What you need to know:
- DRC's peace efforts remains a complex matter with multiple internal and external interests threatening any positive progress.
- The ceasefire between the rebels and government forces, brokered by Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta, was violated in October.
The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) has begun scaling down its troops from the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of the December 8, 2023 expiry and non-renewal of its mandate.
First to exit was a team of about 300 Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers that left Goma Sunday morning for Nairobi and will be followed by more in the coming week after one year of deployment.
The phased-out withdrawal is scheduled to begin with non-critical units personnel and backloading of equipment for movement both by air and road.
EACRF has said it will ensure a smooth transition of the mission set to be taken over by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as ordered by the Heads of States Summit in Arusha last month.
“When given a mission, be focused, keep track of your progress, and do your part until the mission is complete. In any international mission, we must always respect and appreciate each other’s values, culture, and customs,” Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla said on Sunday when he visited KDF troops at EACRF headquarters in Goma.
During the visit, Gen Ogolla lauded the Kenyan contingent for their achievements in Eastern DR Congo, noting their significant role in protecting civilian lives in their area of operations and denying armed groups freedom to commit atrocities.
"I am happy that KENCON troops have undertaken the given EACRF mandate with great responsibility. As KDF we are satisfied to have delivered our role professionally with minimal collateral," said the General.
In their last meeting on November 25, 2023 EAC Heads of State directed the CDFs of EAC and SADC to meet before December 8, 2023 and submit their recommendations on the way forward to the defense ministers for onward transmission to the summit for consideration.
The meeting will pave the way for the deployment of SADC troops who were expected in the region on November 30, 2023 but are yet to be deployed.
While the region maintains it must do all that is possible to end the war, DRC's peace efforts remains a complex matter with multiple internal and external interests threatening any positive progress.
The ceasefire between the rebels and government forces, brokered by Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta through the Nairobi process last year, was violated in October and the conflict has returned to initial levels.
While EACRF’s stay in Eastern DRC did not meet Kinshasa’a demands that the force goes into battle with the M23 armed group, the Heads of State of the East African Community alongside the two independent verification mechanisms have on multiple occasions in the past acknowledged the impact the force has had in stabilizing the region for months with the ceasefire holding till October.
At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), the soldiers were received by Brigadier Mohamed Dahir Ali the Commandant of Defence Forces Technical College on behalf of the CDF, and Colonel Shadrack Musau from the Defence Headquarters Operations Branch.
"On behalf of the KDF leadership, I would like to welcome you back and express our gratitude for representing us well in DRC. You exhibited professionalism and zeal for the tasks assigned to you which is among the top qualities of a good soldier," said Brigadier Ali.
Before the deployment of KDF troops under EACRF, Goma city was on the verge of collapse as the M23, a Tutsi-led group that had rekindled fighting in North Kivu in November 2021 after lying dormant for years, seized large swaths of land in the Province and moved its defense headquarters to Kanyamahoro hills about 20 kilometers to Goma town and three kilometers from Mama Olivia where FARDC had established their last defense.
M23 had further moved inwards to Rumagambo where they had taken charge of a strategic FARDC military base and military training facility from the local army.
The militia control of the region further stalled the construction of a key road from Rumagambo to Goma. It also halted the movement of goods and people along the Sake-Kilolirwe-Kitchanga both of which serve as the Main Supply Route of food to Goma city.
The militia had also stalled the construction of the country’s second power plant stalled government services like the running of schools and hospitals and affected civilian movement as those living in the region found it safer to connect with Goma via Uganda and Rwanda than using local routes for fear of being kidnapped or attacked.
Kinshasa was jittery that another slight move by M23 would have led to the balkanization of Eastern DRC with the capture of Goma International Airport whose operations at the time had reduced over fears of attack.
The move would have also earned M23 better grounds for negotiations with Kinshasa, in its search for recognition by the government.
However, the arrival of the first batch of KDF soldiers in Goma in November last year averted the move as the soldiers first set a foothold at Goma International Airport, securing it from capture by M23 and creating necessary conditions for the deployment of the rest of the Kenyan forces and EACRF troops.
The Kenyan forces further captured Kibati, Virunga-at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo an active volcano, Kibumba, and Mulimbi following the partial withdrawal of M23. The militia’s withdrawal is in line with the EAC Heads of State's call for a ceasefire.
Despite the notable progress, the local population largely remained unsettled as remaining armed groups continued to regroup and conduct targeted ethnic attacks on civilians, a move that ignited demonstrations against the EACRF who were accused of not engaging the groups in combat.
EACRF however, could not fire a single bullet without the authority of the EAC Heads of States who till the expiry of the force’s mandate did not authorize the regional force to engage armed groups in combat and instead called on the troops to facilitate the political processes and facilitate the resumption of government services.
In April this year, the regional force attained full deployment status and postured the troops to their designated bases aiding the opening up of more supply routes and a return of a section of civilians to their homes in what set the pace for the planned cantonment of M23.
Months down the line, however, a resumption of the political processes that play a significant role in pacifying the warring groups was delayed despite the increasing tensions and clashes.
The use of mortar barrels and bombs by the armed groups between the armed groups also claimed the life of a Kenyan soldier last month raising and with the situation evolving into a crisis, the safety of the population in Eastern DRC is again in question as the country heads to the December 20 elections.