The optimism with which the East Africa Community (EAC) intervention in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was received has hit a diminuendo.
Almost 10 months since the first contingent of EACRF arrived in Eastern DRC, much is yet to be achieved as the EAC’s dual-track process of military force and the concurrent peace process find themselves literally on the horns of a dilemma.
In June 2022, the seven heads of state of the EAC agreed to establish a joint force, the East Africa Community Regional Force (EACRF), to address the increased violence by armed groups in Eastern DRC. Simultaneously, the leaders also launched an EAC peace process under the lead facilitator, the former President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Yet, the conundrum is whether to prioritise the use of force or continue emphasising the peace process and reserve a military offensive as a last resort. While the regional force has prioritised diplomacy as per the direction of EAC heads of state, the DRC government and communities are agitating for use of force; whereas the DRC government and locals want a military offensive against M23, contrariwise, the EACRF strategy is not to focus on M23 only, but all the other more than 120 armed groups. Likewise, while the EAC is encouraging diplomatic talks among groups in the conflict, the DRC government has declared that the M23 are terrorists and it will not negotiate with them.
Moreover, the EACRF dilemma is deepened by the fact that some EAC member states such as Rwanda and Uganda have been accused by DRC of backing the rebels. The inclusion of these states and others like South Sudan and Burundi, which are held in suspicion due to counter-accusations of supporting different armed groups against each other, creates a blanket condemnation for the whole EACRF intervention.
This has precipitated Congolese demonstrations against EACRF and the United Nations mission in DRC (Monusco) for perceived inaction against armed groups and failure to clearly acknowledge and condemn alleged Rwanda backing for the M23 group.
A Congolese protestor captured this scepticism about the EAC intervention by stating that if Rwanda, which is attacking people through the M23, and Uganda contribute to the regional force, then the intervention will not have the support of the Congolese. Yet, the EAC is still pressing for an all-inclusive inter-state dialogue rather than confrontations.
This is the first time the EAC is robustly engaging in peace operations in a member state. Under the EACRF, member states Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda were to contribute troops, who, jointly with Congolese forces, would fight armed groups in Eastern DRC.
Certainly, the cryptic puzzle is how to unlock other troop-contributing countries that are yet to deploy eight months since they committed to the joint force. To date, it is only Kenya that has deployed its defence forces. Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda, which had pledged to contribute troops to EACRF are hamstrung by reluctance and suspicion on the part of the DRC government.
Generally, the EACRF finds itself in a contradictory situation where most of the designated troop-contributing countries do not enjoy warm relations with each other and have in one way or another deployed troops in the DRC in a bilateral arrangement.
In 2021, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi allowed Uganda to deploy its troops in DRC to fight Uganda’s rebel group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Similarly, DRC allowed Burundi troops to enter the DRC to fight the Red-Tabara rebel group that is anti-Burundi government. Even Kenya and Tanzania have their troops in DRC under the Monusco peacekeeping force.
Rwanda has its troops along its borders with DRC fighting the FDLR, amid accusations that it was supporting the M23 rebels in DRC.
Similarly, the EAC peace process is in a quandary due to the multiplicity of peace tracks, which raises the competing and conflicting interests of who gets the credit for restoring peace in DRC.
Mr Kenyatta is the chief facilitator of the EAC-led Nairobi Process on the Restoration of Peace and Stability in Eastern DRC. While the Nairobi process focusses on intra-state talks between the Congolese government and several rebel groups; the Luanda process deals with inter-state dialogue, where the Angolan President João Lourenço has led mediation between DRC and Rwanda.
Simultaneously, another peace track is led by Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye, as the EAC chairperson. The Burundi president is further tasked with leading the Regional Oversight Mechanism, which is a wider peace platform covering the Great Lakes region that is meant to ensure concerned parties adhere to the DRC peace processes. Definitely, the three peace tracks, including other extra-Africa efforts from Qatar, the West and UN, overlap each other’s roles, pointing to the challenge of coordination and duplication of roles and resolutions.
In November 2022, Kenya deployed more than 900 troops to Eastern DRC under the EACRF as a response to the rising armed conflict in the region. The deployment was received with optimism among civilians, the DRC officials and some warring parties. Indeed, one month after the intervention, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) under EACRF made substantial gains that saw M23 rebels peacefully surrender some of their stronghold areas, namely Kibumba and Bunagama.
Furthermore, the leaders of the M23 rebel group met with Mr Kenyatta in Mombasa, where they agreed to withdraw fighters from DRC’s North Kivu and adhere to the ceasefire agreement.
Strategically, EACRF intervention in DRC is a dual approach that includes military diplomacy and political processes. Military diplomacy has borne some results by way of the M23 rebels relinquishing some strategic areas non-violently.
Politically, the KDF, under EACRF has preferred the political process that includes the Luanda and Nairobi peacemaking processes.
As outlined by Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah, the force commander of EACRF, the favoured approach is sequenced in the following manner: first priority is the political process, including the Nairobi and Luanda processes; second is disarmament and demobilisation and if these first two approaches fail, then the third option will be military action (offensive).
However, the government of DRC is of a contrary opinion, where it has been urging the EACRF to prioritise military force. On February 4, 2023, in Bujumbura, DRC’s President Tshisekedi urged the EACRF commander, Maj Gen Nyagah, to take offensive action. President Tshisekedi’s statement reinforced an earlier position by his senior government officials; the Congolese Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs, who both affirmed that the DRC government expected the EACRF to fight armed rebels and “not hold dialogue”.
Coincidentally, in early 2023, civilians, mainly civil society activists in Eastern DRC started holding demonstrations, demanding, just like DRC government officials, that the EACRF take military action (and not diplomacy) against rebel groups. Consequently, with the resurgence of clashes between the Congolese army and the M23 rebels, the EACRF now faces repeated street protests as Congolese civilians demand that the EACRF and Monusco leave the country for what is described as ‘passiveness’ in battling M23 rebels and clash of interests among some DRC neighbours within the EAC.
Currently, the EAC-led Nairobi Process is relatively less vibrant than it was at its inception, thanks to the dilemmas facing Mr Kenyatta at the regional level, in DRC and in his home country.
Regionally, despite overlaps in peace tracks, there are several resolutions that have not been sufficiently followed through, implemented or adhered to by concerned parties. While decrying non-adherence to decisions of previous Nairobi meetings, Mr Kenyatta has asked the EAC member states to strengthen his role as a facilitator by implementing decisions of the Nairobi process.
Also, regional governments such as Rwanda view Mr Kenyatta’s long friendship with President Tshisekedi with suspicion. The two have been friends from way before Tshisekedi became president. Yet in DRC, Mr Tshisekedi’s government has been observing Mr Kenyatta’s open-minded approach in meetings with M23 with disapproval. At home, Mr Kenyatta faces domestic political pressures, with some politicians demanding his exit from the DRC role for what they claim is his refusal to retire from active national politics.
Finally, the EACRF intervention should be inclusive and complementary to the political process. The continued isolation of the M23 from the peace talks creates the perception that the EAC is taking sides. The impending presidential elections in DRC scheduled for December 2023 have added to the complexity of the EAC dilemma, where nationalism is being excited to gain political support across the country.
The EAC troop-contributing member states will need to harmonise their various interests if they intend to achieve their goals. Otherwise, they will be fighting their separate wars for their interests under the EACRF, thus feeding into the growing perception that the entry of EAC into DRC might degenerate into a comedy of errors.
Dr Nasong’o Muliro is a research fellow at the Global Centre for Policy and Strategy (Gloceps); a leading think-tank in policy influence and strategy formulation