East Africa force in DRC: Kenya’s on the ground, so where are the others?

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Wednesday, 8 February 2023 16:15
Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers attend a flag presentation ceremony by Kenya's President William Ruto before they deploy to DRC as part of the East Africa Community Regional Force (EARDC) at the Embakasi Garrison in Nairobi on November 2, 2022. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)

The East African Community (EAC) was vociferous in promising a regional force to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), its newest member state, in order to quell tensions amid armed groups in the eastern part of the country. But the promises have not been followed with action at the time of need.

At an extraordinary summit in Bujumbura earlier this month, the heads of state called for an “immediate ceasefire of all parties” and the withdrawal of all armed groups in an effort to end the ongoing violence.

The deployment of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) was agreed on in May last year, a month after DRC became an official member of the regional body. However, it was not until November 2022 that Kenya deployed troops.

Kenya became DRC’s unlikely saviour due to a change in leadership. William Ruto is not as close to DRC president Felix Tshisekedi – the last regional head of state to congratulate him on winning election – as was his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Ruto obliged after intensive diplomatic lobbying from several Western countries and heads of international organisations, including the UN. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to lobby for funding of the deployment from the EU peace facility.

Mediators, not fighters

Days after Kenya’s troops arrived in Goma, a Twitter account in the name of the regional force was opened. It has since tweeted only about activities of the Kenyan soldiers. Though eagerly welcomed, the Congolese community expected the EACRF would quickly rout out M23 rebels from territories they had occupied for months.

The mandate of the regional force stipulated supporting political dialogue between rebels and the Congolese government. Frustrated by a lack of action, protesters took to the streets of Goma, the regional capital on Monday 6 February, following on with other protests the month before as Congolese accused the regional force of inaction.

The EAC continues to reiterate that engaging in combat is not included in the mandate.

“The process in Eastern DRC has to be solved through political processes; our military [is] there to reinforce the political process,” EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki said last month on the sidelines of an African Union event in Nairobi.

‘Coming soon,’ they say

It remains to be seen which countries will actually make up the force. Uganda and South Sudan have been promising to send soldiers.

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir officiated a ceremony to deploy the soldiers on 28 December. To date, the soldiers haven’t crossed into DRC. Part of the problem seems to be logistics.

Major General Lul Ruai Koang, the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces spokesperson tells The Africa Report that after the official ceremony, they found that most soldiers lacked travel documents. Identity cards, birth certificates and passports take at least three weeks to process.

“The South Sudan Battalion [SSBAT], which is part of EACRF, is currently deployed at Nadepai village on South Sudan’s border with DRC. They will cross into Eastern DRC upon completion of logistical arrangements. More details on deployment area and operational scope will follow,” he says.

The EAC is cash strapped at the moment and has been begging for funds from multilateral agencies like the EU to fund this mission

Uganda had pledged to station troops in DRC by the end of November 2022. It still claims it will uphold its commitment.

“As we talk now, it’s a matter of days before we deploy. I may not tell you when because it’s of security nature,” Colonel Deo Akiiki, deputy spokesperson of Uganda army, tells The Africa Report.

“Trust me, we are ready for deployment. We are just sorting out a few logistical issues and we shall be in DRC. Our reconnaissance is already in DRC.”

For Uganda, this will be its second deployment to DRC after Operation Shujaa, which kicked off in November 2021 to fight Islamic State-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The operation against ADF is still ongoing though it has been encumbered by lack of funds.

The parliament of Uganda dragged its feet in funding the operation. In late January, a parliament committee scrutinising the 2023/24 financial year budget rejected a funding request for the operation.

Each country is supposed to pay for the troops deployed. Uganda has not requested any funding for the EACRF operation as per budget documents presented by the ministry of defence to parliament. If Kenyan figures are an indication, the operation will be expensive, to the tune of €37m ($38m) for the first six months.

Burundi is also supposed to be part of the regional force. It also promised a battalion. Burundi announced it sent its soldiers into South Kivu in August 2022, months before signing the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a document authorising the regional deployment. Nothing has been heard from the battalion since then.

EAC is discreet

The regional bloc has been quiet about the operation. A spokesperson for the EAC secretary general indicated that the office of Uhuru Kenyatta, who is now a peace facilitator of the East African Community in DRC, is tasked to give updates on the operation and hasn’t hired staff to address operational issues.

This has not been forthcoming and Kenya deployed quickly with the hope that the commitment will spur an interest from the US, EU in funding the mission.

The EAC hasn’t only been quiet about the operation, but vague, too. Unanswered questions include the official start date of the regional force as well as a regular progress report. If its six-month duration started after signing of the September agreement, then Uganda and South Sudan are already four months late.

Kenya’s advantage, ruinous propaganda

As the largest economy in the regional bloc, Kenya found it easier to send troops, says Sylvanus Wekesa, a regional security analyst.

“The EAC is cash strapped at the moment and has been begging for funds from multilateral agencies like the EU to fund this mission,” he says.

“This has not been forthcoming and Kenya deployed quickly with the hope that the commitment will spur an interest from the US, EU in funding the mission. This raises a lot of EAC commitment issues in terms of their goal to pacify the region,” he says.

Rwanda has been accused of supporting the M23 rebels, the main fighting group in DRC, which factored into DRC’s categorical refusal to allow Rwanda to enter the EACRF.

Kenyan soldiers were deployed to create a buffer zone and stop the group from capturing Goma, on the Rwandan border.

However, Wekesa says propaganda continues to be spread about how “EACRF might be sponsored or manufactured to bully the [M23] force to accept the demands of Rwanda”.

Such propaganda, he argues, wouldn’t be harmful if the EAC ensured all member states are in some way engaged in the deployment.

The EAC as a bloc has proposed a different type of force than the one Tshisekedi and the Congolese have envisioned. At the Bujumbura summit, Tshisekedi confronted EACRF Regional Commander, Kenya’s Major General Jeff Nyagah, in front of Ruto, indicating that Kenyan forces should not favour the rebels.

If DRC politicians and the president continue to voice their frustrations like they have done, it will be detrimental to the bloc, says Wekesa.

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