The first batch of Kenya Defence Forces deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has left the country. The contingent is part of a joint regional operation and left aboard two Spartan aircraft for Goma, DRC on Saturday.
They were flagged off by Chief of Defence Forces Gen Robert Kibochi at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), and received after a two-hour flight by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Under the command of Lt Colonel Dennis Obiero, the KDF battle group is expected to coordinate with other troops drawn from the East African Community Regional Force to bring law and order to the Northern Kivu region.
Jointly, the troops are to work with the Congolese Army to defeat the armed M23 rebels, work with humanitarian agencies to ensure aid reaches the population and participate in the disarmament, demobilisation and community recovery and stabilisation programme.
While Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda have committed to deploy two battalions each, South Sudan committed to deploying one battalion with Tanzania giving her commitment to join the peace efforts at a later date.
The deployment comes following an EAC Heads of State conclave in Nairobi that resolved the formation of a regional force and immediate deployment in the troubled region.
While flagging off the troops Saturday, Gen. Kibochi said he was confident that the troops would deliver above expectations.
Gen. Kibochi said the troops had undergone rigorous training in Isiolo in preparation for deployment and are thus ready to undertake the assignment.
“As KDF, we have vast experience in such missions having undertaken [them] in countries like Chad and Yugoslavia among others. This one is slightly different because EAC and not traditional UN have commissioned it,” he said.
He said although West African countries and the SADC block will be joining the operations, the mission remains historic to EAC as it has never commissioned a regional force before.
“This is why I want to let you know that you have a big burden on your shoulders because the people of Congo have great expectations from you,” he said.
According to Gen.Kibochi, KDF’s quick reaction force that had been deployed to the country under the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), had set a precedent that must be maintained.
“As we go we must ensure that those standards are not lowered. Let us have respect for the people of Congo and maintain our discipline as we have always done in other missions. Ensure you execute your mandate within the mission’s area of operations and nothing else,” the CDF advised.
He added, “Our focus should be to be as humane as possible and restore peace to help the people get back to their normal livelihoods.”
On arrival at Goma, KDF troops were welcomed by their Congolese counterparts.
Spokesperson Lt. Col. Guillaume Njike Kaiko said the hostile forces, especially within Ruchuru which is their stronghold had destroyed many livelihoods.
“We are grateful that you have responded to our distress calls as a neighbour. May the good Lord grant you strength even as we look forward to a great partnership in the mission ahead,” Kaiko said.
Lt. Col. Obiero said they would ensure that they remain within their operational mandate which is supporting their host in offensive operations against the rebels, disarming and demobilising aggressors and coordinating with humanitarian agencies to ensure aid gets to the civilians.
The six-month mission is expected to end in May 2023.
Kibochi however said before then, the EAC member states will review the progress and determine whether there would be an extension or not.
At least 100 armed groups operate in eastern DRC, where conflict has raged for decades but intensified in recent months.
In June, Bintou Keita, UN special representative to the country and head of MONUSCO, warned that the rebel group M23 posed a growing threat to civilians and might soon overpower the mission's 12,500 military personnel.
Kenya is expected to spend Sh4.45 billion to keep the troops on the ground in the mineral-rich country.
Last week parliament approved the deployment of the 903 soldiers after President William Ruto through Defence CS Aden Duale made a formal request.
The National Assembly’s Departmental Committee on Defence, Intelligence and Foreign Relations said the budget to keep the troops operational beyond the stipulated six months could rise to Sh6 billion.
The expenditures will mainly go towards equipment, operations and payment of sustenance allowances.
The budget presented by Duale will see a bulk of the Sh4.451 billion go towards operations and maintenance at Sh1.99 billion, procurement of equipment at Sh1.42 billion and ammunition getting Sh1.03 billion.
According to Duale, salaries for the troops will cost Sh1.04 billion of the budget, sustenance allowance Sh1.04 billion, kitting Sh80 million, arms Sh24.7 million and major equipment Sh286.6 million.
Committee chairperson Nelson Koech told the house that beyond this, it is envisaged that international financing may be secured for the operation if the troops stay longer than six months.
Warning by the M23 rebel group
The rebel group’s spokesperson Willy Ngoma in an exclusive interview with KTN News warned KDF troops he was ready for a confrontation.
Ngoma said although they love peace and dialogue as opposed to conflict as reported, they would not hesitate to respond if KDF crossed their line.
While dismissing reports that Rwanda and Uganda are funding their activities, Ngoma said all they are fighting for is equality within DRC.
The M23 rebellion was an armed conflict in North Kivu that occurred in 2003 between the then-March 23 Movement and government forces.
The rebellion was part of continued fighting in the region after the formal end of the Second Congo War in 2003 before it broke out in 2012 and continued into 2013 when a peace agreement was made among eleven African nations, and the M23 troops surrendered in Uganda.
However, in April 2012, the former National Congress for Defence of the People (CNDP) refused to obey orders of DRC government and the MONUSCO peacekeeping contingent.
The CNDP then formed a rebel group called the M23, also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army.
On 20 November 2012, M23 rebels took control of Goma, a North Kivu provincial capital with a population of one million people.
Since then, their activities have left thousands of civilians and soldiers dead with thousands of others being displaced.