The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is facing a dilemma on how to secure the country’s troubled east by tapping on the support of neighbours still viewed with suspicions by local civilians.
This week, the East African Community, to which the DRC belongs, extended the mandate of the East African Community Regional Forces (EACRF) by three months to December.
But that extension, while it may give respite, also raises uncertainty on whether the planned elections in the DRC will run on schedule. EACRF mandate will expire two weeks to the planned elections.
According to the Sofa, the status of force agreement that gives EACRF mandate to operate in the DRC, the regional force’s mandate was to run for an initial six months with the possibility of a two-time extension, each spanning a period of six months and depending on the goodwill of the host nation.
In May this year, Kinshasa reluctantly agreed to extend the regional force’s mandate, which it accused of achieving minimal to bring peace to the eastern DRC. At the time, President Felix Tshisekedi announced that a second extension would be based on his assessment of the force’s performance.
However, in a meeting held in Nairobi on Tuesday, the heads of state noted that the regional force had achieved milestones towards restoration of security in eastern DRC, pursuant to previous directives of the summit on the implementation of the EAC-led Nairobi peace process.
Kenya’s President William Ruto said the commitment to peace and stabilisation efforts in the eastern region should be encouraged.
“The imperative to focus greater efforts in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is necessary, appropriate, urgent and fully within our legitimate mandate as the country’s immediate neighbourhood. The pursuit for peace and stability in DRC is for our prosperity,” he said on Tuesday.
The meeting was attended by Presidents Évariste Ndayishimiye (Burundi), William Ruto (Kenya), Salva Kiir (South Sudan), Samia Suluhu (Tanzania), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Jean Michel Sama Lukonde (DRC Prime Minister) representing President Felix Tshisekedi and Uganda’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs Rebecca Kadaga representing President Yoweri Museveni.
For President Tshisekedi, however, eastern Congo still presents a headache.
Last week, a crowd of protesters targeted foreign missions including UN Peacekeepers and EACRF. In response, security forces killed dozens. The official death toll was given as 43 but human rights activists indicated a higher number of civilians shot and killed in the melee.
Eastern DRC was one campaign promise Tshisekedi made in 2019 when he took power. He vowed to wipe out armed rebellion and help people rebuild lives. Today, however, more than 120 armed groups still roam. Some are foreign, but most are indigenous Congolese militias fighting for local grievances. President Tshisekedi blamed EACRF for lethargy and, accusation the public supported.
Recently, he has toned down the criticism. But the opponents have ganged up with the public against him.
Martin Fayulu, who still claims he was rigged out in 2019, has complained about the upsurge in violence. And following the massacre in Goma, North Kivu, last week, he wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He complained of “the obstacles erected by the ruling power against our demonstrations. The objective remains respect for the law through the regular resumption of public demonstrations and thus avoid the hideous carnage we have just witnessed in Goma.”
President Félix Tshisekedi himself spoke of “anger, shock and dismay at the death on August 30 of around 50 people brutally killed by our forces of law and order.”
“This unfortunate event can only be the subject of strong disapproval and condemnation, as it is incompatible with life in a democracy, on the one hand, and on the other, with the mission constitutionally devolved to the FARDC", the Congolese president said on Monday.
In response to the chaos, the government has tried to be transparent. It recalled North Kivu military governor Lt-Gen Constant Ndima to Kinshasa for consultation and suspended two senior officers of the Congolese national police.
Then President Tshisekedi has since tasked Ministers of Defence, Interior and Security, Human Rights and the Minister of Justice, to find a solution to the affair that has enraged the public.
The courts later opened an investigation and six soldiers from the Republican Guard, a unit that protects the Head of State, presented in court. On Tuesday September 5, the military courts opened a trial and held that the soldiers had committed “crimes against humanity, malicious destruction and incitement of military personnel to commit acts contrary to duty and discipline.” The soldiers face life imprisonment, if found guilty.
The government also announced that it will cover all funeral expenses for the victims, including the policeman who was stoned to death by the demonstrators, and released all the members of the citizens' movements arrested during the demonstration.
Despite all these measures, anger continues unabated in Goma and other towns in the DRC including protests that the forces hid some bodies.
Bienvenue Matumo, an activist with the citizens' movement Lucha (Lutte pour le changement, struggle for change), called for the military governor to be brought to justice.
“Military governor Constant Ndima must be arrested and tried in flagrante delicto in Goma. Recalling him to Kinshasa for consultations is a logical tactic to shield him from his primary responsibilities in this massacre,” declared Mr Matumo.
There is a deeper worry, however. Experts have often warned that such violent protests also mask and divert attention of security forces from the problem of armed groups in the area. Protests also make the work of foreign missions harder. In March this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council observed that the persistence of the violence risks jeopardising the electoral process due to a massive displacement of people from combat zones and insecurity and inaccessibility of their areas.
EACRF will be staying even as Monusco, the UN Peacekeeping mission prepares to start leaving from December. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had in August said the departure will be speeded up due to violence and hostility against the blue helmets.
Yet the UN chief also admitted the security situation could worsen on that departure.
On Tuesday, EAC leaders said EACRF had helped eastern Congo region achieve a return of normalcy by facilitating months-long ceasefire between the local army FARDC and the dominant rebel group M23 during its short stay in DRC.
In May the Heads of state further directed EACRF to sustain the orderly withdrawal of the M23 and other armed groups from the areas they were still occupying into cantonment areas as they took charge of the safety of the vacated areas.
Kenya, Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda contribute troops to the EACRF. And as a year rolls on, most of the contributors will begin rotating their troops.
Kenya deployed an initial contingent of about 1,000 soldiers in November last year with a mandate to enforce peace by conducting joint operations with the DRC forces FARDC to defeat armed groups, support in maintenance of law and order and facilitate civilian access to humanitarian aid. This group are expected back in Nairobi towards the end of October.