June marks six months since the East African Community Heads of State Summit agreed to send an East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo to help quell the fighting sparked by the re-emergence of the M23 rebel group.
After months of uncertainty and fears over the deployment of the regional force, Kenya was the first country to send troops, followed by Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. The EACRF was granted a peace enforcement mandate giving them permission to attack and neutralise, in particular, the M23 rebel group and push it out of the territory it had occupied. As the EACRF’s initial mandate period comes to an end, there remain some valid concerns about what exactly has been the impact of the force.
Formed as a trading bloc, this is the first time the EAC is deploying its troops to a member state since its reformation in 1999. There was therefore a lot of pessimism as to whether the EACRF mission would achieve its goals. In addition, as history shows, African Union and United Nations military intervention missions tend to get embroiled in interminable internal conflicts. MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and missions in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, and Mali are powerful reminders of the pitfalls of such endeavours. No matter how precise and effective the interventions have been, they are never the magic wand to resolve the underlying internal political challenges. In short, these missions tend to prolong their stay, a perfect case being MONUSCO, which was first deployed in 1999 and is still in the DRC.
The M23 rebel group was formed in 2012 as an offspring of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Its reason for waging war against the DRC government was to protect the Congolese Tutsi and other ethnic communities in North and South Kivu from persecution and discrimination. Despite being inactive for a period of almost 10 years following the 2012 peace agreement, the M23 group has continued to be viewed as a security threat to the DRC government, especially in the province of North Kivu. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, over 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons have been forced to flee since March 2022.
A lot has been heard about the EACRF, which has been deployed in the eastern part of DRC for the last six months. What has it been doing? As the initial six months draw to a close, several formidable challenges have confronted the EACRF which seriously impinge on its ability to achieve its objectives.
The success of the EACRF was always going to be highly dependent on the effectiveness of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC). This is because at the end of the mission the EACRF is expected to hand over its responsibilities to the DRC security agencies. At the time of writing, DRC security sector reforms remain declarations of intent. It is quite evident that, as constituted today, the FARDC is ineffective. Considering this reality, and with an election in the horizon, an improvement seems unlikely in the short term while the EAC regional force is in place. Already, the EAC secretariat has requested that the mission be granted a three-month extension. The reality is that at the moment there are legitimate doubts as to whether the FARDC has the capacity to hold territory and protect civilians, not just from the M23 but also from other armed groups operating in the eastern DRC.
Furthermore, the proliferation of armed groups in the region makes it difficult to achieve the desired goals as the M23 group is not the only armed group that is fighting in the region. The Kivu Security Tracker Report of 2021, reported that there exist more than 120 armed groups operating in areas of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika. Many of these groups do not have the capacity to hold territory or cause havoc like the M23. As such, they have been left out of the mandate of the EACRF yet they have the capacity to create instability. Therefore, the EACRF was always going to face an uphill task in dealing with not just the M23 but also the other groups. The proliferation of armed groups in the eastern DRC remains a hindrance to any realisation of long-term peace.
The reality is that at the moment there are legitimate doubts as to whether the FARDC has the capacity to hold territory and protect civilians.
The EAC prides itself as being people-centred and built on good neighbourliness. However, the internal politics within the EAC have jolted the operations of the EACRF. The quick admission of the DRC to the EAC has brought with it the perennial bad blood with neighbouring Rwanda. For the longest time, Kinshasa has pointed an accusing finger at Kigali for the chaos that have engulfed the eastern part of the country, a charge Kigali has consistently denied. The continued bitter exchange of words between President Felix Tshisekedi and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has not helped matters.
The EAC is built on the personal friendships between the presidents of the member states and on the spirit of good neighbourliness. Indeed, Tshisekedi lost a key ally in former president Uhuru Kenyatta who handed over power to a candidate that he did not support. It was widely suspected that Tshisekedi had a soft spot for Raila Odinga in the 2022 Kenyan presidential election. William Ruto having won the presidency, it is evident that Tshisekedi has been forced to navigate the relationship with much caution and frustration. Personal friendship among leaders is the sine qua non for the success of EAC regional integration, and thus the continued bad blood between Kagame and Tshisekedi impacts negatively on the mutual trust that is essential in the EAC decision-making processes. From recent events, it is evident that Tshisekedi is pulling in a different direction away from his peers in the bloc.
Tshisekedi has since embarked on forum shopping within the SADC community, hoping to convince the bloc to send troops to fight the M23 rebel group. Tshisekedi believes that his EAC counterparts are too soft on Kigali and this explains why the EACRF has not bloodied Rwanda’s nose as many politicians in Kinshasa would have wished. Instead, the EACRF has chosen to negotiate with the M23 to have them withdraw from the occupied territory without firing a single bullet. Some analysts believe the current push to regionalise the conflict fits into the argument that, by whipping up nationalist sentiment, Tshisekedi aims to score political goals and gain enough legitimacy across the country.
The multiple interests and goals of the troop-contributing countries are not aligned. This is bearing in mind that a number of EAC member states have a history of intervention within the DRC; at least each member state of the EAC has at one time or another deployed troops in the DRC. The Uganda People’s Defence Forces has been operating in Ituri and North Kivu since 2021 in pursuit of the Allied Democratic Forces. Burundi has in the past deployed a contingent to go after the RED-Tabara rebel group. Kenya recently deployed around 200 soldiers to join MONUSCO under the Quick Reaction Force while Tanzania has its troops present under the Force Intervention Brigade which is also part of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force. Therefore, the competing interests among the member states inside the DRC remain a huge risk for the mission. It is highly plausible that the EACRF is just a Trojan Horse for the troop-contributing countries to further their interests in the DRC.
In addition, the EAC member states contributing troops to the regional force will need to harmonise their various interests if the EACRF is to achieve its goals. The initial agreement to have Kenya assume the command is increasingly questioned. The DRC is unhappy with the way the EACRF under Kenyan command has been undertaking its mission; the EACRF has opted for diplomacy instead of waging war and shelling the M23. In a video that circulated online after a Heads of State summit in Bujumbura, a visibly angry President Tshisekedi was seen lecturing the force Commander Gen. Jeff Nyagah who has since resigned from his post. In a quick rejoinder, Kinshasa went ahead and rejected the replacement that Kenya had appointed. The DRC wants the force commander to rotate among the member states or be placed under FARDC command. There is a need to address some of these problems if the regional force is to achieve its mandate.
Funding of the EACRF remains a challenge. At the moment, each troop-contributing country is catering for its own troops. The EAC has for a long time been plagued by late payment of contributions by the member states. There was expected additional support from partners like the EU and the US but so far none has been committal in footing the bill. There is a high possibility that some troop-contributing countries may struggle to fund their troops in the long run as the EACRF mission is enormously expensive.
The initial agreement to have Kenya assume the command is increasingly questioned.
Lastly, a military victory over the M23 is not sufficient to bring peace to the restive eastern part of the DRC. There is a need for a parallel political process to accompany the military operation. So far Kinshasa has refused to speak to the M23 whom they have declared as terrorists. Previous peace agreements signed in 2013 between M23 and the DRC authorities continue to gather dust as none has been honoured by either of the parties. Despite there being the Nairobi Process led by former president Uhuru Kenyatta, the continued isolation of the M23 from the talks is proving to be counterproductive.
In the eyes of many observers and the citizens of the DRC, the EACRF has proven to be ineffective since its deployment. This is because the M23 seems to have taken more territory while the EACRF has been place. Moreover, despite the failure by the M23 to respect multiple ceasefires, the EACRF remains cautious, unwilling to engage in an offensive.
According to one analyst, the reason why the EACRF has been cautious is because several governments that have contributed troops to EACRF have given their troops strict instructions not to put themselves at any risk; they will therefore not defend territory. The danger with this directive is that the EACRF has been caught in the crosshairs of a restive population that wants action and tangible results and a leadership that wants to use the force as a private army. The goodwill that the EACRF initially enjoyed has quickly dissipated as the constant attacks on the mission by Tshisekedi and his allies have to a large extent incited the locals to protest against it.
With a looming election, attacks against the mission will go a notch higher as the EACRF forms the perfect bogeyman for the ineffective FARDC and the DRC government.
The deployment of the EACRF was never going to address the security situation in the eastern DRC in a flash. Six months down the line, the mission is still bogged down by a poor interpretation of its mandate and the sometimes unrealistic expectations of the host country. Already, the DRC has embarked on a shopping spree for new troops from the SADC bloc to come to the rescue of the fledgling EACRF mission. As the relationship between Tshisekedi and Kagame deteriorates further, the big task for the EAC remains to try and rescue the mission from total collapse and spare the bloc some embarrassment.
It is clear that whatever the positions of the troop-contributing countries might be, there is increasing frustration within the DRC that the EAC has in its possession a potent weapon with which to confront M23 that is not being properly utilised. This potentially effective EACRF is being hamstrung by EAC politics and its inability to use force in its peace operations.