There is big worry that the latest deployment of troops by Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda into the jungles of the DR Congo at the invitation of President Felix Tshisekedi could end up in clashes amongst these armies, further escalating instability in the Great Lakes region.
Considering that the East African states are deploying troops under separate deals with Kinshasa in total disregard of a regional framework overlapping interests could ignite a regional conflict.
For instance, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda that are said to already have troops in the DRC harbour bad blood amongst themselves.
To assert his authority and also shake off serious threats posed by former President Joseph Kabila and his allies in the Congolese security forces, Tshisekedi has found it wanting to call in foreign troops on the pretext that they are to neutralise insecurity in Eastern DRC although political analysts see this as a ploy to buttress his vulnerable government.
First, Tshisekedi met Rwanda President Paul Kagame and asked to work with him in areas of security.
It is believed that after agreement, Kagame deployed troops into Congo although he has publicly denied it but has confirmed that he provides intelligence machinery to the Congolese army.
“We are giving information to our partners in the region, including the UN and the Congolese government, who have started to act on the basis of some of it, because they were able to verify it and see for themselves what was happening in North Kivu,” the Rwandan leader is quoted saying.
“There’s not a single RDF soldier in that territory. I say it with authority. Our intelligence connection actually tells us we have forces from Burundi government forces operating from the region,” Kagame asserted.
However, the United Nations has reported citing Rwandan and Burundian troops in the DRC.
The UN in a report released on December 23, 2020, states that “from late 2019 to early October 2020, members of the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) were present in North Kivu.”
According to it, “the Burundian army, alongside members of the Imbonerakure, also launched attacks on South Kivu between November 2019 and July 2020.”
Then on April 21 this year Tshisekedi and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement at the Palais de la Nation, the official residence of DR Congo’s President in Kinshasa that paves way for deployment of Kenyan troops.
Then a week ago, the Uganda military announced they would also be entering DRC, but to guard against likely threats that could disrupt their road construction projects there.
The deployment of Ugandan troops is, according to some senior military officials, intended to flash out the rebels in the area before the construction of three roads connecting Uganda and DR Congo to smoothen business between the two countries.
One road will run from Kasindi to Beni (80km) and another will integrate the Beni-Butebo axis (54km). The third will stretch for 89 kilometres from the border town of Bunagana, through Rutshuru to the strategic city of Goma, the capital of the North Kivu Province in DRC.
However, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces spokesperson Brig. Flavia Byekwaso has said they have sent soldiers into DR Congo to liaise with their Congolese counterparts in intelligence sharing.
“We sent a liaison team for coordination purposes on information and intelligence sharing not for deployment [of soldiers],” She said.
Local Ugandan media says the troops were deployed on May 17 under the command of Maj. Gen. Kayanja Muhanga, who is now the commander of the Mountain Brigade based in Rwenzori.
Rwandan and Ugandan troops have been in and out of Congo in recent years, sometimes without Kinshasa’s permission.
Not yet done, Tshisekedi has also invited European troops in the mix. The Congolese leader has approached Brussels to help train Congolese armed forces.
The EU’s envoy to Kinshasa has confirmed the news and has held a meeting with Congo’s defense minister to iron out details of the deployment.
Of the three East African countries, Kenya appears to be more prepared for its mission and has put in place a detailed deployment plan although President Tishesekidi says Kenyan troops are just “volunteers”.
Kenya, which helped strike a peace deal between the M23 rebel groups and the DRC government in 2013, has lined up some of the country’s best-trained elite soldiers for deployment to one of the most dangerous parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rapid intervention force has been secretly preparing for about a year to join a conflict that has come to be termed Africa’s First World War.
This will be the first time the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) will be deploying its specialised units to a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
The Kenyan soldiers are expected to enable peacekeeping troops to patrol remote violence-rocked villages and deter further hostilities in eastern DR Congo.
Other than the Monusco arrangement, more Kenyan soldiers will be deployed through the recently signed Defence Cooperation Agreement between Kenya and the DR Congo.
The Kenyan soldiers’ period of service will range from a few months to four years, depending whether they are under Monusco or the Defence Cooperation Agreement between the two countries.
Part of the training for the mission was conducted in the KDF Kangaita Camp in Mt Kenya and in the DR Congo.
The Kenya Defence Forces commandos are said to be so well-trained that they are “walking weapons”.
The Special Forces include some of the soldiers who carried out a daring raid in the Somalia town of Jilib, then the only remaining bastion of al-Shabaab militants, where they neutralised a top al-Shabaab commander in 2018.
According to Kenyan media, KDF will send a contingent of troops drawn from 20th Parachute Battalion, the country’s oldest commando unit, and the 5th Battalion Kenya Rifles (5KR), the first battalion to be deployed to the North Eastern Province in the 1960s to counter the aggressive territorial expansionist campaign by the then newly independent Somalia.
The 20th Parachute Battalion was formed on March 17, 1983, taking over from the First Parachute Company, an airborne force that was conceived as Kenya approached independence.
5KR is also the home of the 30th Special Forces (30SF), the KDF special operators equipped and trained by the British using the training protocols of the Special Air Service (SAS), a Special Forces unit of the British Army.
The first tour will see about 1,600 soldiers drawn from 20th Para and 5KR plus other uncountables work with intelligence officers and DR Congo troops.
The uncountables to be sent to the eastern DR Congo include the mysterious Long Range Surveillance (LRS) unit, which is classified by the military and government circles as “above top secret”.
The LRS, which is run by the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI), is permanently forward-deployed to track enemy movements.
Members of the unit do not wear uniform and don’t keep the official military look as their job is to blend in and work unnoticed.
In the follow-up tours, the 20th Para and 30SF will be replaced with other members of the Kenya Special Operations Regiment, notably the American-trained 40 Rangers Strike Force (40RSF), the Special Boat unit of the Kenya Navy and the Clearance Diving Unit.
The newly formed Marine Commandos, who are also ranger-qualified, are also in line for deployment to the DR Congo.
The planned deployment of Kenya’s highly trained soldiers highlights the seriousness with which both countries are taking the security situation in the eastern DR Congo.
“Kenya will voluntarily be part of the Rapid Intervention Brigade to come and support the FARDC in order to eradicate insecurity in the east of our country,” President Tshisekedi said.
The Kenyan contingent is expected to replace South African troops in Monusco and will be working alongside soldiers from Nepal.
According to the programme, the KDF contingent is expected to be deployed in the provinces of Ituri, North and South Kivu.
Although to end insurgency in Eastern DRC before the Congolese join the East African Community is a valid reason, the bigger concern is; won’t this uncoordinated troop movement in the region by the Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Kenya lead to clashes amongst themselves or what one would wish to call Kisangani 3?
Genesis of insurgency in DRC
In the past, Rwanda and Uganda forces fought bitter battles in the Eastern DRC, conflicts that were code-named Kisangai 1 and 2.
The rivalry between Kagame and his mentor, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, has long been among the gravest contributors to instability in the Great Lakes region. Animosity between the two men has sharpened dramatically in the last two years.
Competition between Rwanda and Uganda traditionally has played out mostly in the DRC, where both have sought to win influence and control turf.
During the 1998-2003 inter-Congolese war, the two countries backed competing rebel factions in the eastern DRC and deployed their own forces into the country, with Rwandan and Ugandan troops battling for the city of Kisangani in 2000.
Thereafter, the insurgency in Eastern DRC became a result of Rwanda and Uganda’s military expeditions.
After the war, rebel leaders supported by Kigali or Kampala won positions in Joseph Kabila’s transitional government, as their respective fighters were formally integrated into the national army. Informally, however, rebel leaders retained some foreign ties and their command of former fighters within and outside the army.
Rwanda and Uganda have both backed rebellions in the DRC in the past twelve years. The first, in 2008, was led by the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), whose leader, Laurent Nkunda, was a Congolese Tutsi warlord who had been integrated into the Congolese army.
UN investigators subsequently revealed Kigali’s backing for Nkunda’s forces, prompting Rwanda to withdraw its support and arrest Nkunda, who had retreated into Rwandan territory when his rebellion ended, largely due to the withdrawal of Rwanda’s support in the face of international pressure.
Kabila, then the Congolese president, again integrated many rebels into the army; elite army units that Kabila subsequently deployed to the hardest-hit conflict zones in the country often comprised former CNDP fighters.
In 2012, some ex-CNDP units that had integrated into the army broke away, forming the M23 rebel group. This time, Rwanda and Uganda both backed the rebels. When Congolese and UN forces defeated the M23 in 2013, followers of one M23 leader, Bosco Ntaganda, fled to and surrendered in Rwanda, while many of those still loyal in spirit to the arrested Nkunda surrendered to Uganda.
Representatives of Congolese insurgent groups, including ex-M23 cadres, operate freely in Kampala and meet regularly with Ugandan military officials, even as Uganda categorically denies supporting rebels in the DRC or plotting to destabilise either that country or Rwanda.
Both Rwanda and Uganda claim DRC is a sanctuary of different rebel groups fighting their governments. They also accuse each other of sponsoring these rebel groups. Kigali suspects both Burundi and Uganda of sponsoring Rwandan rebels, including the FDLR and RNC.
Rwandan officials argue that Ugandan officials simply turn a blind eye to armed groups’ activities and that the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) itself recruits freely in Uganda.
On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village, a hub for mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan officials and regional intelligence sources attribute the strike to the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred much of the Tutsi minority and many moderate Hutu during the genocide.
Mounting evidence points to an alliance between the FDLR and the RNC rebels. The RNC, also based in the DRC, is led by Tutsi defectors from Kagame’s government, allegedly including Kayumba Nyamwasa, who once was one of Kagame’s most trusted generals but now is exiled in South Africa.
Since 2017, RNC fighters have been based in strongholds on the remote plateau of South Kivu province, where they have allied with Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsi militiamen hostile to the Congolese army and Rwanda. Rwandan and DRC officials, as well as local sources, say some RNC fighters have moved from those areas to join up with FDLR units in Rutshuru territory in North Kivu, an area close to the Rwandan and Ugandan borders from which the attacks on Kinigi appear to have emanated. Rwandan authorities believe that Burundian intelligence officials and the Imbonerakure, the Burundian ruling-party youth militia, are embedded with RNC forces.
Ugandan officials accuse Rwanda of supporting the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel movement active in the eastern DRC. No independent body has verified the charge, but the accusations in themselves add to tensions. Uganda has beefed up border patrols and deployed the Mountain Brigade, a special army unit, to the Rwenzori mountains at the DRC-Uganda border, looking out over DRC territory that has been at the epicentre of ADF activity over the last few years.
Rwandan and DRC intelligence officials report that Burundi hosts FDLR splinter elements from South Kivu, which it has deployed to its border with Rwanda. In December 2018, assailants coming from Burundi launched an attack in the Nyungwe forest in south-western Rwanda, another tourist attraction and a popular weekend destination for Kigali residents. The attackers killed two Rwandan civilians and injured another eight.
UN reports partially support Kigali’s claims of Burundian and Ugandan ties to Kagame’s armed rivals. In December 2018, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, which reports to the Security Council, concluded that the P5, a group of Rwandan opposition factions including the RNC, were working with rebels in the DRC with the aim of toppling Kagame’s government. The experts reported that the P5 received weapons and other support from Bujumbura, a claim Burundian authorities denied. In the same month, two prominent FDLR members, the group’s spokesperson Ignace Nkaka, known as La Forge, and its deputy intelligence officer Jean-Pierre Nsekanabo, were arrested at Bunangana, North Kivu, on the DRC-Uganda border. Both men were extradited to Kigali via Kinshasa.
For their part, Burundian officials accuse Kigali of supporting the South Kivu-based Burundian rebel group, RED-Tabara, a claim that Rwanda rejects. Founded in 2011, RED-Tabara is reportedly led by Alexis Sinduhije, a Tutsi opponent of the Hutu-dominated Burundian government whom the U.S. has sanctioned since 2015 for instigating “armed rebellion”.
Tensions between Rwanda and its two neighbours, Burundi and Uganda, have escalated over the past two years. In November 2019, Kagame openly threatened to retaliate against his neighbours after an October 2019 raid in Rwanda by a North Kivu-based militia that he alleges is supported by Burundi and Uganda.
Is Tshisekedi’s fear for Kabila exaggerated?
Former President Kabila is perceived as trying to hold on to power with the hope of making a comeback in the next elections in 2023. He and his family still have significant finance at their disposal, and they still have some very important allies in government.
Some secessionists have openly declared Kabila as their leader. There have also been attacks against Kasaians of Luba origin — Tshisekedi’s ethnic group.
Ever since Kabila went back to the Katanga Province, tensions there have been mounting. The Katanga region has a long and troubled history: The State of Katanga was originally a breakway state of the former Republic of the Congo from 1960 to 1963. Although it was reintegrated into DR Congo, many residents in the region feel alienated from the rest of the country and disgruntled over what they consider to be exploitation of their vast resources — including cobalt and copper — to enrich the rest of the country. Militias such as the Mai Mai Kata Katanga remain active as part of the Katanga insurgency.
So while Kabila himself does not seem particularly interested in sowing domestic discord, the tense situation could potentially be exploited by secessionists.
With Kabila’s allies still very much in control of the army and police forces, the President Tshisekedi faces a potentially huge big problem. And if he can’t control the security services, then how much power does he really have in the country?
Although troops from neighbouring states could temporarily diffuse tension between Tshisekedi and Kabila in future it may prove problematic getting rid of foreign forces from DRC.
Therefore, instead of involving neighbours in military operations, Tshisekedi should focus more on building and strengthening domestic political alliances that will cushion his government.