Deep misgivings and differences about the mandate and intentions of East Africa’s force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lie behind the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) decision to deploy its troops into the turbulent region.
On the face of it, the decision seems strange. First, because the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) has only been in eastern DRC for a few months. And second, because SADC already has troops there – the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) – intended as the cutting edge of the United Nations MONUSCO peacekeeping mission that has been in the DRC for 10 years.
Despite these various interventions, SADC’s security organ, along with FIB troop contributing countries, ‘approved the deployment of a SADC Force within the framework of the SADC Standby Force as a regional response in support of the DRC to restore peace and security in Eastern DRC,’ at a summit in Windhoek on 8 May.
Underlying this decision are questions in SADC about what the EACRF is doing in eastern DRC. These reflect, perhaps not surprisingly, the sentiments of DRC President Felix Tshisekedi who attended the meeting. Tshisekedi recently announced that he wants the EACRF out of the country by June because it’s not fulfilling its mandate to attack and expel the M23 rebels. Tshisekedi has also repeatedly complained that Rwanda is allegedly again supporting the M23.
There has also been widespread suspicion that Burundi and Uganda – which are participating in the EACRF alongside Kenya and South Sudan – are essentially there to pursue their own rebel enemies hiding out in the eastern DRC.
At a meeting of the SADC organ’s defence sub-committee just before the Windhoek summit, officials were harsh in their assessment of the EACRF. They appeared to agree with DRC’s view that it was not fulfilling the status of forces agreement under which it was deployed and should withdraw.
The officials complained that the EACRF’s overly friendly approach towards the ‘M23/RDF terrorists’ is not going down well with the local population. (RDF refers to the Rwanda Defence Force.) The SADC officials said locals considered the EACRF to be passive, citing an example of EACRF troops standing by while Rwandan soldiers marched through the area. As a result, the M23 returned to territories it had occupied, and intended to attack Goma as it notoriously did in 2012 – prompting the FIB intervention.
The defence officials also noted a controversial speech by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Cotonou last month. Kagame reportedly said colonial powers had given parts of Rwanda to the DRC and Uganda, and that the M23 rebellion was a matter of ‘Congolese claiming their Rwandan heritage.’ SADC officials took this as a sign that by backing the M23 – which he has denied – Kagame is trying to seize eastern DRC territory, which he regards as Rwandan.
The other question about SADC’s proposed new force is why it’s necessary when the FIB is already in the field. The defence officials noted the FIB’s lack of effectiveness for various reasons, among them the unpopularity of MONUSCO among ordinary Congolese and the decrease in FIB’s capabilities. Another factor cited is that MONUSCO’s mandate, which encompasses the FIB, ends in 2024.
The officials nevertheless suggest that SADC should again appeal to the UN to beef up the FIB’s capabilities – perhaps as an interim measure – and recommend that the FIB should be last to leave if and when MONUSCO withdraws.
The report recommends a brigade-strength SADC Standby Force armed with attack helicopters and artillery to tackle the M23 and other armed rebel groups tormenting the region. This was the recommendation, at least in principle, which the summit adopted. No suggestions were made about which SADC countries should contribute troops or when the force should be deployed – although the urgent need to stabilise the east before DRC’s national elections in December was emphasised.
Many questions remain, not least of SADC capacity. Already the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), deployed in July 2021 to neutralise insurgents in Cabo Delgado, is struggling because of military deficiencies. Pierre Boisselet, a Researcher at the Congo Research Group, wonders if all SADC countries would back the intervention force. Mozambique might object, given its reliance on Rwandan forces to keep the insurgents at bay. And Angola’s President Joao Lourenco has been active in peace efforts between Tshisekedi and Kagame.
The perennial question of finance also looms large – and is one that currently dominates debates at the UN Security Council about African peace missions. Where would the money come from since SADC has already appealed to external sources to finance SAMIM? Boisselet believes what comes next after MONUSCO’s departure could also be at stake. ‘Probably SADC wants to be part of the picture, or even thinks it can take over from MONUSCO, including by receiving the funding.’
There is more than a hint of that in the defence committee’s report. It notes that in September 2022, SADC defence ministers asked for a review and finalisation of an earlier plan to deploy a division-strength SADC force in DRC after MONUSCO and the FIB withdraw.
Some suggest South Africa’s ambition to regain lost influence in the region could be behind the 8 May proposal. It’s unclear how much of the strong sentiment in the defence sub-committee’s report is shared by higher echelons. And many other questions also remain.
Is Tshisekedi ‘forum-shopping’ between the EACRF and SADC, desperately searching for help in defeating the M23 to boost his re-election chances in December? And is SADC falling for that? Does the regional bloc have a political strategy that underpins its proposed military intervention?
It seems likely that the grand summit of SADC, the East African Community, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and Economic Community for Central African States (ECCAS), which the SADC troika proposed to coordinate all the interventions, could occasion complex and heated debate.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria
Image: © Guerchom Ndebo/AFP
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