DRC-Kenya: Is Nairobi sleepwalking into a Somalia-style forever war?

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Friday, 2 December 2022 14:33

Members of delegations attend the East African Community (EAC)- led Nairobi Process, the third peace talk on the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in Nairobi on November 30, 2022. - Over 120 armed groups are active across the mineral-rich eastern DRC, many of them a legacy of regional wars that flared at the turn of the century.  (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Kenya’s involvement in the raging conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is causing jitters, with many nationals fearing the country risks being sucked into another unending war akin to the one in neighbouring Somalia.

On 2 November, while seeing off Kenyan troops headed to the troubled DRC, President William Ruto asked the soldiers to pause for a word of prayer.

“Heavenly father, before you are men and women of the Kenya Defence Forces [KDF] who are on a mission to protect humanity in the DRC. We pray that you give them the  knowhow and protect them in this delicate mission …  In Jesus name,” said Ruto.

Explaining his action, which caught many by surprise, President Ruto said it was important “to place our soldiers in God’s hands” to ensure they succeed in the delicate mission, which has ramifications for Kenya and the East African region.

The troops are part of the East African Community (EAC) regional force tasked to restore peace in the eastern part of the DRC, which is currently under siege by the March 23 (‘M23’) rebel group.

Kenya is particularly viewed as a neutral arbiter in this case because we are the only nation that does not share a border with the DRC.

The offensive has left hundreds of civilians dead and thousands more homeless, causing a major humanitarian crisis for both the government and the UN.

The Kenyan soldiers will be joined by their counterparts from Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan in the peace enforcement mission.

Second major combat

It will be Kenya’s second involvement in  a major combat operation in recent years. Kenya, which has the largest economy in East Africa, sent hundreds of troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2011 to degrade Al Shabaab after numerous attacks.

However, Kenyans are worried about the country’s involvement in another complicated conflict. The United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has been unable to resolve the crisis.

We went to Somalia thinking that we are just ‘walking there’ and coming back, but we are still there 11 years later […]

However, despite the concern, Defence Minister Adan Duale insists the mission is in the best interest of the country and the region at large.

“We are investing in peace in the region, from which we stand to gain immensely. Kenya is particularly viewed as a neutral arbiter in this case because we are the only nation that does not share a border with the DRC,” says Duale.

Rush by Kenyan companies

Since the DRC officially joined the EAC in March, Kenyan companies have been trooping to the Central African nation in search of business opportunities.

In fact, 26 Kenyan companies have already committed trade investments worth $1.6bn in the DRC.

Equity Bank was the trailblazer, having entered the DRC market in 2015, before growing to become the second largest bank. This was after it acquired Banque Commerciale du Congo and ProCredit to establish its EquityBCDC subsidiary.

In August, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) announced that it had acquired a majority stake in the DRC-based lender Trust Merchant Bank (TMB) to help strengthen its presence in the region.

Other Kenyan companies that have committed to invest in the Central African country are:

  • Rentco Africa Ltd,
  • Optiven Group,
  • Greenlight Planet Limited,
  • Jumbo Foam Limited,
  • BIDCO,
  • Geomaps
  • Nyanja Associates, among others.

However, despite the business rush, Imenti Central MP Moses Karimi is one of the many Kenyans doubting whether it was really necessary for the country to be involved in the age-old conflict.

Karimi is particularly worried about the duration of the mission, saying  the government’s explanation remains vague.

When he appeared before the parliamentary committee on defence and foreign relations last month, Duale told the lawmakers that the initial deployment will be for six months “based on how long the engagement will take place”.

“The six-month time frame is just a sweet talk. We went to Somalia thinking that we are just ‘walking there’ and coming back, but we are still there 11 years later; even in the DRC, we will be there longer,” Karimi says.

Proxy wars

Saboti legislator Caleb Hamisi warns that Kenya risks being sucked into proxy wars involving various states with vested interests in Africa’s second largest country.

“The British, the Belgians, the French and others have been there before, it is like we are joining the bandwagon. A country like Kenya is always easy prey for proxy wars hence we should be very careful,” says Hamisi.

Three of the founding EAC member states (Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi) have been accused many times of being behind the conflict in the mineral-rich region ‘for selfish reasons’.

In early August, a report by a group of UN Security Council experts said there was ‘solid evidence’ that  Rwanda was arming the M23 rebel group, which is accused of deliberately killing civilians and attacking MONUSCO troops.

However, Kigali dismissed the 131-page report stating that it would not comment on an “unpublished and unvalidated” document.

Some of the countries involved in that force have their own interests…

Uganda, like Rwanda, has had many interventions and even been accused of not only supporting rebels, but also pillaging resources in DRC.

For example, early this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Uganda to pay $325m to the DRC as reparations for invading the Central African country in late 1990s. The decision was a follow-up to a ruling seven years ago that found Uganda guilty of gross human rights violations in its 1998 invasion during the Second Congo war.

In July, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI), a non-profit human rights organisation, revealed that the country had secretly sent hundreds of troops and members of a youth militia into the DRC – since the end of 2021 – to fight the RED Tabara rebel group which Bujumbura has designated a terrorist outfit.

However, Bujumbura has dismissed BHRI’s  revelations as baseless and lacking in substance.

Vested interests

Fred Bauma, a Kinshasa-based human rights activist, doubts whether the regional force will resolve  the conflict.

“Some of the countries involved in that force have their own interests, namely Uganda and Rwanda, who we know have been supporting the M23. The two countries cannot come and pretend to be fighting against the rebel group,” says Bauma.

Uganda’s opposition leader Kizza Besigye agrees, saying some EAC countries have been in the DRC for other reasons other than peacekeeping.

“Currently, Uganda’s leading export commodity is gold. Last year, the country exported gold worth about $2bn, exceeding earnings from coffee which was about $600m. We are yet to be told where those goldmines are found in Uganda,” Besigye told NTV Kenya in a recent interview.

He maintains that EAC countries should not seek to establish security for the Congolese, but instead help them to build their own security capacity to secure their borders.

High deployment cost

Kenyans are also worried about the high cost of the deployment, coming at a time when the country’s economy  is in the doldrums.

According to Francis Ogolla, the deputy chief of the Kenya Defence Forces, the mission will cost taxpayers KSh7.2bn ($58.7m) if the troops stay in the DRC for one year.

“We are going there for six months, but if the worst case scenario comes, that we are there for one year, it will cost us KSh7.2bn. If we stay beyond one year depending on the nature of the operation it will cost us between KSh5.5bn ($44m) and KSh6bn ($48m) every extra year,” Ogolla told legislators last month.

We are using money to fund a mission yet we are not even sure whether we are going to win that war.

Karimi believes the war will overburden the taxpayers who are already struggling to afford basic needs like food, energy and shelter.

“We are using money to fund a mission yet we are not even sure whether we are going to win that war; a war that has been in existence even before we were born,” Karimi says.

Complex war

Duale concedes that the DRC mission is bound to be more complicated than the one in Somalia, but quickly adds that the soldiers are ready for the mammoth task.

“The situation in the DRC is more complex compared to Somalia where Al Shabaab militia is the target. In the DRC, however, we are confronting more than 150 militias,” he says.

John Charo, a political analyst, says though the mission is important for regional stability, Kenya risks being sucked into another unending war, which might prove costly in the long run.

“Apart from the high economic cost and losing soldiers in the battlefield, we might end up creating new enemies given the vested interests in [the] Eastern DRC.”

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