Maj-Gen Jeff Mungai Nyagah was bullish when he was appointed commander of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF). Six months later, he has left the mission a scared man.
An alleged letter he wrote to the East African Community (EAC) Secretary-General Peter Mathuki indicated he had been intimidated, threatened and called names in local Congolese media. However, both the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and EAC have dismissed the letter as fake.
“There has also been a well-orchestrated and financed negative media campaigns targeted" at his personality and direct written false accusations of EACRF's complacency on the handling of the M 23 group,” he said in the letter seen by The EastAfrican on Thursday.
On Friday, Kenya’s President William Ruto named Nyagah as the new General Officer for Western Command in a series of military appointments. His position in EACRF was taken up by Maj-Gen Alphaxard Kiugu.
Nyagah had indicated he was quitting after a threat to his security. He said mercenaries placed monitoring devices, flew drones and conducted surveillance of his residence in early January, forcing him to relocate.
Officially, he said he was returning to Nairobi for consultations. But in private, Kenyan officials said he had refused to retake his position, citing humiliation.
It was unclear who the “foreign military contractors (mercenaries)” Nyagah referred to were. But when a team of journalists toured EACRF operational areas last week, they were visible patrolling the area in their pick-up trucks. Russian mercenaries, Wagner Group, had been fingered before by Washington, as contributing to DRC’s instability. Nyagah did not directly accuse them.
His exit marks another controversy on the EACRF. Since the regional force was deployed in November last year, the Congolese government has often demanded that it targets the M23, which Kinshasa labels a “terrorist group.” Several protest marches were organised in January in Goma and other cities against the "inaction" of the regional force.
Kinshasa did not like the idea that the EACRF was a buffer force, playing military diplomacy while political leaders influence dialogue.
In February in Bujumbura, President Félix Tshisekedi had reproached Nyagah in front of President William Ruto, asking the EACRF chief "not to help the M23".
"You are not there to help the M23," Tshisekedi said.
On several occasions, Maj-Gen Nyagah said the mission of the regional force was not only against the M23, but against all armed groups that infest eastern DR Congo, contradicting the Congolese authorities who want to focus on the M23.
Threat to his security
Maj-Gen Nyagah said the threat to his security also added to the "current push by the government of DRC to have the Force Commander rotated every three months, which was not envisioned in the current mandate.”
“Furthermore, the recent suspension of the EACRF Facebook account is an indication of possible sabotage of the regional force's efforts. This situation is also compounded by the fact that the DRC government has not paid for administrative costs, including the offices of the force headquarters, accommodation for staff officers, electricity as well as salaries for civilian staff in accordance with Article 9 (c) and (d) of the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA).
In fact, the SOFA has not been updated to reflect stay of the EACRF beyond the six months envisioned. EACRF’s mandate technically expired on March 30 following lapse of the initial six months. Its renewal is pegged on the assessment of the force’s achievements. Nonetheless, the force has continued its operations of buffering civilians against violence from rebel movements, as part of a status quo.
Nyagah’s exit comes as the actual decision on extending the mandate of the EACRF delays because member countries cannot agree on the venue for meetings, signalling some unattended trust deficit for the mission.
While Kinshasa insists that talks must be held in its soil, Rwanda has raised fears following a recent spat with the DR Congo, and the expulsion of its military officials stationed at the EACRF headquarters in Goma.
The EAC later directed that the expelled officials be allowed back to their stations. They haven’t.
Yet a meeting by the Defence Experts Working Group (DEWG) and regional defence ministers failed to take place last week in Goma after Rwanda expressed security concerns.
Burundi offer declined
An offer by Burundi to host the meeting as the chair of East Africa Community Heads of State Summit was also declined, this time by the DRC which insists that the meeting must be held in Goma.
To save the situation, EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki arrived in Kinshasa on Thursday accompanied by his military adviser Maj-Gen Ally Mzee Katimbe for consultations with President Felix Tsishekedi.
With him was a proposal to expand the regional force’s mandate by three months starting April to allow for the formalisation of the rest of the processes including the evaluation of the current mandate.
Renewed pressure by the Congolese government to have the EACRF engage M23 in combat has partly been blamed for the ongoing stalemate that has delayed the renewal of the force’s mandate. Nyagah had insisted that all troops will not engage in combat with armed groups unless given direct authority by the EAC Heads of State.
“We have seen full withdrawal of M23 from the areas of Sake, Kilolirwe and Kitchanga which has been confirmed by the EAC, Ad Hoc and expanded joint verification mechanism all of which work independent of the regional force. They have submitted that report and circulated it to the government of DRC, and the facilitators of the Nairobi and Luanda processes," Maj-Gen Nyagah had told journalists last week.
He added that partial withdrawal of M23 has been recorded in areas such as Kibumba, Kiwanja, Rutshuru, Chengerero and Bunagana.
EACRF troops occupy the areas the group has left to provide locals with security and ensure flow of humanitarian support and people back to their homes.
Ceasefire has been recorded between M23 and FARDC in the last one month kicking off an uneasy calm across villages in North Kivu Province where the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) has deployed.
Thousands of people who had fled their homes following attacks by M23 have begun their return to their homes following the group's withdrawal and the cessation of hostilities but local the government insists that the M23 rebels are still in the villages disguised as the local population, according to the Force’s status update.
Goma Governor Lt Gen Constant Ndima who also doubles as the commander of operations in North Kivu insisted that there is more to be done.
“We appreciate the arrival of all EACRF forces but we have realized the memorandum we had was not really respected. The M23 that are supported by Rwanda have started gaining back their positions and this is what we say doesn’t align with the memorandum and the agenda of the communique from Luanda,” he said during a press briefing at his offices in Goma last week.
His sentiments however, contradicted the statements by the commanders leading the various regional troops in Eastern DRC, all of whom confirmed the partial withdrawal of M23 from the areas they are positioned.
The commanders of the regional troops insisted they will not engage armed groups in war unless called upon to do so by the EAC heads of states.
“We are giving precedence to the political process until otherwise advised by the EAC heads of states to engage in military action,” Kenyan Contingent Commander Col Daniel Rotich told journalists from Bunagana, a base jointly manned by Kenya Defence Forces and the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces.
Major Bayingana Sadiki the Burundi Commanding Officer in charge of Mushaki base said since their arrival, M23 had left the area with the only threat remaining being the Mai Mai, Nyatura and FDLR armed groups.
“We have been engaged in securing the local population and ensuring that they are not attacked by the other armed groups that operate in this area. We also assist them with medical services and in the recovery of livestock stolen by bandits,” he said.
In Bunagana, where the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces have set up their main camp Major James Mukwana said M23 withdrew from the area without resistance and they left to their cantonment area in Sabinyo mountains.
Moving on foot
He explained that in some areas, the M23 requested to be allowed two to three days to leave as they were moving on foot to their designated areas to allow the peace process to take place.
“Generally, the situation here is calm. We arrived in this area on March 30 and started by taking positions in Bunagana where the M23 had occupied. The civilian population welcomed us and we have never had any problem/violation of human rights. From here we moved to Chegerero where the company of the 9th battalion occupied then afterwards, we rolled out to Kiwanja in Rutshuru,” he said.
UPDF has since deployed in all its designated locations apart from Mabenga and Ruthshuru where they had not occupied by last week.
“This place has been in conflict for long and there are some things that have not been going on well for example hospitals are not working, children are not going to school and we are trying to put mechanisms that ensures that resumes to protect the future generation from illiteracy,” added Maj Mukwana.
This week the regional force was to open the Bunagana -Goma Road that connects DRC to Uganda and which has been manned by Ugandan forces following increased attacks by other armed groups including FDLR and the Mai-Mai.
To allow movement of persons and goods, the regional force will provide armed escort three times a day to vehicles plying that route as the political process resumes.
“We are not here to fight any force, ours is to see that the peace process takes place and we allow the systems of administration to start operating in a normal way. Ours is to remove the abnormal from the normal,” he added.
Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo and Patrick Ilunga