East Africa: Insecurity in DR Congo – Regional MPs Root for Urgent Solution

The M23 rebels in eastern DR Congo on Monday, June 13, overrun Bunagana, a trading hub on the border with Uganda, forcing Congolese government soldiers there to flee into neighbouring Uganda.

This was barely a month after Kinshasa branded the rebels as a terrorist group, implying they cannot continue partaking in a regional peace talks initiative aimed at finding solutions to the insecurity in their country’s volatile east where more than 130 armed militia groups wreak havoc.

The regional initiative was an outcome of the first and second EAC Heads of State conclaves on the peace and security situation in DR Congo under the chairmanship of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta held on April 8 and 21, respectively, at State House Nairobi.

Hours after news trickled in that the M23 overrun Bunagana, members of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) told The New Times, on the margins of an ongoing sitting in Arusha, Tanzania, that it is important to have clarity about what the rebels are all about, as well as the root cause of the unending insecurity in eastern part of the DR Congo.

What should the EAC do?

The lawmakers said it is high time the East African Community (EAC) moved quickly, and resolutely, to bring peace and security to DR Congo’s volatile east.

MP George Stephen Odongo, Chairperson of the Uganda chapter in EALA, said that what is happening in DR Congo is “not something new” as it has been building up.

Odongo said: “It is something that the Community has had a fair share of discussions about. But I think there is need to move faster to fast-track the intervention of the East African Community in that area so that we move as one. This is an EAC Treaty obligation because, under Article 124 of our Treaty, it provides that we should maintain good neighborliness and it is a duty of every partner state to see that we pacify our neighbourhood so that we don’t breed insecurity that impedes free movement of people and trade between partner states.”

“For the case of eastern DRC, this has been an agenda item that has even been discussed at Summit level and there have been proposals from the Chair of the Summit, President Uhuru (Kenyatta) who proposed for a joint intervention force of the East African Community in that area.”

During the second EAC Conclave, Presidents Félix Tshisekedi of DR Congo, Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi, Kenyatta and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and Rwanda’s foreign minister Dr Vincent Biruta, agreed to the deployment of a regional force to contain armed groups in DR Congo.

Odongo said this is a very good proposal that should be expedited.

His take is that the EAC needs to come out very fast, act very fast, to intervene and secure eastern DR Congo.

MP Fred Mukasa Mbidde, another legislator from Uganda said that what is happening in DR Congo is a governance issue that East Africa must take on as quickly as practically as possible.

“The Presidents of East Africa should cut the rhetoric and begin now addressing themselves to the joint protocol on peace and security in East Africa and quickly handle the governance issues in eastern DRC,” Mbidde said.

“That’s the only way we shall have a resolution on the matter that is amicable.”

It remains to be seen how Kenya, the current EAC Chair, which is preoccupied with a presidential election scheduled for August will handle the situation especially now that Kinshasa undermined the outcomes of the Second Heads of State Conclave in Nairobi by excluding M23 from the dialogue process.

A partner with baggage?

President Tshisekedi on April 8 signed the Treaty of accession by his country to the EAC.

Tshisekedi’s signature immediately brought his country into the realms and provisions of all the protocols and regional policies of the EAC. After signing the Treaty of accession, Kinshasa has up to September 29 to undertake internal and constitutional processes to ratify the EAC Treaty and submit to the EAC Secretary General, and subsequently join all programmes and activities of the bloc.

MP Aden Omar Abdikadir (Kenya) said he is very concerned by the recent developments now that DR Congo is in the process of almost finalising joining the EAC

He said: “I am very concerned that we are taking on board a partner who has alot of conflict within their territory. The moment they finish their entry into the EAC, that conflict effectively becomes and EAC conflict. For that reason, I have always been of the opinion that we proceed cautiously with the bringing in of DRC as a member of the EAC.”

I am still on record to say that we should not rush to finalise bringing on board a partner state without having them to solve the issues within their boundaries first. One of the prerequisite should be, let DRC deal with its problems. However long it takes doesn’t matter. Let them settle down the insecurity in that region, secure their country and then and only then should we allow them to now come on the table to proceed with joining the EAC.

Abdikadir said he has always had reservations with rushing to admit the country but now with the current situation he is even more concerned.

He added that he is aware of the benefits and economic opportunity of DR Congo joining EAC “given that its a big market, but let’s not be blinded by the big opportunity and let’s be cautious of the dangers that lie (there) before reaching that opportunity.”

“I will have no problem with them joining but I am of the view that we should not rush towards the business opportunity in the DRC and not look at the potential conflict and threats to peace and stability in the EAC region.”

But EAC Secretary General Peter Mathuki remains confident that regional leaders are on top of issues and their efforts will eventually succeed.

Mathuki told The New Times that whenever there is a challenge in any part of the bloc, or in any of the partner states of the EAC, it becomes a collective challenge.

“And I think it is important for all of us and I know the Heads of State, at their level, have come up with a framework and they actually met in the first week of April and they have tried to see how to sustainably resolve this challenge,” Mathuki said.

“Yes, we cannot say that nothing is happening. The situation is not supposed to be like that. It is supposed to be better but again, the fact that at the highest level, the Heads of State themselves are concerned about it and discussing about it and have already formed a framework to talk about it is something that is positive.”

A very complex matter

Odongo said that the M23 activity in eastern DR Congo is “a very complex matter.”

First, he said, the M23 is now described by the DR Congo government as a terrorist organisation. As such, he said, there is need, first of all, to build consensus to define who are the protagonists in eastern DR Congo because under international law, you cannot engage in any meaningful conversations with terrorists.

“As a region, we need to first define, who are the groups that are actively involved in eastern DRC and agree on whether or not to flame the M23 as a terrorist organisation,” Odongo said.

“And if it is flamed as a terrorist organization, then there has got to be concerted effort because even within our cooperation on matters of defence and security there is a specific provision for us to fight terrorism. But if it is not, then there is also need for us to have minimum consensus as a Community as to how to define M23 and see how best to manage the security situation in eastern DRC.”

The rebels on Monday issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to pursue the search for a response to their demands through peaceful means.

They once again appealed to Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi “to seize this opportunity to put an end to the violence caused by this useless war and to open direct negotiations with our Movement” in accordance with the Conclave of four Heads of State held in Nairobi on April 8, 2022 and supported by the United Nations Security Council “to definitively end the conflict.”

MP Fancy Haji Nkuhi (Tanzania), a member of the Assembly’s standing Committee on Regional Affairs and Conflict Resolution, said has heard lots of allegations that need to be dissected so as to get to the bottom of issues.

She said: “What I am advising to the EAC Summit is that they need to sit down because there are so many allegations and some allegations are that some partner states are participating in the instability of DRC in general. So, they need to sit down and understand the problem and find out what is the root cause of the problem and deal with it.”

During their meeting in Nairobi, Congolese armed groups earlier noted that the presence and operations of foreign militia forces – FDLR from Rwanda, ADF from Uganda, and Burundi’s Résistance pour un État de droit, or RED-Tabara – is a threat to peace in the region. The Congolese groups – including the M23 – “take up arms for self-defence,” it is noted.

Are M23 really terrorists?

For MP Fred Mukasa Mbidde, the M23 rebels are freedom fighters.

“These are not terrorists. These are freedom fighters,” he said

In DR Congo, Mbidde noted, there is a momentum geared towards, and against, ethnic Tutsi Congolese.

High-stakes presidential polls are scheduled for December 2023 and Mbidde sees a link to what is happening now in the east of the vast country.

Mbidde said: “These are Congolese nationals. There is a desire that has been occasioned by the (Congolese) government; fearing that (former President Joseph) Kabila is also intending to return (in next year’s presidential election). And he rides, usually, on avenues calculated to indicate to the Congolese that the more aninetity (strong animosity) and incendiary acts that you administer against the Banyamulenge and Tutsi Congolese should win you substantial votes from the average Congolese.”

“It is now becoming a campaign platform that is orchestrated by those (main contesting) camps. And in my opinion that is going to cause, again, further factors and combinations within the Congo. So, the fighting entity, particularly M23 are just nationals being denied, first of all, their nationality and second, land rights, particularly communal rights.”

In the past few months, reports in mainstream and social media have highlighted disturbing trends of public incitement and calls to Genocide in DR Congo. These include the proliferation of hate speech spreading double genocide theory and advocating for the attack and annexation of Rwanda to the DR Congo by political leaders, members of the civil society, and religious leaders; as well as stigmatization of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese calling on them to return to Rwanda.

Kigali has stressed that it has no intention of being drawn into an intra-Congolese matter, but Kinshasa claims that the M23 rebels are supported by Kigali.

How does FDLR factor into fight against M23?

While the M23 rebels continue getting international media attention, nothing is said about the reports about the military cooperation between the Congolese army and the FDLR, a genocidal force from Rwanda, which is a major hindrance to the stability of eastern DR Congo and the region.

The FDLR comprises remnants of the perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. After killing more than one million people 28 years ago, they fled into eastern DR Congo.

Mbidde said Kinshasa’s inability to posses a substantial force that can guide and govern the country and protect it, resulted into it “using the FDLR as a mercenary force” by the Congolese government and army against any intended targets.

“This mercenary force has got its ideological anchor chain. It has got a substantial ideological umbilical chord that cannot be cut (from) the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi that took place three decades ago.

“Now, the FDLR that are fugitives and dissidents, once armed by a government and given diplomatic and security cover, ammunition and all sorts of capacity, is now again posing a danger … as they attempt to be used as a mercenary tool against the M23. In my opinion, this is all a recipe for further incendiary disaster for the East African region.”

On Monday, the M23 also said it will also not permit the continued calls for violence, murder, hatred, division and xenophobia currently being made by Congolese officials and members of the FARDC-FDLR coalition and local armed groups “because they constitute a serious threat to social cohesion, peaceful coexistence between communities and stability in the region.”

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