KDF in DRC: Liberators or opportunists?


Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah (right), the East African Community force commander, greets Kenyan soldiers upon arrival at EAC headquarters during a press conference in Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on November 16, 2022. 

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • As Kenya Defence Forces join peace-keeping efforts in the DRC, fresh questions arise about the true intentions of countries sending their troops into the troubled, resource-rich country.

On a walkabout in Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last week, recently retired President Uhuru Kenyatta, now peace envoy for the DRC for the East African Community (EAC), was mobbed by displaced local people eager to personally brief him about their plight at the hands of the M23, the chief protagonist in the conflict between Kinshasa and insurrectionists.

Conflict in the DRC and intervention by neighbouring countries in the imbroglio are not new. In 1998, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia intervened militarily to prevent the ouster of the government of President Joseph Kabila and soon afterwards his son, Laurent, by rebels supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

This time around, troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan are intervening in the conflict in the mineral-rich eastern part of the DRC to end the fighting between the armed rebels and the forces of the government of beleaguered President Felix Tshisekedi, restore peace and disarm the combatants. 


Kenyan soldiers sit on a vehicle in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on November 16, 2022. 

Photo credit: AFP

In 1998, the intervening forces did so under the aegis of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) states and this time it is the turn of the EAC. The EAC did not exist in 1998, having collapsed in 1977. And last March, DRC joined the Community, bringing to seven the membership of the bloc and giving the regional body reason to intervene in its internal struggles.

The DRC, Africa’s second largest country after Algeria, borders nine countries, namely Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia. Nairobi is playing a prominent role in the efforts to bring about peace in the country in a process that was started last March by Kenyatta and which has been embraced by his successor, William Ruto, and the EAC heads of state.

Dispatching an initial detachment of 900 troops of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) to the DRC, President Ruto was clear that, “as neighbours with varied linkages, the destiny of DRC is intertwined with ours. We all have a stake in a stable Democratic Republic of Congo and its security is an obligation that we commit our best efforts to achieve”.

The EAC would appear to have used the SADC intervention in the DRC as a template. Per the African Centre for Constructive Restoration of Disputes (ACCORD), “the deliberate and determined involvement of African organisations and intervention efforts in the DRC is based on the recognition that the conflict risks becoming forgotten and that its endurance will breed intractability and an ingrained culture of violence”. 

KDF Congo

An escort of Kenyan and Congolese military personnel stands guard at the airport in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta lands on November 15, 2022.

Photo credit: AFP

ACCORD observed further that SADC’s intervention in the DRC showed the increasing need by the African Union and sub-regional organisations to be more involved as first responders to conflict situations in the region through preventive diplomacy efforts, mediation, peace support operations, peace keeping, peace building and post-conflict reconstruction.

Nairobi appears to be in sync on this mission. Before President Ruto dispatched the KDF, his Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs, Dr Alfred Mutua, had told The Weekly Review that Nairobi is keen to promote peace in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo “because with peace and political stability in the region will come economic prosperity” and that “the success of the DRC, a country blessed with wood, potential for hydro-power and rich land, not to mention minerals, would be a success for the region”.

Echoing these sentiments, Mr Aden Duale, the Cabinet Secretary for Defence, told The Weekly Review in an interview carried elsewhere in this edition that Nairobi is happy to participate in the mission in the DRC for various reasons, “including the fact that we are investing in peace in the region from which we stand to gain immensely”. 

Justifying the deployment of the KDF to Parliament, Mr Nelson Koech, who chairs the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs, told our regional stablemate, The East African, that through the process, “Kenya will also serve its vital interests, including businesses like banks operating in the DRC, numerous Kenyan businesspeople in the country, bilateral trade with the DRC and utilisation of the Mombasa port by the DRC, among others”. 

But the elephant in the arena remains that Nairobi and the KDF are marching into war. War has financial costs, and it has human costs. Second, once a war gets going it attains its own momentum and may lead combatants in directions they did not envisage at the outset. It was not until after four years that the drawdown of the SADC intervention in the DRC began.

The United Nations’ so-called peace keepers have been in the DRC for 22 years, but the blue berets have brought no peace to the country and are currently loathed by the local people, who want to see the back of them.

Nairobi estimates that it will cost about KSh6 billion for a six-month execution of the mission in the DRC.

That’s a hefty price tag for an economy reeling from the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, mired in debt and struggling under rising prices of basic commodities.

But, according to Duale in his justification to Parliament of the intervention in the DRC, the cost of inaction may turn out to be far more than that of intervention, an argument Parliament bought into. 

Third, there are pitfalls in the intervention. The UN accused the militaries that intervened in the DRC in the ‘90s of looting the mineral resources of the country.

A different report said that Zimbabwean soldiers privatised and ran mining operations in the DRC. Jason Stearns, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, founder of the Congo Research Group and a published author on the DRC, accuses Kigali and Kampala of exporting gold and tin from the country.

Fourth, Kinshasa and Kigali trade blame over the insurrection in eastern DRC, with the former accusing the latter of supporting and providing military support and logistics to M23, and the latter accusing the former of harbouring the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda.

Uganda last year moved troops into eastern DRC to fight the Allied Democratic Forces, which it accused of bombing targets in downtown Kampala.

Fifth, the upshot is that two active participants in the mess in the DRC, namely Uganda and Rwanda, are also players in the Nairobi peace process and military intervention even though the latter has been restricted to a logistical role and its forces not allowed in. It is a mess but it is this state that keeps the players, state and non-state, in the business of exploiting the DRC’s resources.

Last, the reason for the recent flare-up in fighting in eastern DRC is attributable to the fact that the government in Kinshasa has been weak and its military unable to impose itself on the insurgents.

According to Stearns, when Tshisekedi visited eastern Congo for the first time, he branded his own military a mafia and lamented that the state (which he leads) is dead.

M23 took up arms last year because, it says, Kinshasa reneged on a deal agreed on after the end of the hostilities in 2013. The violence is aimed at forcing Kinshasa to meet its part of the 2013 bargain when, it should be remembered, M23 was beaten.

It is right, therefore, that military intervention be backed by diplomacy, which is why Kenyatta was in Kinshasa and Goma last week, but post-conflict peace keeping, peace building and reconstruction must be on the EAC’s agenda.

And this wish by Koech too: “After the initial deployment, we are likely to attract funding and the pressure on the exchequer will ease. Peace missions are expensive. This is different because of its peace enforcement mission. We must ensure our troops are well equipped to crush the conflict that started in 1996.”