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Alphabet soup of competing armies and ‘peacekeepers’ complicates conflict in eastern DRC

Alphabet soup of competing armies and ‘peacekeepers’ complicates conflict in eastern DRC
M23 rebel fighters in the town of Karuba, about 62km west of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo on 28 November 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)

The SADC Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, of which South Africa is a key component, is now in a de facto coalition with fundamentally rogue non-state armed actors, many of whom are accused of human rights violations and involvement in the illicit economy.

Four years into a protracted war between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Rwandan-supported M23 rebel group, the eastern DRC is flooded with national, regional and international military actors.

Aside from the Congolese army, there are Burundian troops deployed under a bilateral military agreement with the DRC; Ugandan troops fighting alongside the Congolese army against the Allied Democratic Forces; French and Romanian mercenaries hired by the Congolese government; a coalition of Congolese armed groups opportunistically allied with Kinshasa against the M23; the Rwanda Defence Force clandestinely supporting the M23; and United Nations peacekeepers deployed with the UN Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco).

Into this hypermilitarised environment the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has deployed its own regional force – the SADC Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) – composed of South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops. Since December 2023, the SAMIDRC has been very slowly building up its force, which is supposed to count a full complement of 4,800 troops when fully deployed. Five months into the mission, fewer than 1,000 are on the ground.

The SADC first announced its intention to deploy to the DRC in May 2023. At the time, another regional force – the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), composed of troops from Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda and Burundi – had been on the ground in eastern DRC for six months.

DRC Felix Tshisekedi

President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi speaks during a joint press conference with the French president following their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on 30 April 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Christophe Ena)

Despite Kinshasa’s approval of the EACRF deployment, the Congolese government and the East African Community (EAC) quickly disagreed about the force’s mandate. Kinshasa argued that the EACRF had an offensive mandate to track down and forcibly disarm the M23 rebels, while EACRF argued that it was deployed to stabilise the situation and help maintain a ceasefire, not to actively pursue the rebels.

As the dispute evolved, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi started to look elsewhere for allies who would support him in his battle against the M23 and Rwanda; enter South Africa and the SADC.

For the Congolese government, the SAMIDRC had several advantages over the EACRF: the SADC’s analysis of the conflict clearly recognised Rwanda’s role and its support to the M23 – something the East African Community, of which Rwanda is a member, never acknowledged.

Soldiers from the Southern African Development Community  Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo drive past locals fleeing a resumption of fighting east of Goma in North Kivu on 7 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Moses Kasereka)

SADC troops with supporters of DRC President Felix Tshisekedi at a campaign rally at Sainte Therese in the Ndjili district of Kinshasa on 18 December 2023. (Photo: John Wessels / AFP)


A South African National Defence Force soldier mans a 24-hour roadblock on the N2 near Khayelitsha, Cape Town, during the Covid-19 lockdown on 16 April 2020. The South African government has come under scrutiny over its choice to spend $100-million to fund its troop deployment to the DRC. (Photo: Gallo Images / Roger Sedres)

The SADC also stated that the SAMIDRC would have an offensive mandate and actively try to defeat the M23. Both elements were important political victories for Tshisekedi’s government in May 2023.

There was significant popular dissatisfaction with the EACRF and the fact that its deployment had not changed the situation on the ground in North Kivu, and the country was headed towards presidential elections in December. Tshisekedi had built his campaign around ending the M23 crisis, and he needed to start delivering results.

Read more in Daily Maverick: DRC army says it stopped attempted coup involving US citizens

It is less clear what motivated the SADC and South Africa specifically to get involved in a mission which its own estimates place at an annual cost of $500-million. South African government officials explain that the SADC Mutual Defence Pact obliges the SADC to assist a member state when it faces an external military aggression.

But given the costs involved, it is hard to believe that this is the only motivation. The South African government has already come under scrutiny over its choice to spend $100-million to fund the deployment at a time when the country is facing many serious domestic crises.

And while the Congolese government says it is covering $200-million of the $500-million annual cost, that still leaves a hole of $200-million just for the first year of the SAMIDRC’s deployment.

The funding issue is clearly undermining the mission already – by May 2024, only 1,000 troops had been deployed amid reports that conditions for SAMIDRC troops in the field were inadequate for a successful operation.

A woman carries her belongings as people flee the Masisi territory in eastern DRC following clashes between M23 rebels and government forces on 7 February 2024. (Photo: Aubin Mukoni / AFP)

Rwanda’s ire

In addition to facing serious operational challenges, the deployment has also raised the ire of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. South Africa and Rwanda have a history of poor relations, ever since the Rwandan government sent hit squads to South Africa to eliminate political dissidents to whom South Africa had granted political asylum.

In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in early April, Kagame criticised South Africa for not informing Rwanda of its plans to deploy to the eastern DRC.

Before that, Rwanda had sent official communication to the UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council, calling the SAMIDRC deployment an act of aggression and urging both bodies not to endorse the mission.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Humanitarian needs in DRC escalate amid rising violence, says Red Cross

Rwanda’s diplomatic efforts failed, however, and both the UN and the AU have given the SAMIDRC the green light, paving the way for the mission to request international funding. 

Kagame appears to feel threatened by the SAMIDRC deployment; even if the force is not up to its full capacity, it is fighting on the Congolese side and cannot be influenced by Rwanda in the way the east African force could. There is also the fact that Rwanda’s neighbour Tanzania chose to deploy with the SADC and not the EAC, of which it is also a member.

Burundi is another hostile neighbour with whom Kigali is currently at odds. Burundi accuses Kigali of supporting anti-government rebels, and is fighting against the M23 alongside the Congolese army, while Uganda, with whom Kigali has a long history of ups and downs, is also currently more closely aligned to Kinshasa.

Kagame and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa held bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Rwandan Genocide commemorations in April. Only very little has filtered out from the meeting, but Kagame reportedly asked South Africa not to proceed with its deployment, while South Africa asked Rwanda to stop supporting the M23.

It seems very unlikely that either country will heed the other’s request given what is at stake for both: Rwanda’s long-term battle for control of eastern DRC, and the independence and credibility of South Africa’s foreign policy.

That said, South Africa’s decision to participate in the SAMIDRC is not only financially costly and uncertain, the chaos on the ground could also have a negative impact on the country and the SAMIDRC’s reputation.

Activists march on 19 February 2024 to denounce what they say is the international community’s silence about the ongoing fighting in North Kivu, on the border with Rwanda, in Goma, DRC. Fighting had increased in recent days around the town of Sake, 20km from Goma, between M23 rebels, who Kinshasa says are supported by Rwanda, the Congolese regular army and their supporters, the patriotic group of Wazalendo. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Moise Kasareka)

The Congolese government’s decision to formalise a coalition with Congolese armed groups – known as the Wazalendo, or “patriots” – to fight the M23 means that the SAMIDRC is now in a de facto coalition with fundamentally rogue non-state armed actors, many of whom are accused of human rights violations and involvement in the illicit economy.

And while they may have the same enemy as the Congolese government, they are not under the Congolese army’s control. Burundi too has its own agenda, fighting with the Congolese but also pursuing its own economic and security priorities.

If the SAMIDRC is to become a positive element in ending the conflict in the eastern DRC, a priority must be to get it to full troop strength. This means finding the money to pay for the deployment sooner rather than later.

At the moment, the M23 is continuing to gain ground, while the SAMIDRC makes little to no difference to the military situation. This could spark disagreements between the SADC and the DRC government over the SADC’s commitments. Tshisekedi, who rules out talks with the M23, is desperate to get the military upper hand, and if the SADC doesn’t meet his expectations, it cannot be ruled out that he will discard it the way he discarded the EAC.

Ultimately, though, a more balanced military situation is only useful in driving the warring parties to the negotiating table; the long-term resolution to this conflict is political. DM

Stephanie Wolters is a Senior Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs and the author of the forthcoming book: A Disinterested State, War, Violence and Indifference in the Great Lakes. This article was first published by African Arguments.


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