South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday, February 12, ordered the deployment of 2,900 soldiers to eastern DR Congo despite objections by his country’ main opposition party.
Ramaphosa’s office said the deployment would fulfil his country’s “international obligation” to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional force in the volatile eastern DR Congo.
The SADC regional force which also has troops from Malawi and Tanzania was deployed to eastern DR Congo in December 2023 and is led by a South African commander.
The South African troops will “assist in the fight against illegal armed groups” in eastern DR Congo, according to a statement by Ramaphosa’s office. The regional force is part of a Congolese government-led coalition fighting the M23 rebel group in North Kivu province.
On Monday, fighting between the government coalition and the M23 continued about 25 kilometres north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, previously described the deployment to DR Congo as “a reckless decision” that served the “misplaced priorities” of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and urged Ramaphosa to recall his decision.
The Democratic Alliance said the members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) lacked the capacity to pursue an anti-insurgency campaign and “would be at the mercy of the M23 rebels who have become adept at using guerrilla tactics.”
Observers have warned that by working with the Congolese armed forces, SADC troops could end up collaborating with the FDLR, one of the militias making up the government coalition.
The FDLR was founded in 2000 by remnants of the perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
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The Congolese government courted the SADC force after falling out with a mission from the East African Community (EAC), which Kinshasa accused of being passive to the M23 rebels.
The EAC regional force withdrew its troops in December 2023, after just over a year of deployment. The EAC regional force had faced criticism from the Congolese government, leading to the resignation of its first commander over threats to his personal security.
The M23 rebellion resurfaced in November 2021, after nearly a decade in hibernation. The rebels say they fight for the protection of the civilians in eastern DR Congo who are persecuted by militias such as the FDLR. The UN-sanctioned FDLR is accused of spreading violence and genocide ideology targeting Congolese Tutsi communities in the east of the country.
Eastern DR Congo has been volatile for nearly 30 years.
The provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri are home to more than 130 armed groups that are accused of atrocities and human rights violations. Multiple regional and international interventions have failed to end decades of insecurity. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, MONUSCO, has begun withdrawing its troops in the restive region after more than 20 years.