Conspiracy and mistrust poison peace mission by regional soldiers

KDF Chief of Defence Forces Gen Francis Ogolla and Assistant CDF Operations Doctrine and Training Major General Fredrick Leuria welcome home KDF Contingent soldiers from the DRC Congo peace mission. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

After a year of chasing an elusive calm in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the last of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) departed the troubled nation yesterday.

Their exit ushers in uncertainty, even as troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) replace the East African forces.

The strife-torn DRC is witnessing a regrouping of rebel groups some filling the gap left by exiting soldiers. But things were hardly different, at least according to Kinshasa, even with the troops in place. This reality poses an immediate challenge to the SADC forces, who, under ideal circumstances, would not need to do the heavy lifting that awaits them.

DRC’s situation is compounded by the exit of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission (Monusco), a process that will be concluded by next month, even as the arrival date of SADC troops remains unknown.

All this is happening amid the nightmarish Wednesday elections that had to be extended into yesterday courtesy of logistical challenges. A section of the country’s opposition has already called for a rerun of the polls, whose credibility they have consistently doubted.

Equally critical, with the departure of the EACRF, will come reassessment.

That message stuck out in a statement by EACRF Force Commander Major General Aphaxard Kiugu. “... whereas military action is desirable as an enabler, it cannot be an end in itself. The grievances leading to the conflict have to be resolved through peace talks,” Maj Gen Kiugu said in part, in a statement highlighting the successes and challenges of the one-year mission.

As the EACRF departs, the feeling in the DRC has been that they fell short of dismantling rebel groups. Government officials have openly faulted their reluctance to fight groups such as M23, even as the EAC troops maintained that they had delivered on their mandate, which they argued only allowed them to respond to attacks and not initiate them.

Kiugu pointed out the force’s achievements in safeguarding key installments against rebel groups, reopening key supply routes and restoring normalcy in some territories. All this, he added, was achieved courtesy of a ceasefire between M23 and the DRC forces (FARDC). 

“Albeit fragile, the ceasefire lasted from March 7 to October 6, 2023, when it was breached following (the) resumption of hostilities between M23 and FARDC,” Kiugu went on, also blaming “negative propaganda against the regional force” for undermining its mission.

The Congolese army and M23 have consistently fought since October, with calls for a ceasefire largely ignored. The initial suspension of hostilities was brokered by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the facilitator of the EAC-led effort dubbed the Nairobi process. The same was a resolution of a subsequent mediation exercise by Angola President João Lourenço through the Luanda process that seeks to end hostilities between Rwanda and the DRC.

Kinshasa will need to rethink its strategies in fighting M23 and other rebel groups, especially in light of the evidence that a political solution offers a chance for lasting peace.

“In all low-density conflict, the military option is the last. The three aspects that lead to lasting peace are political, economic and social solutions,” says security analyst George Musamali.

The EAC will also need to reassess its peacekeeping and peace-enforcing strategies going forward given the verdict issued on their performance by President Felix Tshisekedi’s administration. The Congolese Head of State did not hesitate in denying the EAC troops an extension of their mandate for what government officials view as a lacklustre performance.

Government officials have consistently called out the EACRF, which has also had to contend with protests from the public, amid accusations that it had taken sides in the conflict. President Tshisekedi openly lashed out at former Force Commander Maj Gen Jeff Nyagah, who was forced to leave following threats to his security.

“If the people you are working with have rated you badly then it is only fair to know why,” said Saboti Member of Parliament Caleb Amisi, who sits in the National Assembly Defence, Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committee.

KDF Chief of Defence Forces Gen Francis Ogolla and Assistant CDF Operations Doctrine and Training Major General Fredrick Leuria welcome home KDF Contingent soldiers from the DRC Congo peace mission. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

He described the EACRF mission as “opaque”, stating there was no value for money in it.

“We will demand full disclosure of the mission when Parliament resumes,” Mr Amisi added.

Mr Musamali agrees with the assertion that the mission was a failure, arguing that it lacked a clear roadmap. “The forces are leaving the DRC the same way they found it, if not worse,” said Musamali, adding that Kinshasa was right to demand that the EACRF helps them combat the rebels because its mission was on “peace-enforcing”, a view shared by Amisi.

“A major reason why the DRC joined the EAC was that it wanted to benefit from the region’s security alliance,” said Amisi.

University lecturer and international relations scholar Macharia Munene believes the EAC heads got the policy wrong.

“Our soldiers did the best they could. The problem was never with implementation but on the formulation of the policy which came out as confused,” said Prof Munene, who blamed Kenya’s regime change for the mission’s outcome.

“Uhuru seemed to have an understanding with Tshisekedi and worked hard to have the DRC join the EAC. (President William) Ruto did not seem enthusiastic about what Uhuru had done,” he said, adding that there were red flags when Tanzania opted out of joining the EACRF troops in the DRC, favouring the SADC process.

Last week’s announcement of the formation of a rebel coalition in Nairobi, Munene adds, was in bad taste. Musamali said that it supported the popular view that Kenya had taken sides in the conflict.

“The DRC has lost all its hope in the EAC,” said Musamali.

Nairobi and Kinshasa are not on the best of terms most recently due to a press briefing by opposition figure Corneille Nangaa, in which he announced an alliance with M23 rebels.

Kenya, which has a bilateral military agreement with the DRC, finds itself issuing justifications for allowing the press conference, with Tshisekedi recalling his envoy in Nairobi.

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