The M23 rebel group was formed in 2012 as an offspring of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). The group’s reason to wage war against the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is to protect the Congolese Tutsi and other ethnic communities in North and South Kivu from persecution and discrimination. After 10 years of inactivity, the M23 has once again become a thorn in the flesh of the DRC government—especially in the province of North Kivu—by conquering territories and displacing populations in the process. According to the United Nations, over 200,000 Internally Displaced Persons have been forced to flee since March 2022 when the latest flare-up began. On June 21, the East African Community Heads of State agreed to send the East African Community Joint Regional Force to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help quell the fighting sparked by the re-emergence of the M23 rebel group. This was formalised through a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) signed on September 11 between DRC President Felix Tshisekedi and the EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki.
The decision to set up the regional force is the first military deployment the EAC has undertaken since its reformation in 1999. According to the International Crisis Group, the initial plan indicated that the regional force would be made up of between 6,500 and 12,000 soldiers with a mandate to “contain, defeat and eradicate negative forces’’ in the eastern DRC. In addition, Kenya was to take the command role, to be stationed in Goma, North Kivu’s capital. The force would cover the four provinces of Haut-Uélé, Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu and the mandate was to last for an initial six months.
After months of uncertainty over the deployment of the regional force, on November 2nd 2022, Kenya became the first country to send troops to the DRC. This was followed by the announcement by Uganda and Burundi that they would be sending contingents. As the EAC deploys the force, reports on what exactly is the mandate of the regional force have been inconsistent. This being the first deployment by the EAC, its success and exit will rely heavily on the handover of responsibilities to an effective Armed Forces for the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). With incomplete security sector reforms, the FARDC remains as politicised, divided, and ineffective as ever. Considering this reality, an improvement seems unlikely in the short-term while the EAC regional force is in place. Therefore, there is a likelihood that the EAC force may end up extending its stay much longer than the initial guidelines provided. This will not be a surprise; AMISOM’s mandate in Somalia was an initial 6 months to 2 years before handover to the UN.
Historically, the AU and UN military intervention missions have been involved in cyclical internal conflicts; MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and missions in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Somalia, and Mali come to mind. No matter how precise and effective the interventions have been, they have never been the magic wand to resolve the underlying internal political challenges. They tend to prolong their stay, a perfect case being MONUSCO which was first deployed in 1999 and is still in the DRC.
There is a likelihood of the troops engaging in illegal smuggling to ‘’pay themselves’’, ending up becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.
As the EAC regional force continues to take shape, there are multiple underlying and interconnected challenges facing eastern DRC today. First, the M23 group is not the only armed group that is fighting in that region. According to the Kivu Security Tracker Report of 2021, more than 120 armed groups operate in the entire eastern DRC— in parts of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika. Generally, the conflict in the eastern DRC has been characterised by fragmentation among the rebel groups. Many of the groups identified by the KST report, have either been in existence for a long period or are splinter groups of the major groups. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the goals each group aims to achieve. More importantly, these armed groups are all driven by the need for survival which relies on extracting the rich mineral resources in the region and protecting their territories. Recent history has shown that outside intervention has been unsuccessful in addressing the security challenges and, therefore, the EAC regional force already has its work cut out.
Second, President Felix Tshisekedi has not given much needed attention and priority to the conflict in the east since coming to power. President Tshisekedi’s election remains contested, with allegations that it did not pass the democracy threshold test. His opponents believe that he was unduly announced as the winner due to the influence of former President Kabila. This has greatly contributed to his legitimacy being challenged and his influence reduced. As a result, his initial focus was geared towards managing the fledgling coalition he entered into with former President Joseph Kabila which ended up taking up much of his time. This might have distracted him from the much needed security sector reform. According to a January 2022 report by the Governance in Conflict Network, President Tshisekedi’s government has not undertaken a full and comprehensive security sector reform to improve capacity and efficiency.
This slow process of transforming the security sector is perhaps informed by the history that African presidents have with armies. As has been the norm, many African presidents have shown little interest in developing effective armies as they are viewed as potential threats to their hold on power. For instance, the 2013 peace deal signed between M23 and the Congolese authorities involved giving amnesty to the group members and reintegrating some of them into the FARDC. But President Tshisekedi never acted on the deal and according to reports, calls for talks have been ignored by Kinshasa. Faced with a re-election in 2023, is his inaction part of his strategy to get re-elected? Some analysts believe the current push to regionalise the conflict fits into the argument that whipping up nationalist sentiment is aimed at scoring political goals to gain legitimacy across the country. Thus, his recent focus and interest in the eastern DRC conflict may stem from the realisation that the elections are near and he needs an agenda around which to centre a rallying call for his campaign.
Third, the biggest elephant in the room remains the key objective of the EAC regional force being deployed to the eastern DRC. What are the key objectives of the countries that are contributing troops to the regional force? And what will be different from their previous involvement in the DRC? Each EAC member state has in one way or another deployed troops in the DRC. In 2021, President Tshisekedi granted Uganda authority to deploy its troops in Ituri and North Kivu. According to Kampala, the main aim of this deployment was to pursue the Allied Democratic Forces which were responsible for the increased bombings in Uganda. Along the same lines, President Tshisekedi allowed Burundi troops to enter the DRC to fight the RED-Tabara rebel group that is opposed to the Bujumbura government. In 2022, Kenya deployed around 200 soldiers to join MONUSCO under the Quick Reaction Force. Tanzania has its troops under the Force Intervention Brigade which is also part of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force. And finally, Rwanda has long held that the remnants of the 1994 genocide perpetrators, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), still pose an existential threat to Kigali and thus the need to always intervene.
Recent history has shown that outside intervention has been unsuccessful in addressing the security challenges.
Dr Colin Robinson, a researcher on African militaries, argues that the foreign military interventions being witnessed in the DRC are more for the deeply entangled and vested interests of neighbouring countries than for the citizens of the DRC. Dr Robinson asks, “What do Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda want to achieve?” According to him, part of the agenda is not so much to make the eastern DRC peaceful but is an opportunity for the neighbouring countries to gain better access to the DRC’s rich resources. He contends that the deployment alone will not address the security situation in the eastern DRC unless the FARDC is transformed, saying that, as currently constituted, the FARDC often behaves just like any other splinter rebel group, exploiting the mineral resources and incapable of protecting the DRC’s territorial integrity. However, he also believes that transforming the FARDC to effectively function does not guarantee peace as this might force the neighbouring countries to support rebel groups in order to continue benefitting from exploiting the resources in the DRC.
The EAC member states contributing troops to the regional force will need to harmonise their various interests if they intend to achieve their goals. Otherwise, they will be fighting their separate wars for their interests under the EAC banner. Despite the agreement having Kenya assume the command, the country’s late entry into the DRC makes it difficult to see how Kampala, Bujumbura, Kigali and the FARDC will allow a newcomer to take over influence. Another challenge that has not been factored in is whether command of the force will rotate among the member states or whether it will be drawn from the country contributing the largest number of troops. There is need to address some of these teething problems if the regional force is to achieve its mandate.
Fourth, there have been debates about where the funding for the EAC regional force will come from. The EAC is not known for robust and timely contributions towards the running of its operations. In a recent address to the Kenya Parliament, Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale said that Kenya was to fund its contingent to the tune of KSh4.5 billion (approximately US$37 million) in the first six months. Kenya is the largest economy in the region and can to some extent afford to fund its adventure in the DRC. However, bearing in mind that it has another commitment of troops in Somalia, the country may need additional support from other partners like the EU and the US. There is a high possibility that some troop-contributing countries may struggle to fund their troops in the long run. The risk with this is that there is a likelihood of the troops engaging in illegal smuggling to ‘’pay themselves’’, ending up becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.
On a positive note, the M23 seems to have accepted the calls for a ceasefire from the heads of state mini-summit under the Luanda process. This was followed by the group requesting to speak to the EAC-appointed facilitator, former President Uhuru Kenyatta. This is a timely call that should not be ignored as it will avert the possibility of violent action in addressing the conflict.
The EAC is not known for robust and timely contributions towards the running of its operations.
Finally, the intervention of the regional force should not be an isolated act but should be accompanied by a political process. The continued isolation of the M23 from the peace talks negates the whole principle of inclusivity and if indeed the EAC wants to send a signal that it can justify why the DRC joining the EAC was the best idea, there is a need to be magnanimous and to involve all the belligerent forces in the conflict. The perception that the EAC is taking sides by selecting rebel groups to invite to the peace talks only contributes to the misinformation pervading the eastern DRC that it is simply a Trojan Horse for neighbouring states to exploit the country’s riches.
Overall, the EAC’s decision to set up a regional force to intervene in the eastern DRC is a positive sign that it is asserting its security role and slowly transforming itself from a purely economically-driven integration bloc. There is an emerging regional security complex in the East African region whereby an intractable conflict such as the one witnessed in the eastern DRC can engulf the entire region. However, to achieve the much needed stability, one hopes that the administration in Kinshasa is ready to first galvanise its authority by becoming ready to govern in partnership with different actors in DRC. Second, it must work together with the neighbouring states and other partners to address the proliferation of armed groups in the country. Renewed political agreement among these competing groups and Kinshasa’s willingness to work together with its neighbours could be the game changer.