The long-simmering conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is starting to boil over again. On 2 February, a South African Airforce Oryx helicopter participating in MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC, was seriously damaged by ground fire and some of its crew and a medical officer were injured.
This week, missile, mortar and artillery fire were exchanged in the Goma area between the armed forces of the DRC and its allies, and the M23 rebel group, according to unconfirmed reports from both sides. One report said the DRC’s military successfully repelled an M23 offensive against the strategic town of Sake, 20 km from Goma, North Kivu’s provincial capital, on 7 February.
M23’s advance on Goma prompted the recently arrived troops of the Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) to formally deploy to Sake and surrounding areas, some analysts say. This would be its first known battlefield deployment – comprising South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops – since it began arriving in the DRC in December.
Some observers believe M23 has more or less surrounded Goma, and intends to capture it, as it did in 2012. That incident precipitated the international furore that led to the creation and deployment of the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), made up of SADC troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi.
M23 this week denied that it intended taking Goma, but vowed to deal with the sources of ‘artillery and air attacks targeting our forces and/or indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations.’
It also said it remained committed to a peaceful solution and would withdraw from forward positions if a monitored ceasefire and credible verification mechanisms were put in place. M23 said it sought a solution through political dialogue and called on regional and international leaders to support this effort.
The recent surge in fighting is a warning to SAMIDRC about the difficulty it faces in meeting its mandate – to defeat the Rwanda-based M23. Assessing its performance is hard because SADC has been frugal with information about the deployment.
But DRC expert Stephanie Wolters of the South African Institute of International Affairs recently warned in Daily Maverick that M23, which the FIB routed in 2013, was today a far more formidable force. She also said it seemed the US and Rwanda’s other Western allies weren’t putting the same pressure on President Paul Kagame to withdraw support from M23 as they did in 2013. This is despite successive UN Group of Experts reports on the DRC that said Rwanda is still backing M23.
And SAMIDRC seems under-planned. One military expert said, ‘I do not think there is really clarity on this deployment as it seems to be rushed and maybe not that well planned due to operational pressures.’
Military experts also suggest the South African National Defence Force – the hard core of SAMIDRC – is technically ill-equipped for the mission because of years of underfunding. One said the Oryx helicopter was hit because it lacked the support of Rooivalk attack helicopters, which played a decisive role in the FIB’s 2013 defeat of M23.
There is a suspicion that SAMIM, SADC’s other ongoing mission – in Mozambique – is being curtailed prematurely to avoid overstretching the regional bloc’s military resources. SAMIM deployed in July 2021, just after Rwandan troops were also dispatched, to help Mozambique defeat Islamic State-linked insurgents who had been terrorising the northern Cabo Delgado province since 2017.
SAMIM has also been a rather opaque exercise. In August 2023, SADC extended its mandate for a year – which at the time seemed routine, as the mission had been extended before. SADC only recently disclosed that that was the final extension and the force would withdraw by July 2024, assuming its mission has been accomplished. But many observers say the insurgents are still active and strong.
Conversely, it seems that Mozambique never wanted SAMIM in the first place, and sidelined it, leaving the real task of fighting the insurgents to Rwanda. It’s somewhat ironic then that in the DRC, SADC may now, directly or indirectly, be taking on Rwanda, its former ally in Mozambique.
Viewed more positively, SAMIM’s imminent termination and the scheduled withdrawal of MONUSCO by the end of 2024, may free SADC, and especially South African, military resources to be channelled into SAMIDRC.
Though one might have imagined that more UN involvement rather than less is needed in the DRC right now – especially after the UN Security Council decided in December last year to allow UN financial support to African Union (AU) and regional peace missions.
If SAMIDRC’s military readiness is uncertain, its political justification is also obscure. Towards the end of 2022, the Nairobi peace process demanded an immediate ceasefire in eastern DRC and the repatriation of foreign militaries.
The parallel Luanda process – focused on the DRC-Rwanda political dimensions of the conflict – endorsed the Nairobi decisions, demanding an end to hostilities, the withdrawal of M23 and other armed movements, and deployment of an East African regional force. The process also insisted on ending foreign support to rebels. But public SADC documents suggest that SAMIDRC’s mandate is simply to defeat M23, as the FIB did in 2013.
Arguably SADC may be observing the AU Peace and Security Council meeting resolution of 17 February 2023, which called for the ‘revitalisation’ of the 2013 Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and the Great Lakes Region. That document called for a ceasefire in eastern DRC and for all foreign forces to withdraw.
Perhaps that is the justification for SAMIDRC but if so, it hasn’t been invoked by SADC, at least not publicly. The fact that SADC is re-entering the eastern DRC a decade after its first intervention to fight the same enemy should surely send the message that a different approach is needed.
It would seem that SADC responded impulsively to a cry for help from DRC President Félix Tshisekedi. He was unhappy that the East African Community Regional Force, which began deploying in east DRC in 2022, would not take on M23. So Tshisekedi demanded in November last year that it withdraw, which it started doing a month later. He hoped SAMIDRC would take the fight to M23.
Tshisekedi’s call for aggressive action against M23, and by inference against Rwanda, was originally interpreted by some as mere vote-catching rhetoric before the December presidential elections. But he didn’t let up after being re-elected, and so what seemed like rhetoric is now becoming a rather more ominous reality.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria
Image: © AFP
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