Relations between the DRC and Kenya blurred by the announcement of a new rebellion

What is Kenya playing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Deployed for more than a year in the east of this country, the contingent of around a thousand Kenyan soldiers, under the mandate of the East African Community (EAC) force, returned to the country early December, accused by the Congolese authorities of laxity towards the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23)

Relations between the DRC and Kenya blurred by the announcement of a new rebellion

What is Kenya playing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Deployed for more than a year in the east of this country, the contingent of around a thousand Kenyan soldiers, under the mandate of the East African Community (EAC) force, returned to the country early December, accused by the Congolese authorities of laxity towards the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23). Barely ten days later, in Nairobi, this same M23 joined in the creation of a new political-military alliance of seventeen parties, calling for the overthrow of the power in place in Kinshasa.

The future of the Congo River Alliance (AFC) is still uncertain, but the announcement of its birth on December 15 from a hotel in the Kenyan capital, by Corneille Nangaa, president of the Congolese National Electoral Commission until 2021, stunned Kinshasa.

In his speech, this man, considered close to former President Joseph Kabila, at the heart of the arrangement which allowed Félix Tshisekedi to win a more than contested victory in the 2018 election, claims that his new platform- form has no other objective than to “save the nation in danger and restore the dignity of the Congolese”. Under the gaze of the president of the M23, Bertrand Bisimwa, Corneille Nangaa said he was ready, if necessary, to “take power in Kinshasa”. All this, five days before the general elections in the DRC.

Furious, the Congolese government summoned the Kenyan ambassador to Kinshasa the next day and recalled its emissaries to Kenya and to the EAC in Tanzania for consultations, provoking the first major crisis between the two countries which boasted to be close allies and business partners since the rapprochement between Félix Tshisekedi and former president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018.

“A betrayal” for Kinshasa

“Kenya owes us an explanation,” warns Patrick Muyaya, the minister of communication and spokesperson for the Congolese government, taken aback by the fact “that a country with which we work closely for the return of peace in the 'eastern DRC could harbor subversive activities of this nature.' DRC authorities consider M23 a “terrorist” organization, supported by neighboring Rwanda.

Supposed to calm the diplomatic incident, Kenya's two-step response has, on the contrary, inflamed the crisis. The Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a press release on December 17, first “firmly dissociated itself from any statement likely to harm the peace and security of the friendly nation of the DRC,” promising to investigate the authors of the declaration giving birth to the Congo River Alliance.

The message of appeasement was, however, quickly supplanted by the declaration of Kenyan President William Ruto, of whom several collaborators confide that he personally manages the Congolese file, invoking "Kenyan democracy" to justify the holding of the press conference of the AFC. “The DRC wanted to know if we could arrest these people. I told them: Kenya is a democracy, we cannot arrest every person who makes a statement,” he explained on Kenyan television on December 17.

The explanation did not convince Kinshasa, which highlights the provisions of the framework agreement signed in 2013 in Addis Ababa, according to which the region must neither tolerate nor provide assistance to Congolese armed groups. A member of Félix Tshisekedi's cabinet, on condition of anonymity, speaks of a "betrayal" of an ally, with whom the relationship has "progressively deteriorated".

Uhuru Kenyatta 'stunned and appalled'

The sudden break with William Ruto may, however, come as a surprise. “This is a dazzling turnaround,” notes Richard Moncrieff, researcher at the International Crisis Group (ICG). Kenya was the great supporter of Félix Tshisekedi, who thought he would use this opening in East Africa to diplomatically isolate Rwanda, but it all turned sour. » Not considering itself supported by the region, Kinshasa is now raising the possibility of leaving the East African organization, the EAC.

However, Nairobi's attitude seems to be less linked to a reversal of alliance in the Great Lakes region than a reflection of the dynamics of Kenyan domestic politics. “The current tensions between William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta are having repercussions on the Congolese issue because of the privileged relationship that the latter has with President Tshisekedi,” suggests Macharia Munene, professor at USIU-Africa University in Nairobi. Uhuru Kenyatta, also the East African regional facilitator for the DRC peace talks, said he was “stunned and dismayed” by the announcement of the creation of the AFC in Nairobi.

While Félix Tshisekedi seems on the verge of being re-elected following the vote on December 20, on the Kenyan side, we want to believe that the vexation is temporary. “The DRC had an exaggerated reaction by recalling its ambassador, but we believe that these tensions are linked to the elections,” Isaac Mwaura, William Ruto’s spokesperson, told Le Monde. A Congolese official is less optimistic, according to him, the return of the Congolese ambassador to Nairobi will depend on the explanations provided by Kenya.

“Kenyan business interests could suffer.”

The latter would, however, have a lot to lose from a freeze in relations with Kinshasa. Encouraged by Uhuru Kenyatta, many Kenyan companies, banks and insurance companies in particular, have established themselves in the DRC. Kenya has opened consulates in Goma and Lubumbashi, Kenyan Airways a daily air connection with Goma, the ambition being ultimately the creation of a commercial corridor between Kinshasa and the Kenyan port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.

“Kenyan business interests could suffer from the crisis because the environment is no longer conducive to businessmen coming from Nairobi,” said Macharia Munene. While the Kenyan bank Equity Group, the leading financial institution in East Africa, recently indicated that the revenues of its Congolese subsidiary could exceed those of its Kenyan subsidiary, certain members of the government in Kinshasa have, according to our sources, discreetly began withdrawing their funds from the establishment.