On Wednesday, June 15, 2022, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, who doubles as the Chairman of the East African Community, called for the immediate deployment of a new regional military force to try to stop rebel violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kenyatta suggests that the regional force be deployed to the Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces immediately to stabilize the zone and enforce peace in support of the DRC security forces and in close coordination with MONUSCO (UN peacekeeping force).
However, before a military intervention, rebels will be given an opportunity for dialogue. The political dialogue process will be led by Kenyatta himself.
Kenyatta’s announcement for the regional force came at about the same time the agreed duration of Uganda’s military operations in DRC expired.
DR Congo is the newest and seventh member of the East African Community (EAC), having joined the bloc in April this year.
As the Congolese President ratified the DRC’s membership to the EAC in a virtual summit on 29 March, nearly 2,500km from Kinshasa, fighting was intensifying in the Rutshuru territory, near the border that the DRC shares with Uganda and Rwanda.
Since the evening of 27 March, clashes between the Forces Armées de RDC (FARDC) and the M23 have been raging in this part of North Kivu. The rebels have advanced into the Chanzu, Runyonyi hills and recently captured Bunagana border territory.
Questions are being asked about the sudden re-emergence of the March 23, 2009 (M23). The M23 resurgence started as early as November 2020, with the fighting taking place in the same hills of Rutshuru.
In 2012, with backing from Rwanda and Uganda, this group led the last big rebellion on Congolese soil, briefly capturing Goma before UN and Congolese troops defeated it the following year. Most combatants fled to Uganda, while the remainder sought refuge in Rwanda.
A December 2013 peace agreement emphasized that M23 fighters should return to the DRC, without saying who was responsible for their repatriation. Some former rebels eventually trickled back on their own accord.
In 2017, rebel commander Sultani Makenga tried to revive the movement by leading an estimated 200 ex-fighters back into the DRC before settling in the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park, which borders Rwanda and Uganda. The group then largely fell out of view, though some members reportedly worked as hit men “settling” disputes in the Rutshuru area.
They resurfaced on November 7, 2021 with a raid on Congolese army positions in Rutshuru territory, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, claiming they were sidelined.
Part of the reason that the M23 has returned with such force is that Tshisekedi’s government has struggled since coming into office in 2019 to act decisively on the 2013 peace agreement.
According to the deal, DRC authorities were to demobilize and disarm M23 fighters and give amnesties to most of the rank-and-file. But the agreement had no solution for how to deal with perpetrators of severe human rights violations, including the commander, Makenga, who were excluded from repatriation.
Tshisekedi previously said he would lift arrest warrants for some rebels accused of atrocities, but to date he has not done so, possibly due to anxiety about how his people and the international community would view such a move.
The M23 enjoys little popular support and many Congolese would baulk at offers of return or amnesty to its fighters.
Surprisingly now the DRC authorities accuse both Uganda and Rwanda of supporting the latest M23 attacks.
But the president of Uganda’s M23 wing denied involvement, but did acknowledge the presence of Makenga and his men on Congolese soil. Rwanda also denied that it was involved, blaming the Uganda cohort for the attack.
According to the International Crisis Group, Makenga likely overreacted to a security incident. In a larger attack on January 24 in Nyesisi, near the Virunga National Park, alleged M23 rebels killed about 40 Congolese soldiers, including a colonel. Some analysts believe that Rwanda backed this assault, as it occurred near Uganda’s road works. Kagame immediately denied that Rwanda was involved.
On March 28, M23 fighters clashed with the Congolese army and attacked communities near Rutshuru. Fighting also raged near the border, forcing some 6,000 civilians into Uganda.
Kampala dispatched extra troops to the eastern DRC to protect the road project’s machinery. North Kivu’s military governor accused Rwanda of supporting the M23, parading two captured men he said were Rwandan soldiers before journalists. Rwanda refuted the accusations.
The next day, a UN helicopter with eight peacekeepers crashed in the area, killing everyone on board. The Congolese army said the M23 had downed the aircraft.
On April 1, the M23 unexpectedly announced a unilateral ceasefire, encouraging Congolese authorities to initiate negotiations. The Congolese army rejected the offer, launching a counter-offensive on April 6. It quickly lost strategic positions to the M23, however.
Meanwhile, M23 delegates, reportedly including a representative of Makenga, have been struggling to get an audience with Tshisekedi in vain.
The intense clashes between FARDC and the M23 followed Tshisekedi’s decision to impose a state of siege in Ituri and North Kivu in May 2021, placing the two provinces under military control.
There are currently more than 120 rebel groups ravaging the areas. Most of these rebel groups are local but a few lethal ones like ADF, FDLR, RNC and RED-Tabara originate from neighbouring countries.
To counter the foreign groups, Tshisekedi then invited Ugandan and Burundian troops into the DRC, alongside Congolese army operations, to further illustrate his emphasis on a military approach.
Earlier in June 2021, Tshisekedi and Museveni officially launched the rehabilitation of several stretches of road linking major towns in eastern Congo to Uganda. This includes the very strategic road from Goma to Bunagana, which bypasses Rwanda.
The road works were followed with deployment of Uganda People’s Defence Forces to flush out the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which are active in North Kivu and Ituri on the basis that the terror group were behind a spate of bomb blasts in Kampala.
In November 2021, Tshisekedi authorized Uganda to deploy soldiers in the eastern DRC to fight the ADF. Museveni had allegedly obtained Tshisekedi’s approval to deploy troops in August, prior to the terror attacks, and Uganda undertook its road project and its anti-ADF campaign almost simultaneously, indicating months of advance planning – though admittedly the ADF was a concern in Kampala before the group’s strikes.
Rwanda seems to have been frustrated when it was sidelined while preparing for Uganda’s intervention in the DRC, in a region considered crucial for its security interests.
“Neither the DRC nor Uganda warned us. We only received explanations after a month. Because these movements want to destabilize our country, our interests in the region should not have been neglected,” President Kagame said in January.
The following month after deployment of Ugandan troops, Burundian soldiers also reportedly marched into the DRC to battle the RED-Tabara rebel group.
In late December, presumably with Tshisekedi’s blessing, Burundian troops crossed into the DRC to target the RED-Tabara insurgency, a Tutsi-led group opposing the Hutu-dominated government in Bujumbura.
Those rebels had fired mortar shells at Burundi’s international airport in September and killed about a dozen soldiers and police in an attack on a Burundi-DRC border post three months later.
However, Burundi’s incursion into South Kivu is shrouded in secrecy. In late December, residents of the province’s Uvira territory reported seeing about 400 Burundian soldiers and Imbonerakure, Burundi’s notorious ruling-party youth militia, cross the Rusizi river between the two countries.
They then reportedly entered an alliance with the Gumino and Twigwaneho ethnic groups and several other smaller Mai-Mai groups against RED-Tabara, which has formed ties with another Burundian insurgency, Forces nationales de libération (FNL), and Congolese Mai-Mai militias.
The Burundian army reportedly sustained heavy losses, while thousands of residents fled the violence. Burundi has repeatedly denied that its troops are fighting in the DRC, however. The Congolese government has remained silent on the issue.
The secrecy surrounding Burundi’s incursion has however riled even its own troops. In February, Burundi’s military intelligence allegedly ordered the execution of about twenty Burundian soldiers in Uvira for insubordination. The men had reportedly asked for official recognition of their mission and a clear order of battle in line with military regulations.
After the entry into DRC of Ugandan and Burundians troops, President Kagame, on February 8, 2022, gave a thundering 50-minute speech to the Rwandan parliament, decrying a threat to the country’s security emanating from the DRC’s Kivu provinces.
He cited alleged connections between the ADF and one of his longstanding foes, the FDLR.
Kagame said the danger was great enough that he was considering deploying troops in the eastern DRC without Tshisekedi’s approval.
“As we are a very small country, our current doctrine is to go and fight the fire at its origin … We will wage war where it started, where there is enough space to wage war,” Kagame said. “We do what we must do, with or without the consent of others”.
Rwanda has justified its military manoeuvres in Congo on the need to flush out the Hutu extremists behind the 1994 genocide. This is a view that has won him broad and unequivocal support within the donor circles and the international community.
But President Tshisekedi seemingly replying Kagame a few days later, said: “It is unrealistic and unproductive, even suicidal, for a country in our sub-region to think that it would always benefit from maintaining conflicts or tensions with its neighbours.”
Three days before the capture of the strategic town of Bunagana by M23 rebels, Kigali summoned the Congolese chargé d’affaires in Rwanda to denounce “aggression” and “provocations” on the part of the DRC.
With the tension between Kinshasa and Kigali not about to end soon, DRC authorities have said they won’t accept Rwandan troops to be part of the regional force suggested by Kenyatta.
On April 22, 2022, Kenyatta convened Yoweri Museveni, Everiste Ndayishimiye, Tshisekedi and Rwanda’s foreign minister for talks in which they agreed to form a regional force to fight rebels in the eastern DRC, partly to double down on the military approach, but partly to facilitate peace talks with Congolese armed groups.
The Nairobi meeting unexpectedly put greater emphasis on negotiations with Congolese rather than foreign armed groups.
They hastily cobbled together a first round of talks with the leaders of eighteen armed groups, but the precise goal and scope of this dialogue are still murky.
The selection criteria for attendees of the Kenyatta-led talks were unclear and some of the most violent groups, such as the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo, active in Ituri, and Mai-Mai Yakutumba from South Kivu, were not there. Nor did the talks include foreign armed groups, such as the ADF, RED-Tabara, RNC and the FDLR, while the Congolese authorities kept the M23 branch loyal to Makenga out of the discussions.
For the last two months, Rwanda and DRC have been locked in a war of accusations and counter accusations.
Kinshasa accuses President Kagame and the RPF of recruiting, training and arming the M23 rebel group that has recently inflicted heavy blows on the DRC armed forces, FARDC.
And Rwanda accuses President Felix Tshisekedi and his FARDC forces of aiding and empowering the FDLR (the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) rebel group fighting to depose the Kigali administration.
On March 28, General Sylvain Ekenge, spokesman for North Kivu’s military governor, publicly accused Rwanda of supporting the M23.
He alleged that Rwandan soldiers warrant officer Jean-Pierre Habyarimana and private John Uwajeneza Muhindi, were captured during clashes. This claim was quickly denied by the governor of the Rwandan Western Province and has reinforced the mistrust between Kinshasa and Kigali.
However, according to a report presented in the Rwandan capital on February 25 by General Michel Mandiangu, head of Congolese military intelligence, the two suspects had in fact been arrested several weeks earlier. Warrant Officer Habyarimana was arrested on February 1.
Vincent Karega, Rwanda’s ambassador to the DRC, reaffirmed that Rwanda supported “the M23 neither politically nor militarily.”
On the other hand, Rwanda’s military has accused neighboring FARDC of injuring several civilians in cross-border shelling.
The quarrel on M23 has now spread to Uganda. Legislators in Kinshasa have also accused Uganda of supporting the M23 rebels.
Tshisekedi, the chess player
The Rwanda-DRC conflict has exposed Tshisekedi as a bad chess player for having failed to prescribe the right medicine for his country’s challenges.
President Tshisekedi faces re-election next year, 2023, and security in the eastern DRC, which was one of his major promises during the 2019 election season, could be a factor in his performance.
The Congolese leader promised his people stability in the eastern part of the country to facilitate social-economic transformation. But all his moves have so far failed to be effective.
Since assuming office in 2019, Tshisekedi has tried to tackle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups by mending relations with his neighbours – through regional diplomacy, at first, and later through bilateral talks.
He initially had some success, mainly by bringing Kagame and Museveni together under a quadripartite framework with his Angolan counterpart, João Lourenço. Those efforts have since petered out.
He followed diplomacy with a request to join the EAC, and his country has since been admitted as a member. His wishes from day one were clear: Security and protection of his country’s vast mineral resources.
When diplomacy seemed not to solve his concerns quickly, in 2019, he floated a plan to invite Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda to carry out joint military operations in the east under the Congolese army’s authority. This plan went nowhere, however, allegedly because each of Kampala and Kigali were wary of seeing the other expand a sphere of influence in the DRC.
Unable to ease the deep-rooted mistrust between the two, Tshisekedi changed tack and began to pursue bilateral cooperation. In March 2021, Congolese and Rwandan officials drew up an operational plan for joint military action in the east, though official follow-up has thus far been limited.
To facilitate his military plan, he declared martial law in North Kivu and Ituri provinces in May 2021, aiming to swiftly end insecurity in the two provinces.
In July, the DRC and Burundi agreed to cooperate militarily as well, following a face-to-face meeting between Tshisekedi and Ndayishimiye that was likely a prelude to the deployment of Burundian troops in South Kivu province.
Four months later, and after months of talks between Tshisekedi and Museveni, Ugandan troops marched into the DRC.
With all these efforts unable to yield reasonable results, Tshisekedi has now embraced the proposal for an East African force to save him from possible embarrassment before his re-election campaigns next year.
Challenges for the East African force
The first mistake Tshisekedi has committed is to isolate Rwanda from the regional force even though Kigali administration has asserted that it has a genuine cause to neutralize its enemies holed up in eastern DRC.
President Kagame has said he doesn’t need permission from Kinshasa to purse FDLR and the Rwanda National Congress in DRC. After all, Ugandan and Burundian troops are already defending themselves from DRC.
This means that Kagame could see through his threats or sponsor armed groups to address Rwanda’s interests in DRC and act as a buffer between Rwanda and the negative forces.
The likelihood that Rwanda will enter the fray is real. Kagame’s February speech indicates that he is deeply unhappy with his neighbours’ military adventures in the DRC, though he seems well aware of the obstacles he would face if he were to order Rwandan troops to follow suit.
Despite Tshisekedi’s efforts to bring Kagame onto his side, acrimony between the two leaders runs deep. Rwandan officials claim that Tshisekedi has not allowed them to “take care of the FDLR” – a longstanding complaint of Kagame’s that he also levelled at Tshisekedi’s predecessor, Joseph Kabila – even suggesting that the Congolese army cooperates with the group.
However, it appears that Tshisekedi is not keen to allow Rwandan troops on Congolese soil for fear of inciting internal dissent within his own government and a possible uprising by the Congolese people, who detest the presence of Rwanda.
Tshisekedi runs a coalition government with varying political interests. It is therefore possible for some members of his government including those still representing Kabila’s interests to start undermining and de-campaigning Tshisekedi for allowing Rwandan troops into their country.
For instance, two weeks after Uganda launched its offensive against the ADF, the Congolese and Rwandan police forces agreed to enhance cross-border cooperation. Rumours that a Rwandan crime-fighting force may deploy in Goma, Congo’s sprawling commercial hub near the Rwandan border, sparked deadly protests in the city.
Then on May 31, 2022, hundreds of Congolese staged an anti-Rwanda protest in Kinshasa, over Kigali’s alleged support to the M23. Protesters called for the expulsion of the Rwandan ambassador and brandished nationalistic slogans on banners.
Thereafter, protesters held marches in major cities against the M23 rebel group. Mr Gentiny Ngobila, the Governor of Kinshasa said the protests had turned xenophobic.
In Goma, North Kivu Province in eastern DRC, demonstrators threatened to cross the border to protest in Rwanda. They were turned away by Congolese anti-riot police.
Secondly, Tshisekedi has so far failed to recognize that M23 may have a genuine cause to continue with violent attacks on FARDC.
The spokesman for the M23 has called on the Congolese leader to open direct negotiations with them and said they seized the Bunagana town only to make it safe enough for civilians to return after they fled recent violence.
“In the event of a new threat against our positions or the civilian population, our movement’s troops have received the order to follow and annihilate the threat no matter where it comes from,” M23 spokesman Willy Ngoma said in the statement.
Mr Kambale Musavali of Centre for Research on DRC says that M23 has acquired sophisticated weapons and the rebel group’s capacity has increased rapidly implying that it has become a formidable force to take on and disorganize FARDC.
Thirdly, the challenges of getting the regional force on the ground are enormous. The regional force option, which was already floated some years ago, is likely to encounter great technical, logistical and financial difficulties. Its feasibility is far from clear.
Mr Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst on the DRC and Great Lakes region at the International Crisis Group questions the readiness of EAC countries to provide troops and logistics for the force and deploy it especially after being ravaged by the covid-19 pandemic and currently, the high global commodity prices due to the Ukraine-Russia war.
Over 120 rebel groups and militias still operate in the DRC’s eastern provinces nearly two decades after the official end of the country’s civil wars. Some of the groups have operated there for two decades or more.
“Even by bringing together all the armies of the region, it will be difficult to militarily defeat more than 120 armed groups scattered over a very large area in a region of forests and mountains,” Sematumba told VOA.
“We are dealing with extremely mobile groups that have a very good knowledge of the field and have good networks of information within the populations,” he adds.
“Their asymmetrical warfare strategy requires a similar type of intelligence and special forces response from a potential regional force. States need patience.”
Furthermore, most countries that would contribute troops already have soldiers on Congolese soil and it is uncertain how a joint force of East African states, including Kenya and Uganda, would sit alongside Uganda’s operation in North Kivu and Kenya’s contribution to the FIB, let alone the Burundian troop deployment to South Kivu.
Kenya contributes troops to the UN peacekeeping mission’s FIB, which is based in the eastern DRC, and has a mandate to take on armed groups. The FIB was instrumental in defeating the M23 in 2013.
Fourthly, internally, Tshisekedi’s approach of inviting foreigners to solve the Congolese problems is a none-starter since the same approach has instead been disastrous in the past.
Congolese lawmaker Juvenal Munobo, a member of parliament’s defence and security commission, expressed reservations about the regional force on Twitter.
“We know these countries have interests in the Congo. I think the solution is to invest in (Congo’s army),” he wrote.
Apparently, the Congolese want Tshisekedi to develop a comprehensive plan for negotiations with armed groups. They believe that foreign military operations could generate further proxy conflicts in the region.
How does Tshisekedi win?
Considering that all his options may not deliver quick results having been applied separately, Tshisekedi should opt for a multi-pronged approach-a mix of all of them at ago.
This means diplomacy, military approach, peace talks with rebels and the East African force—all at once.
However, the Congolese leader may also have to repair his relations with his Rwandan colleague as fast as possible, and even officially allow RPF soldiers to pursue the Rwandan rebels.
Tshisekedi may have to agree with his East African colleagues on the duration of their military operations and the territories to be covered under a carefully designed regional military coordination mechanism. This means turning the bilateral arrangements already in place into a multilateral plan.
These military operations by Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda will therefore pressure foreign rebels to surrender and be repatriated, and the local rebels to surrender and join the peace talks.
Since the Kinshasa administration says it hopes to conduct operations with every neighbouring country but after re-establishing “a minimum of trust between us,” Tshisekedi may extend the courtesy to Kagame after all the two leaders have been in regular contact.
On March 24, 2022, the two heads of state met again in Jordan. However, little information was released about this meeting. Each side merely stated that their get-together had gone well.
The two countries’ intelligence services exchange information and, on the economic front, several agreements were concluded in June 2021, giving a Rwandan company rights to refine gold produced in Congo.
This collaboration seems to have gone even further. General Mandiangu’s report, which was mentioned above and presented at a joint meeting, provides several details concerning the cooperation between the two armies against groups hostile to Rwanda present in the DRC.
The report states that “since September 2019, with the support of RDF [Rwanda Defence Force] elements, the leadership of the [Forces Démocratiques de Libérations du Rwanda] has been decapitated,” citing the cases of Sylvestre Mudacumura and Juvénal Musabimana (aka Jean Michel Africa).
If Tshisekedi and Kagame agree to have reasonable results before the former’s re-election campaigns next year, then there shouldn’t be any challenges allowing Rwandan troops to hunt down FDLR and RNC.
In fact, the Congolese are likely to forgive Tshisekedi for allying with Kagame once the negative forces are neutralized to pave way for self-determination by the Congolese.
Otherwise Rwanda cannot look on as Uganda, Kenya and Burundi address their interests, whereas equally has a genuine cause to be in DRC.