The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) has begun withdrawing troops from the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), leaving behind a region that experienced peace for a few months, a first in several years but now faces an uncertain future.
Kenya was the first of the East African nations to withdraw troops from the troubled region as two contingents of at least 100 soldiers each flew out of the Goma airport back home on Sunday after spending a year in the war-torn nation.
The exit of the Kenyan soldiers followed a visit to the troops stationed in Kibumba by the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) General Francis Ogolla on Saturday. While in Congo, General Ogolla also met the EACRF leadership and assured them of Kenya’s commitment in participating peace efforts in the region.
"I am happy that our troops have undertaken the given EACRF mandate with great responsibility. As KDF we are satisfied to have delivered our role professionally with minimal collateral,” said General Ogolla.
“The Kenyan contingent has done an excellent job in protecting civilians in their area of operations and denied armed groups freedom of action to commit atrocities,” he said.
EACRF’s exit is in line with a directive issued during the 23rd Ordinary Summit on EAC Heads of State held on November 24 in Arusha, Tanzania where a decision not to renew EACRF mandate beyond December 8, 2023 was made.
This is after DRC President Felix Tshisekedi demanded withdrawal of the EACRF soldiers, accusing them of being too soft on the M23 rebels who suddenly became active in November 2021 after being silent for almost a decade since its last defeat in 2013.
M23, a largely Tutsi led rebel group which is the most conspicuous of over 120 armed groups operating in Eastern Congo has for years accused the Kinshasa government of ignoring a promise to integrate its fighters into the Congolese army while supporting ethnic cleansing of its community.
The group has already declared it will reoccupy the areas it handed over to EACRF laying ground to what could turn out to be a collapse of the peace process led by former President Uhuru Kenyatta and another round of armed conflict between the Congolese army and M23.
"Following the departure of the EACRF from DRC, for the well-being of the civilian population, the M23 will recover and occupy all its areas that it handed over to EACRF at the beginning of the peace process," the rebel group's spokesperson Lawrence Kanyuka said in a statement on Sunday night.
“The government coalition, which includes militia groups like the FDLR, have continued to bomb M23 positions and heavily populated areas using fighter planes. We will not spare any effort to protect the civilian population and ourselves professionally,” he said.
Under a 2013 peace deal between the Congolese government and M23, Kinshasa was supposed to provide amnesty to the members of the rebel group who had escaped to Rwanda and Uganda plus integrate them into the army.
However, after assuming power in 2019, Tshisekedi who is seeking re-election for a second term shelved the agreement and shunned any negotiations with the rebels. This made them to re-activate and pick up arms two years ago.
With the alleged support of Rwanda, M23 managed to seize significant portions of the vast mineral rich North Kivu province forcing Tshekedi to seek the assistance of the EAC as one of his first requests after DRC was admitted to the regional block in August 2022.
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The EAC had for a long time expressed concern about the situation in Eastern DRC but no nation had ever sent troops on the ground to try and pacify the region.
Burundi was the first EAC country to send troops to Congo in August last year. It was followed by South Sudan and Uganda, with Kenya in overall command.
Burundi’s soldiers were deployed in Kilolirwe, Kitchanga and Sake. Kenyan soldiers were deployed to Kibumba, Kishishe and Rumangabo. South Sudanese troops were taken to Rumangabo, while the Ugandan contingent was deployed in Bunagana, Kiwanja and Mabenga.
The force was told to work alongside United Nations troops who were already in the country. The UN peacekeeping force, known as Monusco, had by then become unpopular for failure to end the conflict during its 25-year deployment.
The deployment of the East African forces was followed up with a ceasefire agreement brokered by former President Kenyatta and a peace negotiation process. M23 even agreed to withdraw from some places like Karuba, Mushaki, Kiloriwe, Kiwanja, Tchengerero, Kinyandoni, Banbo, Kishishe, Mweso and Kitchange.
For a few months, the plan seemed to be working. EACRF took charge of the areas handed over by M23 thus creating a buffer zone between the rebels and the Congolese army as dialogue on how to end hostilities continued in Nairobi.
This plan was enforced during an EAC summit in May where the regional force was instructed to protect civilians while securing the areas vacated by M23 as part of the peace process in order to support the return of internally displaced persons. This was a huge deviation from the initial mandate which was to contain, defeat and eradicate the M23.
Analysts think that this deviation plus competing interests among the countries which deployed their soldiers to Eastern DRC created confusion which has led to the force’s withdrawal.
“Confusion and inconsistency have enshrouded the force’s objectives,” said Stephanie Lizzo, a junior analyst with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Monitoring Group.
Initially, Ugandan soldiers wanted to aid their comrades who were already in Congo in fighting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The ADF is a Ugandan rebel coalition operating in North Kivu that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and being suspected by Uganda of carrying out terror attacks in Kampala.
The Tanzanian and Burundi troops were supposed to operate from South Kivu where the Burundian army had already been fighting the Red-Tabara militia which Bujumbura accuses of being a terror group. This is as the South Sudanese army fought the Lord’s Resistance Army in Haut-Uele.
Kenya on the other hand which sent the largest contingent of at least 900 soldiers and was supposed to head the mission was to go after other rebel groups including M23 in North Kivu.
According to observers, while the overall mission of the East African mission was to create peace in the region, all the countries apart from probably Kenya were pursuing their individual interests. This is perhaps why in May, the force’s mandate was changed to “peacekeeping and protection of civilians while also supporting the political track on dialogue.”
This change of tact angered President Tshisekedi who really wanted the force to help him eradicate M23.
According to President Tshisekedi, M23 which has been wreaking havoc in Eastern DRC for decades has the support of Rwandese President Paul Kagame. This is why other EAC heads of state have been treating the rebel group with kid gloves despite deploying their troops to his country.
“We have accepted the EARCF to accompany our army to impose peace by trying to stop M23, which Rwanda supports. But, unfortunately, we have noticed certain contingents among this force, except Burundi, who is putting all the efforts in the mission as it was defined; other contingents are now living with M23, collecting taxes in the zone that they are illegally occupying. That's a genuine problem, and it also compels us to question the purpose of the EAC mission,” said Tsishekedi in May.
Rwanda and M23 say Tshisekedi is using FDLR, a Hutu led rebel group as a shadow government force to cause insecurity in Eastern DRC. FDLR evolved directly from the militias that killed nearly one million people in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Some of the leaders of FDLR participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide before escaping to Eastern DRC where they have lived for the last three decades. FDLR members are from the Hutu ethnic group while M23 is largely made up of Tutsi of Congolese descent.
Infact, Kagame who is an ethnic Tutsi did not send troops to DRC as part of the EAC mission. According to him FDLR and the Congolese army are one unit operating using different names.
“The Congo government not only arms the FDLR, they work closely together, although sometimes FDLR operates independently,” said the Rwanda President in February.
Nevertheless, despite the hostilities between Kagame and Tshisekedi being sucked into the EACRF mission, Kinshasa begrudgingly agreed to extend the mission’s mandate to December 8.
With a political solution now off the table, Tsishekedi’s desire to find a military solution against the M23 has made him to hire Agemira and Congo Protection, two private military companies to fight his war as he waits for SADC’s help.
Experts have a pessimistic view about the current developments in terms of peace in Eastern DRC and have termed them a return to the past.
“Little is being done to address the structural issues that allowed conflict to simmer on for 27 years–abusive and corrupt security forces, communal tensions, a lack of employment, and the poor governance of the plentiful tin, tantalum, gold, timber, land, and charcoal in the region,” says the Centre on International Corporation.
“Even if the M23 disappears, there will be approximately a hundred other armed groups, including some that have been more destructive and deadly, remaining,” says the think tank.
Achuka writes for NativNews, a security reporting project by Steward-Africa. [email protected]