What the EAC’s Nairobi summit decided about the M23 rebels

By Romain Gras, Romain Gras

Posted on Wednesday, 15 February 2023 11:08
The EAC's chiefs of staff during their 9 February meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. © DR

Leaders of the East African Community met in Kenya, five days after the Bujumbura summit in the midst of ongoing hostilities between the Congolese army and M23 rebels.

The immediate ceasefire decided at the East African Community (EAC) summit on 4 February turned out to be an empty promise. Clashes between the Congolese army (FARDC) and M23 rebels resumed in the wake of the meeting convened by Évariste Ndayishimiye. The fighting continues to cause significant population displacements in Masisi territory, where the fighting has been concentrated for several weeks.

It is this moment of tension that served as the background when EAC chiefs of staff met on 9 February in Nairobi for a strategic meeting. The objective was, once again, to discuss the planned direction of the often-criticised regional force (EACRF) in Kinshasa. Chaired by the head of the Burundian army, General Prime Niyongabo, this meeting was held before all respective EAC chiefs of staff, including Lieutenant-General Christian Tshiwewe Songesha of the FARDC and General Jean-Bosco Kazura of the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF).

30-day timeline

One of the items on the EAC’s agenda was the establishment of yet another timetable for the withdrawal of M23 rebels from areas conquered since March 2022. The roadmap signed in Luanda on 23 November initially provided for a departure from the areas concerned within 48 hours of the summit.

Not respected, this schedule was then revised at the end of a meeting of the chiefs of staff, in Dar es Salaam, on 15 December. This second timetable provided for the M23 to withdraw from the areas it controls by 15 January. After withdrawal ceremonies in Kibumba in December and in Rumangabo in early January, fighting again flared up in Masisi territory, where the rebels have since taken control of new localities.

The M23 claims to respond to attacks by the Congolese army. On the ground, the situation has continued to deteriorate since mid-January.

In its report, which we examined, the EAC soldiers agreed on a new timetable for the withdrawal of the rebels, extending this time over 30 days and across three phases, from 28 February.

According to the document, M23 rebels will have until 10 March to withdraw from Karenga, Kilolirwe, Kitchanga, Kibumba, and Rumangabo.

By 20 March, the rebels must have left Kishishe, Bambo, Kazaroho, Tongo and Mabenga. The withdrawal should, in theory, end on 30 March, with the departure of Rutshuru, Kiwanja and Bunagana, the first locality to come under M23 control, in June 2022.

Offensive mandate

More surprisingly, in Nairobi, the chiefs of staff also discussed a readjustment of the areas of operation of the various contingents of regional forces. Operating for months in South Kivu without a clear assessment of the operations being able to be drawn, the Burundian army should in theory deploy to Sake, Kilolirwe, and Kitchanga.

The South Sudanese contingent, which was initially to intervene in Haut-Uélé, is supposed to take up a position in Rumangabo, along with Kenyan soldiers, who must also control Kibumba, Tongo, Bwiza, and Kishishe. The Ugandans, who are already deploying troops as part of Operation Shujaa, should, in principle, send soldiers as part of the regional force to take up positions in Bunagana, Kiwanja, and Mabega.

So much for the theory. The practice raises many questions. If this document were to be applied, it would mean all the armies supposed to participate in the regional force would intervene in the zone of action of the M23, accused of being supported by the Rwandan army, itself kept away from the EACRF. An approach that would not be without risks.

The Kenyan army, so far the only component of the regional force to be deployed in certain M23-controlled sectors, has come under increasing criticism in Kinshasa for its inaction. Several demonstrations to demand their departure have also taken place in recent days in Goma.

Felix Tshisekedi has never hidden his hope that this force would go on the offensive against the rebels. The commander of the EACRF, the Kenyan general Jeff Nyagah, and the counterparts of the Congolese President seem for their part to give priority to the political process, refusing to commit their troops against the M23.

Will the Nairobi meeting change things? The report signed at the end of the meeting in any case makes no mention of a military offensive by the EACRF against the rebels. On the other hand, he specifies that “dialogue must begin between the warring parties in order to find a political solution to this conflict”.

Dealing with the FDLR

Will this redeployment of the various contingents in M23-controlled areas even be possible? For several months now, the various mediations have seemed to be at an impasse.

Although the report specifies that M23 rebels must respect the new timetable, the rebels have often recalled that they were not directly concerned by the conclusions of prior summits, in particular, that of Luanda in November, not having been consulted beforehand.

In their recent press releases, they have accused the Congolese government of not respecting its commitments.

To monitor this withdrawal, a new verification mechanism, different from that of Monusco and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (CIRGL), must be put in place under the jurisdiction of the EAC. However, no mention is made of the financial difficulties that the regional force has been facing since the beginning of its mandate.

The M23 rebels are not the only armed group targeted by the conclusions of the Nairobi meeting. The report also states that the regional force has been instructed by the chiefs of staff to deal with the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR).

According to the document, signed by all delegation heads present, the EACRF is supposed to gather the necessary information on the FDLR between 30 March and 20 April in order to produce a report which would then serve as a basis for operationally moving forward.

The Congolese army has been regularly accused, since the start of the conflict, of collaborating with certain armed groups, including the FDLR.

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