DRC: Will Kenya come to the rescue of eastern Congo?

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Thursday, 28 July 2022 12:42

Kenya's President Kenyatta and DRC's President Tshisekedi in Nairobi in 2019 (photo: twitter)

The Democratic Republic of Congo is hoping that Kenya will come to the rescue in the increasingly restive eastern Congo, but Nairobi appears too preoccupied with its own elections next month to make much difference in the short term.

Amid growing tensions with Rwanda, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi is counting on Kenya to lead a peace initiative and a regional force that is supposed to be deployed to eastern Congo. For now, however, there are no signs that deployment is imminent.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has taken the lead on the DRC peace issue, is already bidding farewell as he awaits the election of his successor. The contest pits veteran politician Raila Odinga against Deputy President William Ruto, neither of whom has discussed foreign policy much during their campaigns, and their stance on the deployment remains unclear.

The only time the DRC got a mention on the campaign trail was in February when Ruto, in describing the vast market potential of the country of 90 million people, said it was made up of singers who don’t own any cows. The remarks triggered uproar from his competitors as well as from the DRC, prompting him to apologise.

Brig. Gen. Ahamed Mohammed (Rtd), an associate director at the Centre for Defence and Security at the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi, doesn’t think Kenya’s next president will reverse Kenyatta’s decision to be part of the regional force.

“That is an action taken by the sitting president on behalf of the country,” he tells The Africa Report. “It wasn’t done individually. I don’t see anybody doubting and saying no.”

As to the timing of the deployment, Mohammed tells The Africa Report it’s hard to predict because “there is no proper timeline set so far”. However, he says the deployment can happen anytime “as long as people are ready for it”.

Col. Esther Wanjiku, a spokesperson for the Kenya Defence Forces, declined to answer questions, saying there is no update apart from the statement issued on 15 June following a meeting of regional leaders in Nairobi. She said the press should wait until “there is more communication from the president himself or his office”.

Regional strongmen, such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Paul Kagame in Rwanda, can deploy soldiers without following procedures, such as getting parliamentary approval. Since November 2021 when Ugandan soldiers were first deployed to the DRC to hunt down rebels of the Al Qaeda-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the government has never formally briefed lawmakers about the operation.

However, in Kenya and Tanzania, it’s a different story. Both countries will be inclined to follow constitutional requirements before any deployment. In Kenya for instance, the Kenya Defence Act stipulates that deployment to a foreign country can only be done with the approval of the national assembly.

“The request for parliamentary approval will ordinarily be done by the president through motions moved by the majority leaders or their designates in parliament,” an explainer on foreign peacekeeping missions by the Kenyan Ministry of Defence says.

No such request has yet been made. Like Raila and Ruto, Kenyan lawmakers are also on the campaign trail ahead of the 9 August election. The earliest that the senate is likely to convene is toward the end of August when new legislators take office. The presidential election, meanwhile, could drag on if the losing side contests the results.

Hurdles ahead 

Last week, heads of state of the East African Community (EAC) met in Arusha, Tanzania for their annual summit. Kenyatta, who has also been serving as the EAC president, passed the baton to Burundi’s Évariste Ndayishimiye at the summit. The heads of state-appointed Kenyatta as the facilitator to oversee the peace process.

Though attracting the participation of all members of the regional bloc, the so-called Nairobi peace process was not being held under the auspices of the EAC. During last week’s summit, it was agreed that the process should be mainstreamed at the EAC.

As a result of these changes, the DRC is expected to focus its lobbying efforts on the new Kenyan president once he assumes office.

Kagame and Tshisekedi were conspicuously missing at the EAC summit. Since diplomatic ties between the two countries hit a low point due to accusations and counter-accusations of support for various militia groups in eastern Congo, the two leaders have only met twice: Once on 15 June in Nairobi, where they exchanged harsh words according to diplomatic sources,  and again in Luanda on 6 July.

In addition, despite Kagame’s insistence that the regional force can be deployed without Rwanda’s participation – which the DRC has rejected – as long as the country’s interests are taken care of, Kigali has a chance to block the deployment at any time since the EAC framework requires consensus among all member states.

Finally, the question of funding remains. According to Nairobi, contributing countries were informed at the 15 June meeting that they would finance the operation. However, a diplomatic source says the EU, which has funded the African Union-led peacekeeping mission in Somalia for more than a decade, has been approached for financial support.

Pierre Boisselet, a conflict researcher with the Congo Research Group, says “countries could be encouraged to promote their interests, particularly economic ones, instead of those of the DRC” if they finance the operation. “Such a dynamic could also lead to rivalries between countries,” he says.

Unlike Museveni and Kagame, leaders in Tanzania and Kenya will first have to convince legislators that it’s worth footing the bill for the operation.

Museveni-Kagame headache

Ideally, Museveni and Kagame would have offered Tshisekedi a quick deployment because of the unbridled influence they hold over their respective countries. However, Tshisekedi has learned that getting them to have common interests is not an easy task. He tried, at a time, when relations between the two countries were at a low point, and failed.

Although relations between the two strongmen have since improved, diplomatic relations between Rwanda and the DRC have been in free fall. Kinshasa suspects both Rwanda and Uganda, which benefits from the chaos in eastern Congo to smuggle minerals and timber, of supporting the Tutsi-dominated M23 rebel group. Both countries deny the accusation.

There is proof, however, that the M23 group has strong links to senior government officials in Uganda and Rwanda dating back to the 1990s. The rebels sought refuge in those countries after their defeat in eastern Congo in 2013. A recent UN group of experts report noted that Bertrand Bisimwa, the political head of M23, “was compelled by the Ugandan authorities to leave Kampala on 5 January 2022”.

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