DR Congo conflict: Uhuru Kenyatta's mission possible

Uhuru Kenyatta

Former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta talks with military authorities upon his arrival in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on November 15. 

Photo credit: AFP

Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta was in eastern DR Congo’s main city of Goma this week as fresh clashes with M23 rebels occurred just to the north, sending thousands fleeing.

Troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were battling M23 fighters in Kibumba, 20 kilometres north of Goma, security officials and local residents said.

The M23 has recently seized swathes of territory in North Kivu province, displacing tens of thousands of people in their advance. 

Kibumba is considered one of the last obstacles to the rebels before Goma, a commercial hub of one million people on the Rwandan border.  On Tuesday, rumours that the M23 was approaching sent a fresh wave of people fleeing to the Kanyaruchinya displacement camp, south of Kibumba.

About 40,000 people are currently in the camp, according to its head.

A security official who asked for anonymity said that people began to flee after seeing soldiers themselves retreating towards Goma after clashes with M23 rebels.

North Kivu’s military governor, General Constant Ndima, urged people to remain calm. “I want to reassure you... Loyalist forces are containing the enemy on the heights of Kibumba,” he said. The crisis has cratered relations between the DRC and its smaller central African neighbour, Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the militia.

Kenyatta, a mediator for the seven-nation East African Community (EAC), arrived in Goma and visited Kanyaruchinya. He said the stories he had heard were “heart-breaking”. “I cannot ignore what I have seen,” Kenyatta said. “I must say to all parties: You cannot negotiate in the face of human catastrophe.” 

Mr Kenyatta, who is on a work tour of the country, said he was shocked by the scale of the situation and strongly denounced the humanitarian crisis facing the people of North Kivu.

“All these children, mothers and old people we have seen who have become strangers in their country. Whatever our differences, let us have pity on them. Let us have pity on them and stop the war before we start talking,” he said. “What I have seen is a catastrophe. This war must be stopped immediately.”

Kenyatta’s visit to the DRC is the latest in a round of diplomatic bids to defuse the crisis in the impoverished country’s volatile east.

The former president landed in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, on Sunday for talks, following on the heels of a visit from Angolan President Joao Lourenco. The EAC has also called for a “peace dialogue” in Kenya’s capital ‘ Nairobi, on November 21. In addition, the bloc has agreed to send a peace-keeping mission to eastern DRC. Kenyan troops arrived in Goma over the weekend as part of that operation.

Kenyatta urged armed groups to put down their arms and return to the negotiating table. “There is nothing that can be gained through the barrel of a gun,” he said.  United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had discussed the situation with Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Vincent Biruta, on the margins of the G20 meeting in Indonesia.  

“I underscored the United States’ deep concern about the continuing violence in eastern DRC, and called on Rwanda to take active steps to facilitate de-escalation,” he said in a tweet.

Biruta, for his part, tweeted that Rwanda is committed to regional diplomatic mechanisms to bring peace to eastern DRC, as well as to finding a political solution to the crisis.

Over 120 armed groups roam the region, many of which are a legacy of regional wars which flared at the turn of the century. The M23 —  a mostly Congolese Tutsi group — first leapt to prominence in 2012, when it briefly captured Goma before being driven out.

But the rebel group returned late in 2021 after years of dormancy, claiming the DRC had failed to honour a promise to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances.

It captured the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June. In recent weeks, the rebels have also won a string of victories against the Congolese army, edging closer towards Goma. The DRC expelled Rwanda’s ambassador late in October amid the renewed M23 offensive. Despite official denials from Kigali, an unpublished report for the UN seen by AFP in August pointed to Rwandan involvement with the M23.

Rwanda accuses the Congolese government of colluding with Hutu militants who fled across the border after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Meanwhile, a former adviser to the DRC president went on trial Monday for alleged corruption in a case that erupted after the emergence of hidden camera footage. Vidiye Tshimanga, 46, appeared in a Kinshasa court accompanied by eight lawyers to answer charges of passive corruption, influence peddling and causing offence to the head of state.

In September, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Swiss newspaper Le Temps published an investigation into Tshimanga, who was a special adviser to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi. 

Video footage released by the publications showed Tshimanga promising two unidentified people, who claimed to represent a Hong Kong-based conglomerate interested in minerals, to protect their investment in the DRC.

“If we do business together, I will take my percentage of the investment,” Tshimanga said in the footage. He also underlined his apparent close relationship with Tshisekedi, saying he had helped finance the latter’s 2018 presidential campaign.

The video provoked an uproar on social media in the central African nation, which is rich in minerals but poor and suffering from endemic corruption.  The Congolese president’s office has said that the fight against corruption is a priority for Tshisekedi. Tshimanga has denied wrongdoing and said his words were taken out of context. The court is due to return its decision in 10 days.