace-seeking attitude should not be mistaken for weakness.

Uganda  has had as many interventions in the DR Congo as Rwanda, including a 1990s and early 2000s looting and pillaging case that resulted in a $325 million judgment against Kampala at the International Court of Justice. But in recent years, it’s army’s involvement in Congo seems to “fly under the radar,” according to Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, head of the Africa Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Analysts say this was the case, until the latest tweets by Gen Muhoozi, which now threaten to jeopardise Uganda’s security and economic interests in the DR Congo.

“I hear someone in the DR Congo parliament said that ‘Muhoozi is an enemy of Congo’. Me? So an ‘Enemy’ of DR Congo is one who saves people in North Kivu and Ituri from being slaughtered by ADF in ‘Le triangle de la mort’?” Gen Muhoozi tweeted on Wednesday. “I just have one more comment on the cowardly FDLR and Interahamwe, we know you are very brave when you are massacring innocent men, women and children! Please stop running whenever you face soldiers!”

The latter tweet, Kinshasa considers, endorses Rwanda’s support of M23 in a proxy war to neutralise the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and Interahamwe, the rebel groups that are affiliated to the former regime in Rwanda that carried out the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, but have since been based in eastern Congo provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri.

Uganda operation halted

Because of Kinshasa’s stance on Gen Muhoozi’s tweets and the regional efforts to deploy a standby force in South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri, Uganda’s security and economic interests of eastern Congo are at risk after the military operation that guaranteed their security was called off.

President Museveni held a crisis meeting on June 16 with commanders of UPDF and Operation Shujaa in the western Uganda city of Fort Portal to discuss the fate of the Congo mission.

After the meeting, Defence Minister Vincent Sempijja said the president’s order not only halts Uganda’s military operation in DR Congo but also other economic activities, which include construction of trade roads that Ugandan companies have been undertaking.

“Uganda had a deal with Congo that they would intervene militarily but there was a whole host of other economic initiatives as well,” says Jason Stearns. “Ugandans have very large contracts to rebuild roads but they are also engaged in gold mining. There is a Ugandan company very close to the Ugandan presidency that obtained gold mining permits in eastern Congo,” Prof Stearns added in a debate hosted on June 10 by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on the resurgent M23 rebellion.

UPDF launched Operation Shujaa in November 2021 alongside FARDC to hunt and rid the area of the Islamic States-affiliated terrorist group the Allied Democratic Forces from their bases in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

Security analysts said last week that nine years since international forces comprising troops overran towns held by M23, the country finds itself in the same place it was in 2013 where it requires deployment of a regional force again to defeat the same enemy.