Bridge over the Congo: Kenya Defence Forces' new battleground

Kenya Quick Reaction Force

The Kenya Quick Reaction Force (QRF) 01 Company at the Embakasi Garrison on June 15, 2021, before they were deployed to the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monusco).

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Kenyan soldiers risk coming into direct conflict with M23 rebels allegedly supported by Rwanda as they deploy under the East African Community peace initiative in sectors controlled by the insurgents in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The rebels fighting the government of President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi are reportedly backed by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda — a claim Kigali denies.

Military experts say Kagame’s battle-hardened troops have been permanently encamped in eastern DRC since ousting the government of late President Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994 and chasing his army across the border.

Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front forces also teamed up with troops from their sponsors of the time, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, to march deep into the then Zaire and topple long-serving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was replaced by a rebel leader, Laurent Kabila.

Eastern DRC, with its vast mineral deposits, has since been a playground for Rwandese and Ugandan troops, who have turned from bitter string allies to bitter foes.

Entering the fray as spearhead of the East African regional force puts the Kenya Defence Forces right in the middle of an enduring conflict that over the years has attracted attention from distant African countries such as South Africa and Angola, as well as major global powers like the United States, France, China, Belgium and Britain.

Kagame has used the M23 rebels to counter the remnants of Habyarimana’s forces, the so-called Interahamwe militia who are considered chief perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Congolese soldiers

In this file photo taken on May 25, 2022 A Congolese army tank heads towards the front line near Kibumba in the area surrounding the North Kivu city of Goma during clashes between the Congolese army and M23 rebels. 

Photo credit: Arlette Bashizi | AFP

They remained in eastern DRC from where they have threatened Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front government, and he has countered the threat by stationing troops across the border. Initial expectations of a routine peace-keeping assignment have been dampened in recent days, however,  over different interpretations of the role of the regional joint forces mission.

It was initially envisaged that with both Tshisekedi and Kagame on board, things would go smoothly. However, the DRC president is still accusing his Rwandese counterpart of supporting M23 rebels who are still holding ground around Goma and attacking government military camps.

Tshisekedi also takes it that the mandate of the regional force is to support his army in fighting the rebels and their Rwandese sponsors, rather than keeping the peace on while a political settlement is concluded.

This is a position that Kagame rejects and thus has delayed in pulling his troops out of the conflict zone. 

Kenya has over the past year played the key role in brokering a peace settlement in eastern DRC driven by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, who on relinquishing office last month was asked by his successor William Ruto to continue spearheading what has now been christened the Nairobi Conclave.

A senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nairobi however downplayed the threat of Kenyan and Rwandese troops squaring off.

He explained that the military intervention to bring peace and stability in eastern DRC was sanctioned by all the East African Community member states, including Rwanda which he said had agreed to pull its army out of the eastern DRC and focus on securing its side of the border.

Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania are all contributing troops to the EAC Joint Regional Force, with Kenya shouldering the burden of overall command and also being deployed in the flashpoints around Goma where M23 rebels with Rwandan backing have been keeping the DRC army at bay.

The senior Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity explained that in his final term in office, Uhuru invested a lot of personal diplomacy in engaging Kagame and Tshisekedi, on the value of a peace and stabilisation mission.

Uganda People’s Defence Force soldiers

Uganda People’s Defence Force soldiers near the town of Goli in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri region on May 19, 2003.

Photo credit: File

He worked hard, alongside other regional leaders, to assure Kagame that his security concerns would be taken care of if he ceased supporting the M23 rebels, pulled back his troops and allowed the regional force to move in. 

Kagame also agreed that as a protagonist state, he would not contribute troops to the regional force, but concentrate on securing the Rwanda border.

Uhuru also facilitated and helped fast-track DRC’s membership of the East African Community, in one stroke catapulting the regional bloc into an African behemoth stretching across the middle belt of the African continent from the Indian Ocean coast to the Atlantic, a population of over 300 million and almost unlimited economic potential.

Beyond joining the scramble for Congo’s riches, Kenya has deep and abiding interest in the peace dividend. The Port of Mombasa is a key gateway for goods to and from Eastern DRC, as well as Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda.

Kenya also looks at intra-African trade, beginning with trade within the community, as a key area for economic growth. Uganda has for many years been Kenya’s biggest trading partner, and Kenyan manufacturers are also keen to push deep into the other countries in the region.

Peace in the DRC would present an immediate boom in both enhanced access to a vast market expanding from the easter sector into the interior, as well as enhanced trade routes stretching from Mombasa deep into the mineral-rich giant.

Kenya itself has little in the way of natural resources, but would be in prime position to cement its position as a regional transport, communications and service hub.

According to the official, the three Nairobi Conclaves hosted by Uhuru intend to bring a sense of normalcy, economic discipline and social stability in Eastern DRC.

Kenya invested in bringing various DRC rebel groups to the Nairobi 1 Conclave where the rebels indicated readiness to lay down their arms if Kinshasha listened to their demands.

Fighting thereafter subsided significantly in the region, except around Boni, the area M23 is active.

Uhuru was the only leader to attend President Tshisekedi’s inauguration in January 2019, when he succeeded President Joseph Kabila in the DRC’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power.

Kabila assumed leadership in 2001 when his father, Laurent Desire Kabila, was assassinated by his palace guard.

According to sources, Uhuru and Tsishekedi struck an immediate rapport as the former sought to ease his country away from the ambit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and build new links on eastern Africa.

He was also trying to move away from the ‘transactional relationships’ that his predecessor Kabila had built with the SADC powerhouse, the Republic of South Africa, whose military interventions in the country had borne no fruit.

International efforts under the United Nations and western powers were also making little progress.

Uhuru played a key role in signalling to the world that Tshisekedi was a legitimate leader who needed support to stabilize a sleeping giant.

It was from those initial contacts that the Nairobi process was born.

Last September the East African Community kicked off its maiden mission to the DRC to sensitise the government on the EAC integration pillars and governing instruments. 

A key participant at the meetings was Kenya’s Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Macharia Kamau, attending as Uhuru’s Special Envoy under the Nairobi Peace Process.

He pointed out that the security situation in the Eastern DRC continues to be of great concern.  

“As we welcome the Eastern Africa Regional Force to Eastern DRC, we must do so with the recognition that the threat posed by armed groups still remains and one that requires closer cooperation and collaboration with our regional and international partners to counter and eradicate,”  he told senior DRC government officials.

He explained how the Nairobi process would accelerate the political and military tracks of search for peace.

“There is a need for each and everyone to redouble their efforts to pursue dialogue, de-escalation and the use of effective national, regional and international mechanisms to resolve disputes”.

He further assured both the EAC delegation and the DRC leadership that the incoming government of President Ruto was committed to continuing and strengthening the Nairobi initiative.

Earlier, in June, Uhuru had hosted the Nairobi 3 Conclave followed by an EAC heads of Summit.

The presidents from the seven EAC countries were briefed on the outcome of a  strategic meeting of their Chiefs of Defense of all five countries, and agreed to commit troops for their assigned regions and sanctioned the strategy for security, deployment, logistics worked out by the military chiefs.

Kenya was put in command of the entire operation, providing the regional force commander while critical responsibilities were shared with the other militaries.

A communique issued after the Heads of State Summit endorsed the detailed brief on the military track Kenya Chief of Defence Forces of Kenya, General Robert Kibochi, who chairs the Committee of East African Community Chiefs of Defence. The brief defined the problem, highlighted the threat analysis, Concept of Operations (CONOPs), Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Rules of Engagement (ROE) and other legal and technical regulations to facilitate the operationalization of the Regional Force and its various operational arms.

The Heads of State instructed that the Regional Force should in cooperation with the military and administrative forces of the DRC seek to stabilize and secure the peace in the DRC and cooperate in the implementation of the disarmament and demobilization process.

The Summit was attended by Presidents Tshisekedi, Museveni, Kagame, Salva Kiir of South Sudan and Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi. Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan was represented by her High Commissioner in Nairobi John Steven Simbachawene.

The Heads of State directed an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, alongside commencement of a political process to secure peace in the region.

In September Tshisekedi presided over the signing of an agreement giving green light to the deployment of the EAC Joint Regional Force.

EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki and DRC’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Christophe Lutundula Apala Pen’Apala signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) at the official residence of the President in Kinshasa. 

“The Agreement envisages an initial deployment of the EAC Joint Regional Force for a period of six months after which the deployment will be evaluated,” the Secretary-General noted.

The Force Headquarters has been established and key personnel appointed led by Force Commander Major General Jeff Nyagah, a highly decorated Kenyan military officer with valued experience in the Kenya mission military mission in Somalia.

Even before the signing of the formal agreement, The Weekly Review has learnt that deployment of forces had already started with Kenya and Burundi leading the way in their assigned regions.

Military and Foreign Ministry officials in Kenya remain tight-lipped on the number of troops deployed and specific operational areas. Queries to the Communications office at the EAC headquarters in Arusha got no response, but it is understood that even before the main body of Kenyan troops started to deploy, small teams of Army Special Forces were already on the ground in reconnaissance missions.