EAC extends regional force mandate to September

Leaders at the 21st Extraordinary Summit of the East African Community Heads of State on May 31, 2023.

Photo credit: PCS

The 21st Extraordinary Summit of the East African Community Heads of State has extended the mandate of its regional force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by six months from March 8 to September  8 this year.

A communiqué read by EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki said the extension of the mandate of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) is aimed at consolidating the gains made by the force, which has contributed to the return of normalcy in the region, facilitated a two-month ceasefire between the local army FARDC and the dominant rebel group M23 and ensured the group's movement to its cantonment areas.

The meeting, which was attended by the Chairman of the ECA, General Évariste Ndayishimiye (Burundi), President William Ruto (Kenya), Dr Philip Mpango, Vice President of Tanzania, Rwanda's Prime Minister Edouard Ngirente, Uganda's First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs Rebecca Kadaga, South Sudan's Minister of Presidential Affairs Barnaba Marial Benjamin and the Deputy Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, H. E. Léonard She Okitundu also took note of the appointment of the new Force Commander, Major General Alphaxard Muthuri Kiugu.

The Heads of State instructed the regional force to support the orderly withdrawal of the M23 and other armed groups from the areas they are required to vacate.

Secure and maintain areas vacated by the M23 and support the return of internally displaced persons to areas vacated by armed groups.

The regional force was also directed to work with the Chiefs of Defence Forces, MONUSCO and all other stakeholders to visit and verify the suitability of Rumagambo, a base currently occupied by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and the South Sudan People's Defence Forces (SSPDF), as a cantonment area for M23 and other armed groups within three weeks.

It also directed that all communications with the M23 be handled by the facilitator of the peace process, former President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta.

The Summit reaffirmed that the security situation in eastern DRC can only be sustainably resolved through a political process and dialogue between the parties, and urged the DRC to work with the facilitator to identify appropriate dates for the resumption of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, also known as the Nairobi Peace Process.

The Heads of State also directed the establishment of a Civilian Head Mission to coordinate the political affairs of the regional force.

President Ruto said in a statement that the civilian officer will help insulate the East African Regional Force from political and public affairs.

"This will enhance peace and security in the region," he added.

The heads of state also directed the East African Secretariat to form a technical committee by 15 June to evaluate the implementation of the force's mandate and report to the Central Council on Defence Cooperation within 90 days of the extension of the force's agreement.

They also reiterated their call for de-escalation between the warring parties and condemned ceasefire violations, calling on the EACF to prevent their recurrence.

A follow-up meeting will be hosted by President William Ruto in Nairobi at the request of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

On the ground, the current calm in North Kivu could well give way to war. At least that is what the Congolese army says, claiming that the M23 is positioning itself less than 20 kilometres from the city of Goma with the aim of starting a war in North Kivu's largest city. The spokesman for the Congolese army, Major General Sylvain Ekenge, said that the FARDC (Congolese army) had observed "movements of troops from the M23 and the Rwandan Defence Forces and their recruits, who are moving towards Kibumba (Nyiragongo territory, less than 20 kilometres from Goma), where they have set up their headquarters". "The aim of this redeployment is to attack the city of Goma and thus exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and insecurity," says Major General Ekenge, who claims that this M23 movement is taking place "in the sector under the control of the East African regional force".

The M23 rejected the Congolese army's claims. Major Willy Ngoma, the M23's spokesman for military affairs, described General Sylvain Ekenge's statement as "unjustified and distorted, with the sole aim of misleading public opinion". Willy Ngoma claims that "the M23 never prepares for war, but for dialogue". For his part, Willy Ngoma accuses the Congolese army and its Rwandan allies, the FDLR, of preparing for war in order to create regional chaos.

For almost three months, a fragile ceasefire has been in place in North Kivu, where the M23 rebels and the Congolese army have agreed not to fight each other, but both the FARDC and the rebels are trading accusations, with each side suspecting the other of violating the ceasefire.

Following mutual accusations of ceasefire violations, the Burundian and Kenyan contingents of the East African regional force said they had "facilitated the conduct of a verification exercise in Masisi and Nyiragongo territories by the Joint Bureau, comprising the Ad Hoc Verification Mechanism, EJVM, EAC-MVM and EACRF. The Joint Bureau visited locations in Nyiragongo and Masisi territories to assess ceasefire violations, atrocities committed by armed groups against innocent civilians and the progress of the peace process.

Independent monitoring, verification and reporting by the Joint Office promotes confidence and positive, credible reporting for robust mitigation measures.

Despite its verification mission, the regional force has said nothing about the Congolese army's allegations that the M23 has been deployed in Goma for an imminent war. Nor has the regional force commented on the M23's allegations that the Congolese army is preparing to resume war.