Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi on Tuesday gave the biggest warning yet that the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) will have to leave the country by June if they are not effective on the ground.
On a visit to Gaborone in Botswana, where he has pushed for a plan B from the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) to send troops, the Congolese head of state accused the EACRF of ‘cohabiting’ with rebels after the regional troops declined to enter combat.
“The head of state said that under the terms of the EACRF's mandate, by next June, if the results of its mission are not satisfactory, this contingent, which came to the rescue of the DRC, will have to leave Congolese territory for good,” the Congolese presidency said of his meeting with Botswana counterpart Mokgweetsi Masisi.
“The mandate of EACRF is ending in June, if by that time we assess that the mandate was not fulfilled, we will send those contingents home with honour and thank them for having tried to bring their share of contribution to peace in DRC.”
The EACRF, first deployed in November, includes troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. Their Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), a pact between Kinshasa and the East African Community secretariat, initially gave them a mandate of six months which expired in March. But just what their mandate is has been a bone of contention.
Tshisekedi says the troops should attack rebels, singling out the M23 group which it accuses Kigali of supporting (Rwanda rejects the accusations).
The EACRF says their mandate is peacekeeping and protection of civilians while also supporting the political track on dialogue.
In Botswana, Tshisekedi revealed that the EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki had requested six months more months for the troops. But DR Congo gave them three months, up to the end of June. The SOFA, nonetheless, has not been signed to formally extend the mandate yet.
The Congolese president wants SADC troops to fight the M23.
On Monday, a SADC summit in Windhoek, Namibia approved the deployment of its member troops to the DRC, although there was no immediate clarification on which countries would send forces. Tshisekedi's office has already announced that the SADC troops will have “an offensive mandate”.
SADC had once deployed troops to eastern DRC but still failed to end the menace of armed groups. And a UN experts panel accused the southern Africa mission at the time of contributing to looting.
President Tshisekedi, meanwhile, has had a harsh assessment of the East African regional troops.
“We have accepted the EARCF to accompany FARDC to impose peace by trying to stop M23, which Rwanda supports. But, 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 that they are illegally occupying. That's a genuine problem, and it also compels us to question the purpose of the EAC mission.”
In the DRC, many are calling on the Congolese president to rely on the "natural allies" of the SADC. In 1998, Zimbabwean, Namibian and Angolan troops intervened to stop the advance of the RCD rebels in Kivu and Kinshasa.
Last week, EACRF’s commander Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah left his station in unclear circumstances. And his replacement has not reported to duty yet.
“We also have some officers of EACRF who, when they reached DRC, said that they were not coming to fight M23, which was not part of the plan. That was General Jeff's problem,” said Tshisekedi.
“General Jeff left spectacularly. He is talking about threats but has never told us about those threats.”
A leaked letter said to be his resignation was disowned by the EAC and the Kenya Defence Forces who termed it fake. But Tshisekedi responded to it nonetheless.
“As if it (EACRF) only belonged to Kenya. There must be a problem. So, we need to talk about it to clarify the situation. Because you can see that, up to now, we subscribe ourselves to the process of peace because we want to see peace quickly," Tshisekedi said.