EAC targets traditional leaders to move Congo peace process
The East African bloc is leaving little to chance in bringing complicated peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with traditional community leaders the target in a dialogue push.
Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, the facilitator of the DR Congo Peace Process, first fronted the model, and which the bloc has since adopted, while he was still in power.
On Friday, Mr Kenyatta travelled to Bujumbura to meet with Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye, the current chairman of the East African Community. They agreed to “re-energise” the political track.
A joint communique issued by the EAC said that while member states prepare their troops for a regional force, “the political track is being re-energised towards a comprehensive solution to the protracted situation.”
That political track will resume on November 16 in Nairobi, targeting traditional leaders for the first time as well as all other stakeholders “to uphold inclusivity”.
The Bujumbura meeting, however, came on the backdrop of serious escalation of violence blamed on the M23 movement that forced military chiefs of the bloc into a crisis meeting on Thursday. At the same time, Kenya decided to deploy troops to the regional force, having initially dragged its feet on the matter and choose to instead pursue political means. Kenya’s new leader, President William Ruto, described the deployment as a means to “save humanity”, and Kinshasa welcomed the move, showing its keenness to eliminate the militias of M23.
Kenyatta and Ndayishimiye lampooned M23 for undermining the gains that have been made in persuading local armed groups to lay down arms, and called on foreign fighters in the DR Congo to leave the country.
But the Kenya deployment has not been without controversy.
Kenyan legislators were miffed to learn that they had received a request to approve the deployment only a day after the troops had been granted an order to deploy by the president, contrary to the law.
William Kamket, MP for Tiaty, questioned the procedure saying the letter from Defence Cabinet Secretary Aden Duale came to the House on Wednesday afternoon while President Ruto commissioned the troops to DR Congo on Tuesday afternoon.
“I would like to know what comes first, because the officers were commissioned yesterday and the Cabinet Secretary has communicated today, is parliament therefore going to do a post facto review of what has already happened or what is the role of parliament? He asked.
Article 240 (8 of the Kenyan Constitution gives powers to the National Security Council with approval of parliament to deploy troops outside Kenya for peace support operations.
“The Council may with the approval of parliament, deploy national forces outside Kenya for regional or international peace support operations, other support operations and approve the deployment of foreign forces in Kenya,” reads Article 240.
Speaker Moses Wetang’ula explained that the Defence Cabinet Secretary had delivered the letter on Wednesday morning and the event happened on the same afternoon.
“In any case, deployment of troops in an emergency situation and not a leisure walk and the role of parliament is to approve the deployment either before or after as long as it can help to deal with the situation a country desires to deal with,” Wetang’ula said
Kenyan troops have deployed to DR Congo before, as peacekeepers under the United Nations. This week’s deployment however is the first time Nairobi has ventured into DR Congo as a military force. It could be significant. It joins Uganda and Burundi. South Sudan was also expected to send a battalion.
On Friday, the M23 denied it was fueling violence. The movement’s political spokesperson Lawrence Kanyuka said they welcomed Kenya’s role in seeking peace in eastern DR Congo but blamed the Kinshasa government for the violence.
Gratitude to Kenya
“The M23 expresses its gratitude yet again to the Republic of Kenya and its people for the recent DR Congo peace process held in Nairobi, supported by the African Union, the United Nations and the East African Community,” said Mr Kanyuka in a statement.
“From the various agreements signed and peace processes held in Kenya, one shall acknowledge that Kenya is among the countries that knows the root causes of conflicts in the DR Congo, for its past experience and the current one,” he said.
The M23 movement denied killing civilians as claimed by the Human Rights Watch which said the M23 summarily killed at least 29 civilians since mid-June 2022 in areas under their control.
Kenya will command the force, which will also include soldiers from Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan.
A Rwandan contingent will be deployed along the border, after Kinshasa objected to Kigali’s participation in any operations inside DR Congo.
However, the M23 is concerned as to how the EAC will carry out its peace mandate in the midst of hate speech and propaganda spread by Kinshasa led by people inside President Felix Tshisekedi’s government.
“The M23 Movement has never targeted civilian populations nor slaughtered anyone but those who have the habit and profession of doing so freely on a daily basis are the allies of the DR Congo government in the war against the M23 Movement as proven in the latest published Human Rights Watch Report,” the Movement said.
The M23 believes that Kinshasa’s war against it, overshadows the ongoing horrendous slaughtering in Beni, Ituri Butembo, Masisi, and Minembwe by the terrorist group ADF, the Cedeco and Mai-Mai; the other rebel groups known for committing massacres in the DR Congo.
M23 took a swipe at Kinshasa, blaming it for corruption, xenophobia, politics of exclusion genocide mentality and spreading hatred among local communities in eastern Congo.
A Congolese Kinyarwanda speaking Tutsi group, the M23 resumed fighting in late 2021 after lying dormant for years. It has since captured swathes of territory in North Kivu province, including the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June.
The group’s resurgence has destabilised regional relations in Central Africa, with the DR Congo accusing Rwanda of backing the militia. Rwanda was still fighting these claims this week.
It is these tensions that got President Ndayishimiye working up phones this week with peers in the bloc, “with the aim of harmonising the views on the ways and means of managing the security crisis in the East of the DR Congo,” a statement from his spokesman Alain-Diomede Nzeyimana said.
“The meeting of Heads of Defence Forces of the EAC member countries should be held as soon as possible to study the parameters of a concerted and sustainable response, which will be followed by an Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State,” the statement reads.
While addressing the East African Legislative Assembly in Rwanda’s capital Kigali on Tuesday, President Paul Kagame said that “Rwanda remains committed to peace and stability efforts within the frameworks at both regional and continental levels.”
President Kagame’s comments came after Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador Vincent Karega. The ambassador was given 48 hours to leave the country amid intensified fighting between the DR Congo forces and the M23.
The DR Congo joined the EAC in March this year, and one month later accused Kigali of destabilising it through support to the M23 rebels. Kigali has consistently denied the allegations.
“There is concern about the escalation of the conflict between Rwanda and DRC, but the president was very clear that Rwanda is committed to existing regional and continental frameworks,” said George Odongo, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly from Uganda.
The eastern DRC crisis has over the years roped in its close neighbours one way or another. Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi had often borne the burden of refugees. Uganda was once sued for illegally sending troops into DRC. It paid a huge fine. Rwanda and Burundi were once accused of using eastern DR Congo as a proxy. The tiff between DR Congo and Rwanda repeats a historical question about the shared ethnicities of Kinyarwanda speakers.
Uganda, which has been running a joint operation with Kinshasa targeting militia in eastern DRC, is accused of supporting advancing M23 rebels.
This week, Congolese activists also demanded Kinshasa to terminate the year-old joint military offensive by Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo and Uganda People’s Defence Forces, code-named Shujaa, launched last November to counter the Allied Democratic Forces rebels. Pepin Kavota, the president of the civil society in Beni, is quoted in local media saying, “on the other side in Rutshuru, Uganda is helping the M23 rebels alongside Rwanda, but when you come here in the Beni territory, there is some kind of hypocrisy.”
In Kampala, State Minister for International Relations, Henry Oryem Okello, dismissed claims that Uganda was involved in subversion against Kinshasa saying, “the allegations are false. That is hogwash, rubbish! There is no iota of evidence,” challenging the accusers to produce incriminating evidence against Uganda.
Arguing that a peaceful Congo is beneficial to Uganda, Mr Oryem-Okello added: “Those (accusers are attention seekers. They should do some research and bring evidence … Uganda doesn’t support M23. Uganda is seeking total peace in eastern DRC.”
The adverse naming of Kampala comes months after DR Congo cut diplomatic ties with Rwanda and stopped RwandAir from its airspace and recently expelled its ambassador.
The flare up in violence has stalled the upgrade to bitumen of 223 kilometres of roads linking Beni, Goma and Butembo in eastern DR Congo, 10 months after the governments of Congo and Uganda handed over the works to Ugandan construction firm, Dott Services. It is unclear if the company is being paid after placing equipment on site during the December 2021 launch.
There were other adverse developments too. The capture by M23 in July of Bunagana, a major customs point on DRC side, alongside a ban by the rebels on cross-border commerce, has left particularly Ugandan exporters counting losses yet DRC offers Uganda the biggest market share in the region.
Assess the situation
Members of the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on DRC are expected to visit the county for a first-hand assessment of the situation on the ground.
Government officials say the UNSC members will establish whether states neighbouring Congo are complying with, and have not breached, the sanctions regime.
Resolution 1533 (2004 obliges UN member states, particularly those neighbouring Congo, not to permit their territories to be used for transit/supply of arms into the country or for sanctioned individuals to travel and enforce seizure or freezing of assets of such persons, prohibit their airspaces to aircrafts used in abuse of the sanctions, and ensure no transportation violations by neighbours to Ituri and Kivu provinces.
The adverse mentioning of Kampala in the violence is an irony because the eastern DR Congo violence has caused a massive displacement of civilian making Uganda home to hundreds of Congolese refugees.
Thousands of them are housed at the Nyakabande refugee transit centre and although some have started returning home in the last couple of weeks following a calm situation, fresh fighting that erupted this week, coupled with deployment of a regional force, could see a new influx into the refugee camps.
“Many of them have but have managed to resettle, some who didn’t return are in refugee camps here,” Anyakun Esther, Uganda’s junior minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees told The EastAfrican on Thursday.
But authorities in Uganda are worried that if the crisis continues and more refugees come in, it would put the country in a crisis as it is already struggling to look after the more than 1.5 million refugees with little international assistance.
Earlier in the year, the UNHCR said it was expecting about 68,000 Congolese refugees but this number was revised to 150,000 shortly as the year begun as sporadic fights continued in the eastern parts of the country. Many return home when the fighting deescalates but some opt to stay in Ugandan refugee camps.
“We started the year with an estimated 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers in settlements and urban [Kampala metropolitan]. Since January 2022, another 119,000 people have come into the country. Ultimately, needs are increasing in the UNHCR operation as well as other partners involved in the refugee response,” Frank Walusimbi, the UNHCR Uganda spokesman said.
In the months of September and October alone, UNHCR received 14,900 Congolese asylum seekers and 6,600 arrived from South Sudan.
According to Uganda’s office of the prime minister, the government is currently providing security, health services, vaccination and resettlement while the UNHCR is providing food through the World Food Programme, health services and education services.
The Uganda army deputy spokesperson, Col Deo Akiiki, says the country’s forces are also undergoing intensive training for deployment and will soon join the regional force. Brig-Gen Felix Kulayigye confirmed that Ugandans troops are all set for deployment soon.
Reporting by Samwel Owino, Jonathan Kamoga, Moses Havyarimana, Luke Anami and Tabu Butagira