We finally built ‘Fortress East Africa,’ but it’s a fluke that has taken some 16 years

Monday December 18 2023

A cartoon illustration of a fortress with guards on standby. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

A series of unrelated military and political events in Eastern Africa over the past 16 years are set to boil in one big pot, with far-reaching security consequences for the region in 2024.

First up was Uganda’s entry in the Somalia melee as the vanguard contingent of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (Amisom) in March 2007. It was joined by Burundi in December. Others, including Kenya — which jumped into the fray in 2011, when it intervened in Southern Somalia to stop Al Shabaab on its territory — followed.

Ahead of its Somalia role, Burundi — and Rwanda — had, in July 2007, formally become members of the East African Community, joining historical bloc members Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

In July 2011, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) was established to handhold the new government, protect civilians, support humanitarian assistance, and promote the implementation of the 2005 peace agreement, which eventually led to the country’s independence on July 9, 2011. Two EAC members were part of the Unmiss.

Read: OBBO: Kiir on cloud nine as Mohamud polishes dancing shoes

South Sudan fell off the wagon in December 2013, when it returned to bitter conflict. Unmiss was beefed up, but Kenya walked out in a dispute, feeling disrespected. Rwanda upped its muscle in the mission, bringing its force to three battalions and one aviation unit.


In April 2016, a bloodied South Sudan was admitted as the sixth member of the EAC.

In 2021, with the Mozambique government put on the run by Islamist rebels in its resource-rich and fertile Cabo Delgado province, President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, who had run to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for help, made a desperate flight to Rwanda for assistance as SADC dithered. Within days, Kigali dispatched troops to Cabo Delgado and foiled the rebel advances there.

They were joined by SADC, including Tanzania, which took positions mostly along its southern border with Mozambique.

Both Tanzania and Rwanda remain in Mozambique, with the latter having more than 2,000 troops in Cabo Delgado and helping the Mozambique military hold down large swathes of territory in the province.

In November 2021, Uganda sent troops to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in what it called “Operation Shujaa,” to fight anti-Kampala rebels based there, who had staged several terrorist attacks in the country.

In DRC, a discredited peace deal that had struggled through 10 years finally fizzled, and fighting resumed between the government in Kinshasa and the M23 rebels.

Read: OBBO: Tshisekedi dances next to fire in skirt made of dry grass

Amidst the war, the DRC in April 2022 joined the EAC as its seventh member. In November, as the M23 rebels scored a string of victories and seized territory, an East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) was dispatched to eastern DRC to oversee a shaky ceasefire.

There, it joined the UN Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco), its largest, costliest, and most ineffective peacekeeping mission.

Monusco became untenable and, with local hostilities and attacks mounting against it, and criticism from Kinshasa, it entered a phased withdrawal that ends in December 2024.

EACRF, comprising Kenya, South Sudan, Burundi and Uganda forces, also very quickly ran into the headwinds of DRC politics. It is also now withdrawing and should close shop by the end of January 2024, in a record short-lived mission.

In Somalia, Amisom, baptised the African Union Transitional Mission in Somalia (Atmis) is set to withdraw by December 2024. Both the government in Somalia, which has begun to find its footing, and some of the Atmis-contributing countries, are pressing for an extension of the mission.

Against the backdrop of the pressure for the extension of Atmis’ life, on November 24, 2023, in a move with far-reaching consequences, Somalia was admitted as the eighth member of the EAC.

This flurry of events has left an accidental security wall around the EAC. In Somalia, even if Atmis fully draws down by December 2024, elements of Atmis could likely remain in the country as part of a new EAC mandate. Ugandan troops will likely remain in Mogadishu and, in the face of recent increased Al Shabaab attacks in northeastern Kenya and its coastal region, Nairobi will likely keep a foot in southern Somalia.

Read: OBBO: Border reopening Somalia-EAC dreams, fulfils Shabaab wish

Uganda is withdrawing from Eastern DRC as part of EACRF, but its operation 'Shujaa' will likely remain for a while in Eastern DRC — even if Kinshasa tells it to pack its guns and leave.

In Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania are still sitting pretty in Cabo Delgado. Rwanda also remains one of the leading contingents in Unmiss, as South Sudan paddles its way through to making its national unity government hold.

The result of all this is that, collectively, the EAC armies have circled the wagons and built a "laager," beginning from the Indian Ocean shoulder in Somalia, running along Kenya’s northern border, then deep into the heart of South Sudan, westward to DRC, into southwest Tanzania, through the middle of Mozambique, and back to the Indian Ocean at its Port of Pemba.

DRC is going into volatile elections on December 20, at a time when M23 is on another run of military advances. Facing his first election test, President Felix Tshisekedi has ramped up attacks on Rwanda, which he accuses of backing M23, over Kigali’s denials. He is also playing the ethnic card against Congolese Tutsi, who have faced attacks and lynching in recent months.

If it goes belly-up and there is a new explosion of ethnic violence, the EACRF might extend its stay beyond January 2024, keeping the walls of the East Africa fortress standing longer.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3