KDF soldiers attend a flag presentation ceremony by President William Ruto before they deploy to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of the East Africa Community Regional Force (EARDC) at the Embakasi Garrison in Nairobi on November 2, 2022. To completely deny all persons with a stammer a chance to be in any department within the armed forces is discriminatory.

| File I Nation Media Group

The DRC conundrum: Inside KDF ‘impossible’ mission in Congo

Kenya Defence Forces’ mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been thrown into serious doubt as the contingent, which is a part of the East African Community Regional Force, may not be adequately resourced to meaningfully contribute to the stabilisation of the central African nation.

The perception of ‘mission impossible’ is pegged on the requirement that EACRF troops contributing countries to fund their contingents. However, Kenya’s economy has been in a freefall, exacerbated by the steep depreciation of the shilling.

The Ministry of Defence has been mute on how it will fund the KDF mission that has been applauded at Kiwanja camp of internally displaced persons for standing up to the March 23 Movement (M23) rebels.

Instructively, while DRC President Felix Tshisekedi acceded on September 3 to the extension of the regional force’s mandate by three months from the initial six, Kinshasa has not shied away from expressing displeasure with EACRF and UN missions, which he has on some occasions derided as sitting ducks. 

However, at Kiwanja, KDF has demonstrated some sturdiness that culminated in M23 agreeing to a ceasefire that has allowed locals to grow crops and engage in other economic activities to ease the debilitating humanitarian crisis.

Twirwaneho rebels

President Tshisekedi’s reservations coincide with the re-emergence of Twirwaneho rebels, a Banyamulenge South Kivu-based Congolese Tutsi group led by Colonel Michel Makanika Rukunda. Twirwaneho’s rising profile points to the evolving and complex nature of war in Congo that has forced Kinshasa to discreetly call in Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and Israeli military experts to provide a buffer against hundreds of militia groups in the resource-rich eastern Congo.

The mercenaries have taken over the entire Hotel Mbaze on the peripheries of Goma Airport. Wagner have been carrying out incursions into rebel strongholds to the chagrin of EACRF commanders. Kinshasa has ignored UN complaints over the presence of Wagner, a development a Kenyan conflict expert says should be the writing on the wall for EACRF.

Goma’s internally displaced persons have in recent weeks demonstrated against the presence of UN peacekeepers and EACRF, accusing them of indifference as rebels committed atrocities. 

Locals want foreign peacekeepers out of eastern Congo. The demonstrations that were violently quashed by the republican forces were a source of unease between EACRF and Wagner, according to humanitarian groups based in Goma.

Former Defence Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa puts in context the volatile situation the KDF contingent – and broadly EACRF – has to grapple with. Wamalwa says DRC politics is the broken relationship between the central government and the underrepresented social and economic groups in the east. The situation has been made more complex by transnational armed groups, foreign militaries, the UN mission and state actors.

“That is why President Tshisekedi accepted Kenya to lead the regional force as a neutral arbiter. We have the experience and capacity to contribute to DRC stabilisation. That is why Tshisekedi approached Kenya to help him fight M23 Movement. He expressed confidence that Kenya would be a neutral arbiter compared to Tanzanian, Rwanda and Uganda that have had vested interests in Congo,” says Wamalwa. 

Against the backdrop of ever-escalating violence, looting, rape and displacement, the involvement of Kenya in the conflict is the most intriguing amid allegations of complicity of top leadership in Nairobi being part of the international supply line of illicit minerals from the DRC, which UN Environmental Programme credits with holding about 25 per cent of the world’s mineral wealth but is also one of the poorest countries.

So testy is the funding question of EACRF that senior officials of the government gave it a wide berth when The Weekly Review sought an update on KDF contingent in DRC. Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale declined calls, neither did he respond to questions sent on his WhatsApp app. 

The UN estimates that there are between 300-500 rebel groups in eastern DRC fighting one another and against the central government, besides inter-and-intra-ethnic hostilities that have been going on since independence in 1960. In recent months it is the M23 Movement, former Ugandan rebels and al Qaeda-funded Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Twirwaneho that poses the most serious threats in DRC.

The fulcrum of the conflict in DRC is the 40 million Tutsi community that spans Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Congo. They form the bulk of M23 rebels that UN says are heavily resourced militarily and logistically by Rwandan and Ugandan governments. Russian and Chinese mercenaries add to the fluid situation, which a renowned Kenyan political scientist and EAC advisor on conflict in the Great Lakes Region, describes as nebulous and logistically too difficult for the Kenyan military to put a clutch on.

“M23 is a Tutsi armed wing that has deep roots in Rwandan and Ugandan governments. Remember, the Tutsi led by Rwandan President Paul Kagame – then a refugee – helped install Museveni in Uganda as president. In return, Museveni militarily propelled Kagame to power in Rwanda before they joined hands to support Laurent Kabila to militarily wrest power from former DRC president Mobutu Seseko from power,” he says.

KDF’s initial six months in DRC was to cost the exchequer Sh4.5 billion. The Parliamentary Committee on defence estimates that the extension will push the budget to Sh6 billion. UN already funds United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), to which Kenya is also troops a contributing country.

KDF Chief of Strategic Communication, Brigadier Zipporah Kioko, offered: “EACRF mandate is under the EAC Summit. The African Union supports the regional force, but we have no information on funding. The headquarters of the mission can answer that. On our part, our hands are tied as individual countries.”

Other than DRC, Kenya also has peacekeepers in South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique and Eastern Europe.

For more than three decades, says the International Crisis Group (ICG), East African countries have voiced concerns over insecurity in eastern DRC, which often spills into neighbouring countries to the east. The United Nations and the European Union are unanimous that EACRF lack the capacity – financial, logistical and personnel – to mount a sustained onslaught on the rebels.

A senior KDF officer interviewed by ICG notes: “…EAC might seek additional money from regional and international organisations, including the African Union and the UN.

However, acquiring outside funding will be very hard. UN support for extra boots on Congolese soil is unlikely given that the UN already has an expensive 16,000-strong peacekeeping mission in the country.

The AU cannot afford to provide sustained financing. European Union (EU) funding under the European Peace Facility might be an option with the EU supporting either the EAC directly or the troop-contributing countries. The EU has little appetite to pay for troop stipends, but it could provide funds for such purposes as equipment, logistics, communications and transport.”

Elsewhere security experts warn of “significant risks in the EAC going ahead with a combat mission.” Based on previous experience in Somalia, the experts say historically, “Armed interventions in the region do not have a strong record of enduring success, and enlisting countries with strategic and economic interests in the region could escalate an already dangerous situation.”

“As noted, several of the DRC’s neighbours have repeatedly and deliberately undermined stability in its east by bolstering proxy fighters and tapping its huge natural resources. Some – for example, Burundi and Uganda – may well continue to push their own agendas, even when under joint force command. Analysts worry that the Kenyan force commander in Goma headquarters will have limited oversight of contingents stationed in remote areas in the east…The Burundian contingent that entered the DRC on August 15 has been placed under Congolese rather than Kenyan command and seems to mostly pursue Burundian interests in South Kivu,” says ICG.

According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) report published on September 8, 2023, Kenya’s geopolitical engagement in the DRC has expanded given that it is one of the troop-contributing countries to MONUSCO, with the potential to stoke regional illicit gold trade. 

The deployment of KDF under EACRF took place less than a year after DRC formally joined EAC a seven-nation economic bloc that has its headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania. 

GI-TOC reports say, “Seven months later, Kenyan troops were deployed to the eastern DRC under the umbrella of an EAC peacekeeping mission.

 Whether Kenya’s military presence in the DRC may lead to increasing illicit flows of Congolese gold through Kenya merits scrutiny, particularly considering the country’s track record in a comparable environment: Somalia. 

“Following Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011 – ostensibly in response to the kidnappings of several tourists by Somali pirates – the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) settled into an extended occupation during which they have faced frequent allegations of war profiteering.

In particular, the KDF has been implicated in the illicit export of Somali charcoal, which is under UN Security Council sanction due to revenues from the trade having funded the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab.”