CAN KENYA DEFENSE FORCES PACIFY EASTERN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO?
Kenya has deployed more than nine hundred troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as part of the new East African regional force tasked with trying to calm threatening tensions fueled by armed groups. Leaders of the East African Community (EAC) agreed in April to establish a joint East African force to pacify the Eastern provinces that have been engulfed in conflict for decades.
At the start, the proposal for intervention in the country’s troubled east signalled a sense of fatigue in solving the problem politically. The intervention was straightjacketed with many challenges which ranged from legitimacy for the deploying countries, timelines, and funding. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for reconstructive surgery on women and children raped in the Conflict says the deployment of a regional force composed of countries at the root of the destabilization, atrocities and plundering of Congolese resources will bring neither stability nor peace and risks aggravating the situation in eastern DRC.
Kenyan troops are expected to work with Congolese army in disarming rebels and keeping peace in the country’s troubled east. This comes after M23 captured two towns of Kiwanja and Rutshuru-centre along the strategic RN2 highway in the eastern province of North Kivu in recent weeks. In a dramatic turn of events, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) expelled Rwandan ambassador Vincent Karenga by giving him an ultimatum of 48 hours to leave the country. The decision to expel the Ambassador was endorsed by DRC’s high defence council after a meeting which assessed security in the wake of M23 fresh attacks.
The government in Kinshasa accuses Kigali of propping up M23 rebels who are fighting in the country's eastern provinces-a claim Rwanda has repeatedly denied. The move has stocked tensions between countries that observers fear could escalate to war. At the start of his Presidency in 2019, Tshisekedi had tried to embark on rapprochement with neighbouring countries – through regional diplomacy, at first, and later through bilateral talks.
He attempted to broker a dispute between Uganda and Rwanda under the auspices of a quadripartite framework with Angolan President, João Lourenço. He worked hard to have DRC’s admission to the East African Community in March which was seen as a watershed moment in the history of the volatile region. For once, there was optimism that the countries of the East African Community were going to decisively tackle the Conflict in DRC which some observers call the Sick man of Great Lakes. Kenya took leadership by organizing EAC conclave on DRC. However, it seems that these efforts have petered out and instead re-ignited old rivalries that have opened a new era of mutual suspicion and mistrust thus undermining Tshisekedi’s stated goal of stabilizing his country.
For decades, the DRC’s neighbours have used militias in its east – Congolese and foreign alike – as proxies. Rwanda and Uganda especially have long sought to exert influence in the area, whose abundant mineral resources buttress their economies. The genesis of the current conflict in the Eastern DRC dates back to the massive refugee influx and spillover from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After the collapse of the Hutu regime, the remnants fled to eastern DRC and formed militia groups with the aim of regrouping to wage a war against the new government in Kigali. The most prominent has been the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) composed of genocidaires. The Congolese government was unable to contain and defeat the various armed groups, some of which carried out subversive activities against neighbouring countries, and war eventually broke out.
From 1998 to 2003, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe fought rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda in what is known as the Second Congo War which claimed over three million people. Despite the cessation of hostilities in 2002 and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, ongoing violence perpetrated by militias against civilians in the eastern region has continued, largely due to poor governance, weak institutions, and rampant corruption.
One of the most prominent rebel groups to emerge in the aftermath of the war was known as the March 23 Movement (M23), made up primarily of ethnic Tutsis who were allegedly supported by the Rwandan government. M23 rebelled against the Congolese government for supposedly reneging on a peace deal signed in 2009. The United Nations Security Council authorized an offensive brigade under the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to support the DRC state army in its fight against M23. The Congolese army and UN peacekeepers defeated the group in 2013, but other armed groups have since emerged.
The country’s massive resource wealth—estimated to include $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources—also fuels violence. The mineral trade provides financial means for groups to operate and buy arms. The United States passed legislation in 2010 to reduce the purchase of “conflict minerals” and prevent the funding of armed militias, but complex supply chains in the DRC mineral sale business have made it difficult for companies that purchase resources from secondhand buyers to obtain certification. As a result, multinational companies have stopped buying minerals from the DRC altogether, putting many miners out of work and even driving some to join armed groups to gain a source of livelihood.
The deployment of Kenya troops alone without contingents from other member countries as part of the East African Regional force to fight M23, a Congolese insurgency that has been dormant for almost a decade given its previous ties to both Kampala and Kigali is likely to present many challenges. Uganda has been pursuing Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels that carried out twin bombings in Kampala earlier this year while Rwanda claims it is fighting Ex-far, Interahamwe genocidaires plotting to remove the Tutsi establishment in Kigali. Burundi is already inside DRC pursuing Red Tabara- a Tutsi rebel outfit plotting to overthrow the Hutu Establishment in Bujumbura. Rwanda and Burundi's relationship has been hot and cold just like Uganda’s and Rwanda’s. Before the resurgence of M23, the political wing was in Kigali while the Military Wing was in Uganda. It is therefore very unlikely that Kenyan Defense Forces will achieve any major military objectives without the goodwill and consensus of other major countries that have deeply entrenched interests.