In eastern DRC, international forces in the hot seat

East African soldiers are no longer welcome in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

In eastern DRC, international forces in the hot seat

East African soldiers are no longer welcome in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Deployed since November 2022 to try to bring peace to a region torn by war for three decades, they have failed to stem attacks by armed groups. An impotence which arouses all the more anger as the clashes between the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23) and groups of fighters calling themselves "wazalendo" (patriots), supported by the Congolese army (FARDC), have intensified in recent days around Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

On October 19, dozens of young men, who had been dispersed the day before by the police with tear gas, managed to deliver to the East African Community (EAC) headquarters in Goma a document from several civil society bodies calling for the departure of the regional force. “If these East African troops don’t do anything on the ground, let them go! », pleads Innocent Rugero, the president of Cevar, a collective of war victims co-initiator of the two marches organized in Goma.

A mistrust that echoes the criticism expressed by the authorities in Kinshasa. On October 9, at a press conference, Patrick Muyaya, government spokesperson and minister of communications, officially called for the non-renewal of the EAC mandate (renewed in June, then in September) and for his departure “ due December 8, as agreed.” The regional force, made up of Kenyan, Burundian, Ugandan and South Sudanese soldiers, was “not able to resolve the problems, particularly with the M23,” he added.

Soldiers who “stay on base”

These rebels, accused by Kinshasa of being supported militarily by Rwanda – support also mentioned by UN experts – have conquered large parts of the province of North Kivu since they took up arms again, in December 2021. After several diplomatic mediations led in particular by Kenya and Angola, the insurgents committed to withdrawing in December 2022 from several towns, notably Kibumba and Bunagana, in order to allow EAC troops to establish a buffer zone between the rebels and the Congolese army.

But on the ground, the failure is clear. The withdrawal of the M23 was never effective and, despite the ceasefire officially in force since March, fighting between the insurgents and pro-government armed groups has resumed since the beginning of October, particularly around Kitshanga. Officially, this strategic locality in North Kivu, first conquered by the M23, had been under the control of the EAC since April. But at the beginning of October it passed into the hands of local militias, before being taken over again by the M23. A return confirmed by Willy Ngoma, the military spokesperson for the rebel group.

Faced with this violence, "the EAC soldiers remain in their bases, as usual", criticizes Jean-Claude Mambo Kawaya, president of the civil society of Nyiragongo, a group of associations. These soldiers did not take part in the fighting but one of their number died on Tuesday, October 24, after mortar fire fell in one of the regional force's camps near Kibumba, about twenty kilometers from Goma.

A week earlier, the Ugandan contingent, in a convoy for supplies, had exceptionally opened fire after an ambush set up by “an unknown armed group” in Rukoro, in the territory of Rutshuru, according to a press release from the regional organization. But the EAC did not come to “fight negative forces” (i.e. armed groups), clarified its former commander, Kenyan General Jeff Nyagah, before being forced to resign in April by Kinshasa, who accused him of laxity towards the M23.

Towards an “accelerated withdrawal” of MONUSCO?

The departure of the EAC contingents, if it takes place on December 8, does not necessarily mean the end of foreign missions in the east of the country. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which the DRC is a part, announced in May that it was ready to send soldiers to support the Congolese army, although to date neither the number of men nor the deployment schedule have been made official. Another announced force, Angolan this time, is also slow to be put in place. In March, the Parliament of Luanda validated the creation of a unit of 500 soldiers to supervise the dissolution of the M23.

In Goma, these regional initiatives are all the more frowned upon as public opinion has been calling for years for the withdrawal of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), deployed since 1999. The tension around the presence of the 14 000 peacekeepers increased in July 2022, after 36 people were killed and 270 others injured during anti-Monusco protests. It has intensified since August 30, when more than 50 members of a sect hostile to the UN were killed during a FARDC assault.

President Félix Tshisekedi, candidate for the election scheduled for December, echoed this at the UN on September 20, calling for the “accelerated withdrawal of MONUSCO” from the end of the year. A month later, the UN Security Council announced that the outline of a “gradual and orderly disengagement” would be communicated by the end of 2023. But a “phased” withdrawal by 2024 had already been adopted in 2020 in a Security Council resolution. Repeated promises which only fuel the impatience of the populations.

The image of foreign soldiers further deteriorated after the arrest, on October 1, of eight peacekeepers deployed in Beni (North Kivu) and the suspension of an officer in connection with a sexual exploitation case and alleged violence. All belong to the South African contingent of the UN force and may be involved in what internal reports describe as a “systematic and widespread violation” of UN rules against sexual exploitation and abuse.