DRC – Rwanda: EAC heads’ meeting no closer to finding a solution

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Wednesday, 22 June 2022 13:50

Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta greets Rwanda's Paul Kagame at the start of the EAC heads meeting on 20 June 2022. (Photo: @StateHouseKenya)

It’s unusual for heads of state to spend five hours in meetings as was the case on Monday when East African Community (EAC) presidents convened in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss security situation in eastern DRC. But a vague statement released after the meetings show the region is far away from finding a solution.

The heads of state meetings are often for brief reviews of documents prepared by technocrats and append of signatures. The Nairobi meeting was preceded by that of army commanders of the regional countries who had worked on a troop deployment plan. However, when President Uhuru Kenyatta hosted five heads of state from the region, with only one absence (Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan), the brief photo moment of the Kenyan leader welcoming his counterparts was followed by a five-hour lull. This was the time when the presidents were meeting.

It was the first time that Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and DRC’s Felix Tshisekedi were sitting in one room since the escalation of tensions between the two countries in early May. Senegal’s Macky Sall, current chairperson of African Union, and Angola’s João Lourenço had talked to Kagame and Tshisekedi in the previous weeks, but with no positive results.

Instead, tensions continued rising with each side doubling down on accusations. Kinshasa continues to accuse Kigali of supporting M23 rebels who have held the border town of Bunagana for more than a week, while Kigali accuses DRC of working with Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), whose members include people who participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. FDLR rebels have had their sanctuaries in eastern DRC for nearly three decades.

Prior to Monday meetings, several protests were held in Kinshasa and eastern DRC to show disapproval of Kigali’s alleged backing of M23. Protestors marched from Goma to the Rwanda border on Thursday 16 June and a DRC soldier was killed in gunfire exchange the next day after crossing into Rwanda territory.

A regional deployment

A key item on the agenda in Nairobi was deployment of a regional force to pacify eastern DRC. The heads of state received a report on Concept of Operations (CONOPs), Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Rules of Engagement (ROE) and other legal as well as technical regulations prepared by the army chiefs.

“The heads of state accepted and adopted the CONOPs, SOFA and ROE as presented by the chiefs of defence forces for immediate implementation,” a statement released to the media says. However, it leaves many questions about the deployment unanswered: When will it happen? What will be its duration? How many soldiers will each country contribute? How will it be funded?

The statement seems to say that there was a consensus among member states on deployment. It’s this ambiguity that prompted the DRC presidency to issue a clarity on Twitter that Rwanda troops will not be allowed on its soil. “Placed under the military command of Kenya, this force should be operational in the coming weeks and should not include within it elements of the Rwandan army,” the DRC presidency said.

Tshisekedi has been facing opposition from some of his government coalition members over the regional deployment. He is keen not to be seen to have committed any error in engaging the region, which could disadvantage him in next year’s election. The DRC presidency had to issue another statement on Tuesday dismissing social media manipulations of the president signing visitors’ books made to look as if he had signed an agreement with Kagame in Nairobi.

The second item on the agenda during the Nairobi meeting was an update on political dialogue between governments and fighting groups. For this item, there was no new positive development. The first conclave held towards the end of April had directed rebels – both foreign and local – to stop fighting, opt for dialogue or else face military action. There hasn’t been much dialogue because the DRC government remains unwilling to talk to M23 rebels.

Jason Stearns, the director of Congo Research Group, recently said that during the April meeting in Nairobi, the M23 had initially been brought by Uganda and Kenya for dialogue. However, Tshisekedi didn’t want to be seen engaging “the unpopular group”. Stearns says the “M23 was sidelined from the Nairobi process and a whole host of other armed groups cherry picked by Congolese government were flown in to dilute the significance and importance of [the] M23”.

The rebel group hasn’t been moved by threats of a deployment and it doesn’t show any indication of laying down arms, a key demand of the Nairobi peace process. The M23 says it welcomes the Nairobi peace process and continues to call for dialogue with Tshisekedi. “Our movement, M23, remains committed to the peace process as the only way to end the conflict,” Willy Ngoma, its spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.

A diplomat conversant with security in the region doesn’t think the M23 will fight a regional army, if deployed. Instead, its members could surrender and cross into Uganda and Rwanda as they did in 2013. Such a scenario would place Uganda in an awkward situation because some senior officials in Tshisekedi’s government are already accusing the Museveni-led government of subtly backing the M23 to capture the Bunagana border post.

Scepticism of Nairobi process

Analysts are sceptical of the Nairobi initiative. Christoph Vogel tells The Africa Report that they are “too confused to judge at the moment”.

Reagan Mviri, a researcher with Kivu Security Tracker, which maps violence in eastern DRC, tells The Africa Report that a regional force could face several challenges because regional countries set to deploy don’t always have the same interests in DRC. “In my opinion, putting together this force and creating trust will be the first challenge,” he says.

It will be hard for the  international community to pay for this while paying for MONUSCO, the biggest UN mission in the world

“The second challenge will be the Congolese public opinion who is against this initiative, particularly, the participation of Rwanda accused of supporting [the] M23,” he says.

Mviri further says financing the operation, unless contributing member states do, will be a stumbling block. “It will be hard for the international community to pay for this while paying for MONUSCO, the biggest UN mission in the world,” he says.

Uganda and Rwanda might be willing to foot bills of the operation for their armies because they view it as strategic to their security interests. Uganda soldiers have been in eastern DRC since November 2021 fighting Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, an operation fully funded by Kampala. However, it’s unclear if other states, such as Kenya and Tanzania, would be willing to deploy as well as pay for the operation.

Rwanda can veto deployment

Rwanda has gone a bit quiet, focusing its attention on the ongoing Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which kicked off on Monday in Kigali. Dr. Lonzen Rugira, a researcher in Kigali, tells The Africa Report that as long as the force isn’t selective in terms of who is participating, it has higher chances of succeeding.

Rugira warns that the “DRC can’t impose terms under [the] EAC protocol because the latter operates on consensus basis and if Rwanda vetoes, then the [military] force can’t go”.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options