East African Community leaders have joined forces to launch a major crackdown on rebels who, for decades, have made eastern Democratic Republic of Congo their safe haven.
Representatives of armed groups active in the eastern DRC were invited to Nairobi for a meeting with government officials on Friday under the auspices of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta after EAC leaders on Thursday urged an end to the violence in the troubled east.
But the meeting flopped after the invited groups failed to make it to Nairobi due to “logistical problems”.
Honore Mvula, a Congolese politician close to President Felix Tshisekedi, said the representatives of armed groups failed to reach Nairobi in time for the talks. He said President Tshisekedi was expected to return to Kinshasa on Saturday, suggesting the meeting would not happen at the weekend.
The EAC conclave on DRC, featuring the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo on Thursday pledged to back Kinshasa’s bid to bring stability within its borders.
In Nairobi, Presidents Kenyatta, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi, Félix- Tshisekedi of DRC and Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta, representing President Paul Kagame, made a series of resolutions, including the creation of a joint force to crackdown down on those who refuse to surrender, and an invitation to regional leaders, the UN and African Union to support the initiative to bring stability in DRC.
While little detail came out of day one of the meeting, which was briefly interrupted by news of the death of former Kenya president Mwai Kibaki, officials in Kinshasa asked everyone to lay down their arms.
“It is not a question of negotiations with a specific armed group but rather of an approach granted to all those who have taken up arms against their own countries and who must join the logic of peace,” said the presidency in Kinshasa when The EastAfrican inquired on Friday. The government statement said President Félix Tshisekedi “wants to lead by example.”
“He will therefore open consultations to listen to the armed groups in order to call on them to adhere to the peace option before any military engagement. This is a recommendation that the heads of state have made to the Congolese president.”
Paul Diakese, head of the Congolese president's press office, told The EastAfrican that everything is happening "behind closed doors,” when asked about the meeting at Nairobi’s Safari Park Hotel.
President Kenyatta has pledged to facilitate the travel and attendance of the meeting to all groups who agree to stop fighting, although officials were categorical terrorists like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) will not be welcome.
Officials did not release a list of armed groups invited but The EastAfrican understands that all home-grown groups were given an option to join in or be annihilated militarily. Foreign rebels, on the other hand, were advised to leave the country or be attacked.
The local groups include the Red Tabara and M23. Others with foreign links include Forebu, the Burundi insurgents, Mayi-Mayi, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda and the National Congress for the Defence of the People. The Congolese government recently held talks with the Codeco armed groups, which is active in Ituri Province. Meanwhile, M23, who resurfaced in North Kivu demanding "frank" talk with the Congolese government, were also invited. In North Kivu and South Kivu, in eastern DRC it is estimated that 100 armed groups operate in the region.
The invitation of armed groups stirred the political class, however.
Martin Fayulu, a fervent opponent of Félix Tshisekedi said: "It is unacceptable that Félix Tshisekedi is allowed to deliver the country into the hands of instrumentalised armed groups.”
Some politicians believe that the rebels should be defeated militarily, while others believe that negotiations are necessary to preserve human lives.
Sources in Nairobi told The EastAfrican that President Tshisekedi was battling undercurrents of opposition from his own officials to the idea of giving amnesty to rebel groups.
In a joint communique after the EAC leaders met in State House, Nairobi, the leaders said that the first concerted effort by the EAC is to have armed groups in eastern DRC end the violence. The leaders said they will proceed to “immediately” accelerate the formation of a regional force “to help contain and, where necessary, fight the negative forces" in the DRC, even as they asked armed groups to lay down arms and participate "unconditionally" in political dialogue.
President Kenyatta had planned to witness a first physical meeting, in Nairobi, between President Tshisekedi and armed groups who have contested territory in eastern DRC and rendered the expansive region that borders Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania constantly under violence.
However, this did not take place after the rebels did not show up as a result of logistical challenges. “All armed groups in the DRC participate unconditionally in the political process to resolve their grievances. Failure to do so, All Congolese Armed groups would be considered as negative forces and handled militarily by the region,” the communique said.
The DRC recently joined the East African Community, becoming the 7th member. And while it is the richest country by natural resources, it has also faced constant violence from armed groups both home-grown and those who fled neighbouring countries to seek refuge in the poorly policed eastern DRC.
When he joined the EAC two weeks ago, President Tshisekedi suggested security should be priority for the region if they are to enjoy the fruits of integrating with DRC.
On Thursday, leaders agreed that foreign armed groups must leave DRC immediately. President Uhuru Kenyatta will facilitate talks between the DRC government and armed groups who will agree to travel to Kenya.