The posture of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) is likely to change in the coming days after entry of troops from Angola, and later, the Southern African bloc Sadc, to support peace efforts, even though under a separate arrangement with the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Angolan National Assembly was on Friday expected to endorse the final deployment of troops to North Kivu in eastern DRC under a bilateral deal with Kinshasa.
Congolese officials say “the Angolan soldiers are not coming to fight against M23 or any other group. They are coming to implement the verification mechanism foreseen by the Luanda process,” according to the Congolese presidency.
Angola has been mediating between DRC and Rwanda under the Luanda Process.
Officials said Angolan troops are coming to buffer areas abandoned by M23, the rebels Kinshasa claims are supported by Rwanda.
The presidency said: “The main objective of this unit is to secure the areas where the M23 elements are stationed and to protect the members of the Ad Hoc Verification Mechanism, who are members of a team in charge of monitoring compliance with the ceasefire.”
However, that has been the role played by EACRF since November 2022, although some Congolese politicians have criticised the force’s “passivity” against M23.
While the imminent entry of the Angola military into the DRC, and a further deployment from the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc), may not signify a weaker EACRF, The EastAfrican understands the various missions in the country will have to draw up operational rules between them.
In February, a delegation of Sadc chiefs of general staff visited North Kivu to "assess the security situation at the request of the Congolese authorities.” DRC had requested resumption of military cooperation with Sadc countries.
An EACRF officer says that in the event Sadc deploys, a memorandum or legal framework of cooperation will have to be established with the different states to form a multimission under one command.
The two blocs – under a UN Security Council-endorsed arrangement – are meant to complement each other, alongside the UN Stabilisation Mission Monusco.
The upcoming deployment by Angola was already popular even to the fiercest opponents of President Felix Tshisekedi, including Martin Fayulu and Moïse Katumbi. Fayulu had been critical of EACRF, asking leaders in Sadc to speed up deployment.
The longevity of EACRF is, however, dependent on whether East Africa heads of state will renew its Status of Force Agreement (Sofa), which expires this month.
It was meant to lapse six months after it was signed. The initial troops were, however, deployed in November 2022. The EAC heads of state are expected to meet to review the progress of the force mandate with a view of extending or terminating it.
A source at the EACRF told The EastAfrican that Kinshasa is now faced with the obligation to abide by regional and UN decisions on the peace process, despite its sovereignty.
“Any action to the contrary, negates the letter and spirit of EAC and sets in a bad precedent now and into the future arrangements of a similar magnitude,” the official added.
EACRF will need money though and this may be one of the factors for its existence.
On Tuesday, President William Ruto announced he is seeking Italy’s support to fund for peace efforts both in Somalia and DRC.
"We have agreed that Italy through the European Union will be supporting our efforts both in Somalia and DRC and we have agreed that we will have a conversation later this month on what EU can do to support our troops and the interventions were making in Somalia and DRC,” the Kenyan leader said during a joint press briefing with President Sergio Mattarella at State House in Nairobi.
This week, EACRF expanded its troops base after Burundian soldiers joined the mission.
Earlier, EACRF Commander Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah had led a joint security team on reconnaissance along the Sakwe-Kilolirwe main supply route in Masisi territory.
“EACRF is re-posturing its troops within Rutshuru and Masisi territories, making North Kivu a multinational sector as recommended by the EAC Chiefs of Defence Forces/Chiefs of Staff on February 9, 2022,” a statement from EACRF stated.
The Burundian soldiers who landed in Goma are waiting to be deployed to Kirolirwe and Kitchanga in order to "enhance free movement of persons, goods along the roads and protect locals.”
Kitchanga has been in the hands of the M23 since January. Congolese deputy commander of the East African force Maj-Gen Emmanuel Kaputa had told the troops coming from Bujumbura that their mission is to “participate in the unconditional withdrawal of the M23.”
The first batch of Burundian troops under EACRF had arrived on March 5, although the DRC already had a bilateral military cooperation with Burundi, which had seen a different contingent deployed last year.
The Congolese authorities want to see the troops of the East African regional force engage in the offensive, he said. Some politicians in the DRC agree.
“The East African Regional Force is slow to exercise the offensive mandate in support of the Congolese armed forces, for which it (EACRF) was deployed," said Christophe Mboso, speaker of the National Assembly, on Wednesday at the opening of the parliamentary session.
In eastern DRC, a ceasefire declared by M23 last week didn’t hold and fighting resumed hours later.
In Kinshasa, officials say that the DRC "is committed to dialogue, but does not intend to engage in dialogue if the rebels do not withdraw from conquered positions”.
Dady Saleh, a professor in Goma says Angolan troops will act as a deterrent in order to obtain a ceasefire. But their popularity among political elites could also give Tshisekedi a weapon to finally go at M23.
Kinshasa had opened a dialogue with a large number of armed groups, including the M23 in Nairobi in April 2022. But the opening of the talks in Nairobi coincided with renewed fighting in North Kivu between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels. This was the reason DRC officials refused to talk to the M23, which the Congolese authorities have since described as a “terrorist group”. This has not stopped calls for dialogue from Congo’s neighbours.
Kinshasa set conditions for the rebels to “lay down their arms, begin a withdrawal from conquered positions and observe an immediate ceasefire.”
The DRC though already has parallel bilateral arrangements for military response on rebel movements, with Uganda and Burundi, which could essentially require some further coordination with these missions.
Sources in Kinshasa indicated the troops already in DRC may remain for longer even if EACRF mandate is stopped. This is because the DRC is willing to enter a bilateral arrangement with Kenya to re-hat the troops and have them play a specified role as under similar deals with Burundi and Uganda. The same may, however, not happen with South Sudan which has more internal complexities and had seen Congolese politicians refuse its deployment over suspected bias.
By Mary Wambui and Patrick Ilunga