War in eastern DRC: a new regional force condemned to impotence?

In front of the headquarters of African international troops in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), only the flags have changed

War in eastern DRC: a new regional force condemned to impotence?

In front of the headquarters of African international troops in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), only the flags have changed. In place of the Kenyan, Burundian, Ugandan and South Sudanese standards, the colors of South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi now fly. The three countries sent the first contingents of the SAMIDRC, the force of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), in mid-December 2023.

The building, a former hotel in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, was still occupied at the beginning of December by the headquarters of another regional mission, that of the East African Community (EAC). Driven out by the Kinshasa government after a year of intervention, the East African troops were accused of passivity and complicity with the March 23 Movement (M23), a rebellion that reappeared in the DRC after ten years of dormancy. supported by Rwanda.

This time, faced with the insurgents, the mandate of the SAMIDRC, of ​​twelve months renewable, is “offensive”, assure the Congolese authorities. But so far, the pro-government camp has failed to block the path of the M23 and their allies, who have been gaining ground in the province since the start of the war at the end of 2021.

Suspicions of complicity

Since mid-February, the southern front (Goma and its surroundings), where the regional force is concentrated, has been frozen. No reconquest operation has been launched by Kinshasa. “A shameless defensive military tactic,” denounces the civil society of North Kivu in a press release dated Monday March 11. This group of citizen associations suspects complicity of certain officers of the Congolese army with the “enemies”, particularly on the northern front, located around a hundred kilometers from Goma.

In this area, the M23 and its allies continue to expand their influence. On March 6, the strategic city of Nyanzale fell after intense shelling which cost the lives of at least fifteen people, according to a report established by local notables. On March 11, rebels were also seen in Vitshumbi, a village on the shores of Lake Edward, which borders Uganda, and in Rwindi, a major Congolese military base, with no reports of fighting. . “The FARDC [Armed Forces of the DRC] fled before the arrival of the M23,” explains Jean-Claude Mbabaze, the president of civil society in the Rutshuru territory.

Meanwhile, the military resources and personnel promised by the SAMIDRC contributing countries are arriving in trickles in Goma. According to a SADC document signed in mid-December and consulted by Le Monde, “the force, the size of a brigade [around 5,000 men], will be equipped with air and artillery support.” But for the moment, none of these commitments are fully respected, confirm several sources, who do not specify the types of weaponry or how many soldiers are already there.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had certified that he would provide more than half of the troops by sending 2,900 soldiers to the DRC. But protests from the opposition and internal constraints within the South African army, particularly financial, could force it to reverse this declaration of February 12. Two days after this speech, two South African soldiers died following a mortar explosion in the Mubambiro compound, about fifteen kilometers west of Goma.

This Congolese military camp, which is also one of the SAMIDRC bases, was on the front line at the beginning of February during the offensive launched by the M23 and its Rwandan supporters. It is difficult to know if the soldiers of the regional force were in a combat position or if they were rather collateral damage caused by the bombing. “The problem is that they don’t communicate,” laments a UN source.

Militiamen on the front line

In this context, the SADC objective of restoring peace and the authority of the Congolese state in the eastern part of the country still seems distant. “For the moment, it is the army which manages bilaterally with all the forces present,” continues the UN source. There is no coordination, including between SAMIDRC and MONUSCO [the UN mission, present in the DRC for more than twenty years]. »

The commander of the SAMIDRC, South African Major General Monwabisi Dyakopu, knows the Congolese terrain well since he is a former peacekeeper. He was number 2 (from 2016 to 2017) then number 1 (from 2020 to 2021) of the UN force intervention brigade. This unit also participated in defeating the M23 in 2013, during its first insurrection.

The visit of the SADC chiefs of staff at the beginning of March to Goma did not allow the opening of a dialogue between the numerous actors engaged on the ground. Two private military companies – Congo Protection, headed by the Romanian Horatiu Potra, and Agemira, whose boss, Olivier Bazin, is French – also collaborate with the Congolese army and ensure aircraft maintenance. Burundian soldiers are also present on the front, under an agreement between Kinshasa and Gitega.

Finally, many militiamen, grouped under the name “wazalendo” (“patriots”, in Kiswahili), also tried to resist the offensives of the M23 and the Rwandan army. However, these armed groups have often fought the Congolese government in the past and certain warlords, such as Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, of the NDC-R group, are under sanction from the United Nations.

“The wazalendo are not involved in the planning of operations,” explains a senior member of the Congolese army. However, these fighters are on the front line, often alone, during clashes. “The concern is that the Congolese state is always looking for people to wage war in its place,” concludes a military source who requested anonymity.