New EAC force commander assumes office in DRC

Friday May 19 2023
 Maj-Gen Alphaxard Muthuri Kiugu

Incoming East African Community Regional Force Commander Maj-Gen Alphaxard Muthuri Kiugu. PHOTO | COURTESY


Kenya’s new commander of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) Maj-Gen Alphaxard Muthuri Kiugu has taken up his role in Goma, providing some certainty to the mission whose initial head was redeployed.

His entry had to follow Kinshasa’s blessings and is set to kick off the second phase of the force’s mandate that was verbally renewed till June after delays by Kinshasa which had accused EACRF of having not achieved much to end the fighting in the region.

Last month, Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah left his role as commander of EACRF in the wake of tensions with Kinshasa. This week, Nairobi directly assured Kinshasa of commitment to end long-term conflict in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

But Maj-Gen Kiugu will have a full plate, foremost of which includes the uncertainty on how long the troops will stay in the DR Congo.

The regional force’s mandate expired in March and has not been renewed formally owing to Kinshasa’s criticism over EACRF's mandate and alleged‘cohabitation’ with the M23 rebel group.

Read: East African force fails to quell DRC rebels


Prior to his deployment in Goma, the new commander was serving as the assistant chief of defence forces in charge of personnel and logistics.

He joins the regional force barely two weeks to the deadline given by President Felix Tshisekedi to leave the country if they “are not effective” on the ground and at a time when armed groups are reported to be regrouping, raising tensions across parts of Eastern DRC.

“We have accepted the EACRF to accompany FARDC to impose peace by trying to stop M23, which Rwanda supports. Unfortunately, we have noticed certain contingents among this force, except Burundi who is putting all the efforts in the mission as it was defined. Other contingents are now living with M23, collecting taxes in the zone they are illegally occupying. That’s a genuine problem and it also compels us to question the purpose of the EAC mission,” Tshisekedi said last week.

Tough task ahead

Kiugu’s in-tray not only requires him to address the diplomatic tensions brought about by Kinshasa’s remarks against the regional force that acts on directions given by the regional heads of state but also touch on his appointment as the second commander which Tshisekedi took a swipe at accusing Kenya of acting unilaterally by failing to consult them on the move.

Read: Tshisekedi to EAC force: Act on rebels or leave

The force commander also faces the uncertainty of the crashing proposals by the East Africa Heads of state whose priority has been ending the conflict via a political process versus that of President Tshisekedi who insists that they must fight the M23 rebel group.

EACRF troops have in the past repeatedly said their mission is to facilitate a political process by enabling a return to normalcy and resumption of economic activities in areas previously occupied by the rebel group, opening up main supply routes to enable movement of goods, people and humanitarian aid and supporting the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Community Recovery and Stabilization Program (P-DDRCS).

Kiugu is also expected to sustain the regional force’s achievements amongst them a two-month ceasefire between M23 and the Congolese army FARDC and the successful withdrawal of M23 from key locations towards their cantonment areas.

He also joins at a time when DRC is expecting troops from SADC member states who will probably play a complementary role to EACRF. SADC troops mandate has however been described as that of combat but so far only Namibia has approved the deployment of its troops to the DRC.  

On April 13, the EAC facilitator of the Nairobi peace process former president Uhuru Kenyatta warned that there's need to limit the diversity of engagements and mechanisms in Eastern DRC, particularly limiting new bilateral and multilateral initiatives that tend to make the situation of peacebuilding complex and confusing and a burden to the coordination process.

Read: Congo army, M23 trade blame for ceasefire violation

It is expected that Kiugu who is reporting a month after his appointment by President William Ruto has been well briefed on the mandate of the force and the challenges within thereby any decision he makes will be that of the best interests of DRC and the region.

In the event the mandate is not extended however, Kiugu will leave it where his predecessor left having achieved a full withdrawal of M23 from the areas that have since been occupied by Kenyan, Burundi and Uganda Forces.

If the mandate is extended beyond June, EACRF will be expected to achieve more than it did in its first term during which it was only composed of troops from Kenya Defence Forces (KDF). The force achieved a full force status in April with the deployment of South Sudan troops.