Slightly over two weeks after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s proposal to deploy the East African Standby Force (EASF) to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, there are no boots on the ground.
The proposal was endorsed by regional leaders at the third EAC Heads of State Conclave on peace and security in eastern DRC in Nairobi on June 20.
But if the reaction inside DR Congo is anything to go by, it could take even longer or not happen at all.
The EASF is expected to face off with several armed militias and M23 rebels who have intensified attacks on civilians in the last few months, killing tens and displacing thousands.
But however noble President Kenyatta’s deployment proposal, not everyone in the DRC agrees with the regional leaders’ decision of a military solution to stabilise the restive eastern DRC provinces.
The proposal has been received with mistrust and even rejection by a large section of politicians, civil society and even the public, who are particularly wary of the possibility of having Rwandan troops in the contingent. Kinshasa had already objected to having Rwanda contribute troops during the third Conclave in Nairobi.
In a swift reaction, on June 20, the 10-year-old North Kivu-based citizen's movement and civil society group Lucha (Struggle for Change) wrote to President Félix Tshisekedi, opposing the deployment saying it could pose an operational problem in an area with more than 100 local and foreign armed groups, the Congolese army, UN peacekeepers and the Ugandan army.
Lucha says in the letter that it "vigorously rejects the project of deploying a new regional force."
"All the armies from the East African Community states are already present in the east of our country in one form or another. The Rwandan army is associated with the M23 in North Kivu and supports the Red-Tabara [Burundian rebellion based in Congo]. The Ugandan army, which you invited, has been operating openly in North Kivu and Ituri since November 2021. The Burundian army operates regularly in South Kivu, and the South Sudanese army in the province of Haut-Uele [northeast of DRC]. The Tanzanian and Kenyan armies are already present in North Kivu and Ituri as part of the UN intervention brigade," the letter reads.
"At least three out of seven member states of the East African Community have been involved for more than two decades in the aggression and destabilisation of our country through direct interventions of their armies or by proxy, through armed groups. Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi accuse each other of destabilisation. They compete for influence, even control of part of our country for security as well as economic and geopolitical reasons, so much so that more than once they have had to confront each other on our territory, directly or through armed groups," Lucha writes.
Many in the DRC also fear that Uganda, Burundi and perhaps Rwanda, three countries whose rebel groups are hiding in Congo, could find themselves facing divergent situations that could complicate an already complex situation in eastern DR Congo.
For these reasons, Lucha does not mince its words and calls on the Congolese head of state "to abandon this project without delay."
"It is not enough to exclude the Rwandan army from this regional force, the participation of the Ugandan, Burundian and South Sudanese armies is undesirable as well," Lucha insists.
President Tshisekedi has to make tough decisions. His main political opponent Martin Fayulu accuses him of "subcontracting the security of the country to Rwanda and Uganda and unnecessarily creating a competition of East African countries over the Congo." He has called on the president to reveal "his secret deal."
Members of parliament too have been at the forefront of opposing the deployment. MP Delly Sessanga said: "The Nairobi deal raises more questions than it answers. What is the format of this regional force, how much of a compromise and commitment has our government made to this force?" He added: "Peace cannot be bought at the risk of becoming a client state. Peace must be built and earned."
Lucain Kasongo, a senior executive of former president Joseph Kabila's party -- the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) – said he doesn’t see the point of the regional force because the Congolese army can handle the rebels.
“I think the best way to do things is to keep an eye on our army,” said Kasongo.
Denis Mukwege, Nobel Peace Prize winner, warned: "the regional force composed of countries at the root of destabilisation, atrocities and the plundering of our resources, will bring neither stability nor peace and risks aggravating the situation."
The Conclave communique said the regional force will be deployed once all logistics have been worked out by the relevant EAC organs.
The Conclave was presented with a detailed brief on the military track by the Chief of Defence Forces of Kenya, Gen Robert Kibochi, in his capacity as the chairman of the Committee of East African Community Chiefs of Defence Forces.
He gave a Concept of Operations, Status of Forces Agreement, Rules of Engagement and other legal and technical regulations to facilitate the operationalisation of the regional force and its various operational arms. The regional force is also expected to co-operate in the implementation of the disarmament and demobilisation process.
The Heads of State adopted Gen Kibochi’s presentation for immediate implementation.
Both the Sectoral Council on Co-operation in Defence Affairs and the EAC Council of Ministers are expected to come up with a budget and composition of the force to be deployed but whose final decision will be determined by the EAC Heads of State summit scheduled for next month according to Dr Kevit Desai, Kenya’s Principal Secretary in the Ministry of EAC and Regional Affairs.
There are no timelines given and no one can say exactly how long these discussions and agreements will take to be concluded, but the reality on the ground is that violence has not stopped. More civilians -- even those previously outside rebel-hit areas-- are now facing growing sectarian violence arising from information being spread of foreigners interfering in DR Congo.
The Medicins Sans Frontiers, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu have expressed concern about the escalation of hate speech and incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, specifically against Kinyarwanda speakers.
Hate speech has been spread online by political party figures, community leaders, civil society actors and members of the Congolese diaspora.
“Hate speech fuels the conflict by exacerbating mistrust between communities. It focuses on aspects that have previously mattered less, incites a discourse of ‘us vs them’, and corrodes social cohesion between communities that have previously lived together,” they said.
However, DR Congo’s presidential advisor to President Felix Tshisekedi on EAC matters, Prof Serge Tshibangu Nzenza, is optimistic. “The regional force has not been deployed yet as we speak. But it will be deployed in a few days,” he said in an interview with The East African on Thursday.
The Third Conclave was attended by presidents Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Evariste Ndayishimiye (Burundi), Salva Kiir Mayardit (South Sudan) and Felix Tshisekedi (DR Congo). Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hasan was represented by Dr John Steven Simbachawene, the High Commissioner to Kenya.
Fighting between the Congolese army and M23 has resulted in 23 civilian deaths since May 2022, including three children according to the UN.
There have been accusations and denials between DR Congo, Kigali and Kampala over the violence. Last week, the speaker of DR Congo’s National Assembly accused Uganda of siding with M23 and Rwanda during the battle for Bunagana town in North Kivu on June 13.
Conversely, Rwanda has accused the DR Congo of aggression and colluding with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebellion militia.
“From where we sit, the only change we observed since the Nairobi meeting is that M23 has opened the border at Bunagana,” said Theo Wanteu, MSFs head of mission in Uganda in an interview on Thursday.