East African Community leaders are scrambling to cement the regional force’s position in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the UN peacekeeping mission — Monusco — prepares for exit in December.
According to the East African, an extraordinary heads of state summit will be convening soon to give direction on the fate of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), whose mandate expires on September 8.
Kinshasa has signalled an unwillingness to extend the EACRF mandate for the second time, amid feelings that it has failed to rout the M23 rebels, who have been a thorn in Kinshasa’s flesh, and who have been blamed for massacres of unarmed civilians.
In view of the developments, regional ministers on Defence are scheduled to meet in Nairobi on August 22 to deliberate on the future of the Congo mission.
EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki said on Wednesday that the ministers would review the force’s operations and the possibility of an extension of its mandate.
“The EACRF continues to operate in eastern DRC to support the restoration of peace and security in eastern DRC after the mandate was renewed for six months from 8th March to 8th September 2023,” Dr Mathuki said.
“The Sectoral Council on Defence meets in Nairobi from 22nd August to review progress and discuss post-September 2023, depending on the practical situation on the ground.”
Kenya’s EAC Minister Rebecca Miano on Thursday told The EastAfrican that there is likely to be an extraordinary summit to discuss the status of the force in eastern Congo.
“On the other matters of (EACRF mandate) renewal, we are within the timelines… We anticipate before the expiry of the time we may have an extraordinary summit to give a way forward, even though it is premature to speculate what will happen until the relevant meetings take place.”
The review comes amid uncertainty on the future of the force as the Felix Tshisekedi administration continues to sign bilateral defence pacts with Congo’s neighbours, signalling a preference for combat rather than peacekeeping in efforts to beat rebels who have caused Kinshasa headaches for decades.
Add that to the simmering bad blood between President Felix Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame of Rwanda over the M23 rebel group — composed of Congolese Tutsi — and the genocidaire militia FDLR, accused of pursuing a violent change of regime in Kigali.
In a report tabled to the UN Security Council, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monusco will leave the country by December 2023, the time when DRC is also expected to hold a general election.
Experts warn that the exit of Monusco – and EACRF – would worsen the security situation in the troubled eastern Congo.
Mr Guterres said Monusco is entering “its final phase” in the DR Congo. According to the plan, the Mission will have to begin “an accelerated withdrawal,” even though the security and humanitarian situation is “deteriorating sharply.”
But Dr Mathuki is confident that the EACRF will step in when the UN withdraws its peacekeeping force.
“The EAC Regional Force in eastern DRC is mandated by the EAC Summit. Further, the EACRF is operating in eastern DRC based on rules and procedures adopted by the EAC Summit,” Dr Mathuki said.
“In that regard, based on my assessment, the EACRF mandate and operations will not be affected by decisions of any other regional or international organisation to pull out or join in the mission area.”
“Nevertheless, the EAC and EACRF will always be ready to work together, in a coordinated manner, with other organisations operating in eastern DRC to bring peace and stability to eastern DRC,” he added.
With President Tshisekedi facing elections in December, the search for peace in DRC continues to face significant challenges, the first of which relates to the inadequate number of troops and funding.
Kenya recently deployed around 200 soldiers to join Monusco under the Quick Reaction Force while Tanzania has its troops present under the Force Intervention Brigade, which is also part of the Monusco peacekeeping force.
On Thursday, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) agreed to deploy troops to the DRC, and extended the bloc’s military mission in Mozambique, in a move they said is meant to bring peace to the region.
In Congo, the success of the EACRF is highly dependent on the effectiveness of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), which has been somewhat lethargic in its formation. A total of 771 troops of the Congolese army, FARDC’s Infantry Brigade, have been trained over 13 weeks.
Dr Mathuki says the regional bloc will get additional funding to enable it to maintain its role in peacekeeping.
“The journey towards peace and prosperity is ongoing, but with the commitment and co-operation of all parties involved, a brighter future for eastern DRC and the EAC is within reach,” Dr Mathuki. “EAC partner states that made financial contributions to the process are Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, while Rwanda and South Sudan have committed to contribute to the Peace Fund.”
The EAC is seeking funding from the African Union, the UN and the European Union to enable EACRF to extend its life in eastern Congo.
Dr Mathuki said the European Union, the UN, and the Swedish government have been contributing to keeping the regional force in place.
“We appreciate the commitment by the African Union for their recognition of EAC on restoration of peace in eastern DRC, and their financial contribution to the East African Community. Further, we appreciate other friendly countries of Angola and Senegal, who have made financial contributions to the EAC Peace Fund,” he said.
He remains optimistic that the Summit will allow EACRF to finish what it seeks to achieve in the Congo.
This optimism is derived from the feeling that Kinshasa is not ready to fully take over security responsibilities, especially in the troubled east.
Experts say there will need to be another type of foreign mission.
But the Congolese are happy to see the backs of the UN peacekeepers, whose 25-year legacy has been quite chequered. Created to protect civilians, numerous investigations have shown that the 15,000 troops and police committed crimes themselves, and often failed to defend the vulnerable.
The Congolese, angered by its perceived lethargy, have been protesting, sometimes violently, to push it out.
Initially, the transition plan was supposed to be gradual, during which Monusco would work to transfer more responsibilities to the Congolese authorities, as per a plan adopted in September 2021.
But the latest Secretary-General’s report states that it was because of a “hostile rhetoric” against the mission in July 2022, which degenerated into a wave of violent demonstrations in the east that President Tshisekedi “requested a reassessment of the joint transition plan… With a view to moving towards the withdrawal of the mission.”
Mr Guterres said that the EACRF, which has been in DRC since November 2022, “remains an essential component of the regional effort to contain and ultimately resolve the current crisis.”
But EACRF is also reaching its end of mandate in September. The UN is suggesting a configuration of the civilian, police and military components of the mission beyond Monusco’s current license.
The Monusco departure begins in December this year and could go on until December 2024. But the UN admits that in the current political and security context, a premature withdrawal would have consequences for civilians who rely on the mission for their protection.
The resurgence of the M23 rebellion has forced the Congolese authorities to step up the deployment of the FARDC in North Kivu, creating a security vacuum that is now being filled by a multitude of militias and armed groups elsewhere.
The armed groups are both Congolese and foreign, and control more than 70 per cent of the territories of Irumu and Djugu, 10 per cent of Mahagi and five per cent of Mambasa, in Ituri, according to a report by the UN Secretary-General.
Julien Paluku, a former governor of North Kivu, and now the Minister for Industry says there has been a proliferation of armed groups within the DRC now about 200 since 2021.
“The number of acts of sexual violence committed against children more than doubled between 2021 and 2022. The Unicef and its partners assisted 8,100 survivors of gender-based violence nationwide in 2022, compared to 3,500 in 2021,” said Guterres.
Strength of the army
Kinshasa, however, says its army is growing in strength. And authorities say they have speeded up the recruitment and training of new soldiers. More than 12,000 young people have recently been recruited into the army, according to FARDC. These are being trained in Kamina, in the south of the country.
A further 12,000 are being trained at the Kitona base in the western region, and another 7,000 in Likasi, southeastern Congo.
December is also the month when the DRC is expected to hold its General Election, in which President Tshisekedi is defending his seat. If he wins, he will be the first president in the country’s history to win back the heart at the ballot.
But the election is coming as armed groups renew fighting in the east, a restive region for the past three decades.
FARDC accuses M23, an armed group it says is supported by Rwanda, of the violence. Rwanda has always denied the charge, even though both Kigali and Kinshasa are accused of backing rebel groups inside the DRC, to destabilise each other.
Monusco mandate has morphed over the years. Several of its offices in the provinces of Kasai and Kasai-Central, in the central region, have already closed. In June 2022, some troops under Monusco and operating in Tanganyika province in the southeast departed.
After a spate of violence that marked the protests against their presence in North Kivu in July 2022, which left 36 people dead, including three peacekeepers, Monusco also quit Butembo in North Kivu Province.
President Tshisekedi said that “after the presidential election in December 2023… there will be no reason for Monusco to remain in the DRC.”
For now, however, there is uncertainty on whether the elections will be held as scheduled. The country is struggling to raise the budget — at least $500 million.
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