A newly deployed East African force in the Democratic Republic of Congo will mount operations against the M23 armed group if the rebels do not withdraw from occupied territory and cease attacks, African leaders agreed at a summit this week in Angola.
But the mission – which plans to “enforce peace” in eastern parts of DRC – is not yet fully deployed and there are lingering questions about funding, safeguards for civilians, and how it will coordinate with a long-running UN peacekeeping operation.
The East African force has also raised concerns among Congolese activists and civil society groups mindful of past interventions that have seen neighbouring countries sponsor militias, hoover up mineral wealth, and engage in widespread rights abuses.
“[Having] many, many, many armies [is] not good for Congo,” said Ghislain Muhiwa, co-founder of LUCHA, a leading civil society group. “It’s a great risk and it means they’ll come to rob our minerals… and they’ll also come to destabilise the situation more.”
The new force was approved by regional leaders in April, shortly after DRC joined the East African Community (EAC) – a seven-nation bloc. A Burundian contingent deployed in August, while hundreds of Kenyan troops touched down this month.
Troops are arriving as the reconstituted M23 has uprooted some 280,000 people in recent months and draws close to Goma – the largest city in the east. Neighbouring Rwanda is widely accused of backing the group, though its government denies this and joined calls for a ceasefire at the Angola summit.
A summit statement stated that EAC troops will deploy to areas the M23 withdraws from. But such an operation will be sensitive given that Rwanda is an EAC member state, and that Uganda, which is also in the bloc, has also been accused by DRC of backing the rebels.
DRC has excluded Rwanda from deploying frontline troops with the force, but Kigali will reportedly contribute intelligence-gathering and station standby soldiers along the border. Meanwhile, Uganda will play a direct role, with troops on their way shortly.
Edgar Mateso, a civil society leader from North Kivu province, an epicentre of conflict in eastern Congo, said he is sceptical of the EAC intervention. “They are executioners who want to come as saviours,” he said. “They will not have the support of the people.”
“If Rwanda, which is attacking us through the M23, and Uganda… contribute to this force, it will not be trustworthy, it will not be of any use,” added Jean-Pierre Kasereka Maghetsi, a LUCHA activist.
Short on detail
Details on how the EAC force will work have been opaque, though a draft concept of operations note seen by The New Humanitarian, states that its goal is to “contain, defeat and eradicate” armed groups.
While the M23 – which says it wasn’t part of the Angola summit and therefore isn’t concerned by the outcome – has occupied recent attention, over 120 such groups are currently active in eastern DRC and almost six million people are internally displaced.
The draft note states that the force will have between 6,500 and 12,000 troops working with the Congolese army on a six-month renewable mandate. Each country will fund its own troops, and operations will focus on four eastern and northeastern provinces.
The four provinces where the EAC force is expected to operate
Some analysts have questioned the force’s commitment to military operations. But others fear a free-for-all in which countries pursue their own economic and political interests – as many have done in DRC since regional wars in the 1990s and 2000s.
“My fear is that this military force will be used to protect economic interests,” said Nene Morisho, of Pole Institute, a Congolese think tank. “If there is competition among these countries in this economic sphere, it will easily be transferred to military-security issues.”
For some countries, the new force rubber stamps their existing presence in DRC. For example, Burundi was conducting secretive operations in South Kivu province prior to joining. Troops targeted anti-Burundian rebels but also abused Congolese civilians.
Uganda also has soldiers in North Kivu and Ituri under a separate operation that deployed late last year with the ostensible goal of combatting the Allied Democratic Forces – a militant group with Ugandan origins.
This operation rankled Rwanda, which felt regional rivals were getting a greater hand than it was in eastern DRC, even as Rwandan Hutu rebels remain active there. Perceived marginalisation may have led Rwanda to back the M23 – dormant until late 2021.
Daniel Levine-Spound, a peacekeeping researcher based in DRC for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said the EAC should “proactively adopt” measures to prevent and mitigate harm to civilians arising from the presence of foreign troops.
“Partially because many of the countries involved in the force have recently undertaken military operations on Congolese soil, there is a significant amount of mistrust and uncertainty among civilians that the force will need to overcome,” Levine-Spound said.
What about the blue helmets?
Other countries involved in the joint force – which did not respond to requests for comment by The New Humanitarian – include Tanzania and Kenya, both of which have existing deployments in DRC as part of the UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO.
The 16,000-strong UN mission – which is planning to leave DRC in the coming years – has had limited effectiveness over the past two decades and has been the subject of growing protests by Congolese in recent months.
“The UN has been here for 20 years, but there’s been no change,” said Samson Rukira, the head of Civil Society Life Force, a local rights group. “We are [still] living with war, killing, rape, [and] kidnapping.”
William Mbokani, a 22-year-old who participated in recent anti-MONUSCO protests, said he doubted the EAC force would be an improvement on the UN mission. “What difference will there be with the regional force made up of troops from the same countries?” Mbokani said.
The draft concept note states that the EAC force will liaise with MONUSCO but provides no further information on how they will coordinate. MONUSCO did not respond to requests for comment by The New Humanitarian.
Levine-Spound said the UN mission can struggle to work in areas where foreign armies are operating. He said limited information-sharing between peacekeepers and the Ugandan military compromised MONUSCO’s ability to fulfil its mandate in parts of North Kivu.
South Sudan is also supposed to contribute to the EAC force, but there should be mechanisms to avoid rights abuses by participating soldiers who “are known to commit these crimes”, said Ferenc David Marko, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.
The EAC force is one of several initiatives Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi is pursuing to address conflict in the east. Martial law has been introduced in two provinces since last year and plans are also underway to demobilise rebel groups.
Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions have been increasing too. Angolan President João Lourenço has led mediation between DRC and Rwanda, while the EAC has launched talks between the Congolese government and several rebel groups.
Jeff Nyagah, a Kenyan commander leading the joint force, said the mission would prioritise political and diplomatic processes over military operations. “Sometimes, war does not necessarily bring peace,” Nyagah told reporters last week.
Dialogue with the well-armed M23 will be politically tricky for Tshisekedi. The group charts a course back to a long line of destabilising Rwandan-backed rebellions, and its re-emergence has stoked anti-Rwandan sentiment across DRC.
Still, for Faustin Kakule Mutsukunde, the national coordinator for Aid and Action for Peace, a civil society organisation, dialogue with armed groups remains the best course of action, even if it appears to be “an admission of failure or powerlessness”.
“The stated objective in all cases is to reduce insecurity and relieve civilians, who are often the main victims of conflict,” Mutsukunde told The New Humanitarian.
Claude Sengenya reported from Butembo, eastern DRC. Edited by Philip Kleinfeld