African Union

Robust engagement could address shaky security in Democratic Republic of Congo

An effective African Union (AU) strategy could remove hurdles in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Great Lakes peace initiatives.

The security landscape in eastern DRC and the Great Lakes region is growing increasingly intricate despite numerous stabilisation efforts. Since February, an escalation in rebel activities in the Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces by Mouvement du 23 mars (M23) and other armed groups has increased fatality numbers. It has also intensified forced displacement and further constrained humanitarian access. In turn, this has negatively affected the relationship between Rwanda and the DRC and created a delicate regional security context in the Great Lakes that could deteriorate at any time.

This is happening amid multiple parallel and often competing military and political regional initiatives aimed at addressing the multifaceted crises. Each faces considerable obstacles that lead to ineffectiveness. Even though the AU has sought solutions, the absence of a coherent engagement strategy for the DRC means that the organisation’s impact is yet to be felt. Could such a strategy address these hurdles and enhance the effectiveness of efforts to stabilise the country and region?

Deflated Nairobi Process

The Nairobi Process, led by Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta under the auspices of the East African Community (EAC), is among major recent approaches by regional actors to address the situation. It has seen the rollout of both military and political processes, which have contributed to the search for stability for eastern DRC in particular. Militarily, the deployment of EAC regional forces (EAC-RF) from November 2022 to December 2023 contributed to civilian-protection efforts. It did so through facilitation of a short-lived ceasefire among the warring parties and partial opening of some supply routes. Overall, it helped in the return of displaced people in certain areas.

DRC's parallel and competing military and political initiatives face obstacles that often render them ineffective.

The DRC expelled the force in November 2023 on the grounds of inability to attack and disarm armed groups, including M23. This has hampered the bid for peace in the country, widened regional security gaps and raised questions about the future of the Nairobi Process. Amid renewed, intensified armed-group activity in parts of the country, especially Sake and Goma, North Kivu’s capital, the nature of engagements has eroded interest in the process and hindered momentum.

A Great Lakes expert told Peace and Security Council (PSC) Report that the initiative is being kept alive by President Félix Tshisekedi's personal relationship with the process facilitator, Uhuru Kenyatta. Furthermore, strained DRC-Kenya relations, which have soured further with the emergence of the M23-affiliated Alliance Fleuve Congo movement, continue to limit options and prospects for a peaceful solution.

A shaky start

The transitioning of responsibilities in December 2023 to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) had a shaky start. Apart from logistical and operational limitations in fulfilling its mandate, it is suffering a similar fate to the EAC-RF. Currently, SAMIDRC forces do not have the troop numbers to combat the militant groups operating in eastern DRC.

Four months after deployment was announced, only 800 of the promised 2 900 South African troops have been deployed. And there is no confirmation of the number of Tanzanian and Malawian contingents deployed, which should total 5 000 troops. Consequently, M23 has taken more territories, attacking troops and causing casualties among South African and Tanzanian contingents. As with the EAC-RF, SAMIDRC lacks financial resources, which will incrementally undermine its capacity to perform. Amid the obvious opposition of the Rwandan government to the deployment, the new force will encounter numerous challenges.

Trailing political dialogue

Given the limited options, the Luanda Process led by Angola’s President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço on behalf of the AU remains the more active political initiative. Angola successfully hosted the inaugural EAC quadripartite summit, which brought together the Economic Community of Central African States, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and SADC under the auspices of the AU on 27 June 2023. The summit adopted a joint framework to align existing peace initiatives, assign responsibilities and set timelines. It also established a quadripartite platform mandated to coordinate and harmonise ongoing regional peace initiatives.

The AU’s impact in the DRC is hindered by the absence of a coherent engagement strategy

A Luanda Process mini-summit on the sidelines of the 37th AU summit, however, revealed the challenges of mistrust and lack of buy-in of its initiatives. Efforts to encourage direct talks between presidents Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame resulted in the trading of accusations and demonstration of intense animosity between the two. Although the process subsequently facilitated an agreement in principle for further diplomatic engagements, accusations between Kigali and Kinshasa continue to impede dialogue, making for a fragile situation.

AU engagement not enough

The AU has put its weight behind ongoing processes to endorse decisions stemming from regional efforts and collaborating with ad hoc regional initiatives under the principle of subsidiarity. Its lack of direct involvement has been criticised by many as inadequate and overly aloof, necessitating a well-defined engagement strategy. To date, the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and Great Lakes signed in 2013 is the AU’s most significant initiative. It brings together 13 countries and four guarantor institutions. As noted at the PSC’s 1 140th meeting, the agreement remains the most ‘viable instrument to support the DRC and institutions in the region to achieve peace and stability’. Since the PSC called in February 2023 for the agreement’s expeditious revitalisation, regional efforts and consultations have sought to enhance ownership of it, build trust among signatory countries, guarantors and other stakeholders and enhance commitment towards implementation.

The PSC also recently asked the AU Commission to expedite funding from the AU Peace Fund crisis reserve facility. It also urged it to ensure the transfer of equipment donated to SADC by the AU Continental Logistics Base in Douala, Cameroon, to support SAMIDRC operations.

Notwithstanding these pronouncements, regional efforts have assumed prominence over the AU’s involvement in the DRC, which continues to suffer from the absence of a clearly defined institutional engagement strategy. Such a strategy would be a framework in the search for solutions without duplicating efforts or competing with regional initiatives.

Towards an engagement strategy

Within policy circles, it is agreed that a robust AU engagement strategy for the DRC and Great Lakes is necessary. It could address competition for influence among states and regional groupings, eliminate persistent coordination gaps and limit ad hoc deployments. The strategy should be hinged, on the one hand, on equipping a military force that can effectively combat M23 and other armed groups.

Deploying under the ASF in eastern DRC could lead to more structured troop and resource mobilisation

To this end, the PSC should facilitate sufficient funding beyond meagre allocations from the Crisis Reserve Facility to bolster SAMIDRC operations. A pledging conference for the DRC could attract funding from non-traditional sources, including private sector actors. The recently adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2719 also offers a strategic opportunity for the AU to secure additional funding to enhance SAMIDRC’s operational and logistical capabilities to restore peace in eastern DRC.

In the medium term, deploying to eastern DRC under an African Standby Force umbrella could allow for a more structured continental approach to troop and resource mobilisation. This contrasts with current ad hoc regional deployments and their inherent limitations.

On the other hand, a diplomatic source told PSC Report, despite growing tensions between Kigali and Kinshasa, the leaders are open to talks under a tripartite arrangement (DRC, Rwanda and Angola). This could enable them to make concessions through the Luanda Process. The strategy should also invest heavily in political solutions to increase the chance of success.

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