DRC: A new test has begun between Félix Tshisekedi and the EAC

By Romain Gras, Romain Gras

Posted on Tuesday, 7 February 2023 17:48
DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi during his speech at the Palais du Peuple on 10 October 2022. © PRESIDENCY RDC

Almost a year after joining the East African Community, DRC remains mired in a conflict with the M23 rebel faction. Between diplomatic gridlock, ongoing fighting, and, and regional force tensions, the Congolese head of state has few options.

DRC’s first year as a member of the East African Community (EAC) likely has little to do with what Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi had in mind by bringing his country into the fold in March 2022. As a result of three years of proceedings and a diplomatic strategy, it seemed to make sense to join one of the best integrated regional organisations on the continent for the sake of economic opportunity. However, addressing the ongoing M23 problem as well as the tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali has taken precedence over everything else.

An urgent summit

The objective was to assess the security situation in Eastern DRC, where the Congolese army – suspected of collaborating on the ground with several armed groups, including the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) – have continued to lose ground against M23, accused of being supported by Kigali. In recent days, the rebels have advanced through the Masisi Territory, threatening Goma once again.

Despite a three-hour meeting, according to several sources, progress was lacking, with heated exchanges between Tshisekedi and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame playing a noticeable part in the affair. The two leaders had not met since they had seen each other in New York during President Emmanuel Macron’s September 2022 visit. Upon the meeting’s conclusion, a final press release called for an immediate ceasefire and a withdrawal of all foreign armed troops – without mentioning which ones – in accordance with an as-yet-undiscussed timetable.

These recommendations were already included in most of the previous press releases. Will they be followed up this time? For now, the few results of the Bujumbura summit seem to confirm the diplomatic impasse in which the various protagonists of this M23 crisis find themselves, while the tension on the ground continues to mount.

Since April 2022, the EAC has been leading the Nairobi process, one of the two mediations supposed to settle the conflict between DRC and Rwanda. On 23 November, in Luanda, under the guidance of President João Lourenço of Angola, in charge of the second mediation, a roadmap was adopted. In particular, it provided for the withdrawal of the M23 from the positions it had conquered since March 2022.

Still no withdrawal

Participants at the Luanda summit had also brandished the threat of an intervention by the EAC’s regional forces in the event that the agreement was not respected. However, two-and-a-half later, M23 has still not withdrawn. While the rebels have formally left Kibumba and the Rumangabo military camp, they have taken control of other strategic localities since 26 January, including Kitshanga, in Masisi Territory on the road to Goma. M23 claims to respond to attacks by the Congolese army.

President Tshisekedi’s entourage, who hoped for a firmer speech vis-à-vis the M23 question in Bujumbura, has not hidden his frustration. “Some want to empty the Luanda roadmap of its substance. We wanted to mention both the request and withdrawal framework of M23,” says a source close to the Congolese president.

None of this has been done, so DRC is looking for culprits

For their part, the Rwandan leader’s teams have accused DRC of having a selective approach to the roadmap negotiated in Angola and of not respecting its own commitments. “The same document speaks of a cessation of fighting by the FLDR, of which DRC is the representative and with which the FARDC works. It also plans to settle the question of the return of refugees. [However], none of this has been done, so DRC is looking for culprits,” says a source close to the Rwandan authorities, who have been protesting for several months against the spread of hate speech.

In what may be a sign of the malaise that reigns on the Congolese side, the minister of foreign affairs, Christophe Lutundula, published his own press release on 5 February in order to summarise Kinshasa’s position on the Bujumbura summit. The Congolese diplomat recalls, in particular, that “the mandate of the regional force is, unequivocally, offensive”.


There remains much to be done. In Kinshasa, the regional force is the target of criticism: addressing its commander, General Jeff Nyagah, in a short sequence filmed on the sidelines of the Bujumbura summit that has since gone viral, President Tshisekedi urged him “not to help M23”.

In the field, it was indeed Nyagah who, with the verification mechanism of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), and with the ad hoc mechanism of the Luanda process, took over the discussions with the rebels ahead of their announced withdrawal from Kibumba and Rumangabo.

This process has caused tensions in DRC, beginning with President Tshisekedi’s inner circle, where it was hoped that the regional force would exercise a more offensive mandate and where some continue to plead for a major offensive, despite the difficulties of the Congolese army on the ground. The FARDC was generally kept out of these discussions. The spokesman for the army, Sylvain Ekenge, was thus quick to denounce the decoy, which, according to him, constitutes the announced withdrawal of the rebels.

The expulsion, at the end of January, of the three Rwandan officers deployed within the headquarters of the regional force confirmed the tension that has arisen between the command of the regional force and its Congolese partners. This episode is symptomatic of the differences that have existed since the launch of this regional force project.

Since the announcement of the force’s deployment in June 2022, Kinshasa has repeatedly assured that this force’s mission was to go and fight M23, when Nyagah clearly gave priority to the political process and dialogue during his first speech, in November 2022. In a December 2022 interview with us, President Ndayishimiye also hinted that this force would not seek conflict.

Moreover, this regional army is still confronted with its own limits: it is still looking for sufficient funding to manage its affairs, but is struggling to find donors (reluctant at the moment), because of the uncertain nature of its missions. It also finds itself under pressure from Congolese public opinion. On 18 January, a demonstration against their presence was held in Goma, a first since the arrival of Kenyan troops. Similar rallies were held on 6 February.

Tensions with Kigali and Kampala

Consequently, President Tshisekedi’s margin of error seems reduced, especially since relations between Kinshasa and Kampala have also been tinged with mistrust since the rapprochement of leaders Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) and Paul Kagame as well as the fall of Bunagana in June 2022.

President Tshisekedi’s entourage remains aware, however, that it would be perilous to open a second diplomatic front in the sub-region, especially since Kampala has engaged its army in a joint operation with the FARDC against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist armed group of Ugandan origin. In Bujumbura, DRC was also called upon to facilitate the arrival of the Ugandan contingent tasked with integrating the regional force.

What about Kenya? Relations with President William Ruto are less distant than in the very first months of the latter’s mandate, but President Tshisekedi is less close to him than he was to his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta. As for President Ndayishimiye, he took advantage of the Bujumbura summit to formalise his reorganisation with Rwanda. The Burundian seeks, above all, to position himself as a mediator in the region after the diplomatic isolation that characterised the end of the Nkurunziza era.

Speaking to the diplomatic corps on 30 January, President Tshisekedi said, in no uncertain terms, that “the African Union [AU] and regional communities often struggle to extinguish the sources of tension in Africa, limiting themselves to little more than declarations and vague formulas and no representation.” The ongoing crisis will bring the parties back to the table on 17 February during the AU summit and a meeting of the Peace and Security Council. Stay tuned.

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