The details of a proposed regional peacekeeping force deployed to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are expected to be made public in the coming days. The deployment was proposed after a meeting of the East African Community (EAC) in mid-June aimed at easing the rising tensions between DRC and Rwanda. The two countries have long had an uneasy relationship as both states accuse the other of supporting armed anti-government groups. Rwanda has alleged that the DRC government and intelligence services prop up Hutu nationalist groups which are led by individuals who were involved in the 1994 genocide against ethnic Tutsis and are now based in the eastern DRC. For its part, the DRC government has accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group which is also based in the DRC’s eastern regions. M23 is a predominantly ethnic Tutsi organisation. Both governments have repeatedly denied the other’s allegations.
The tensions escalated in March when M23 renounced the 2013 peace agreement claiming that the DRC government failed to follow through on its promise to incorporate its fighters into the armed forces. The militant group began attacking towns and military bases in the DRC’s North Kivu province, particularly in areas near the Ugandan border.
The increase in M23’s activities fuelled a groundswell of anti-Rwanda sentiment that drove street protests and reports of mob violence in major cities throughout Rwanda. This sentiment and belief that the Rwandan government was behind M23’s resurgence led the DRC to ban Rwanda’s state-owned airline, RwandAir, from operating in the DRC.
The month of June was marked by continuously escalating tensions and pointed statements by the two governments. DRC officials accused Rwandan troops of operating within North Kivu while in disguise and Rwanda issued a statement warning that it would retaliate against any Congolese military action.
These tensions even escalated into conflict incidents. On 10 June, the two forces exchanged artillery fire across the border in the Bunagana area of North Kivu province ‒ each state blamed the other for instigating the exchange. A week later, on 17 June, an armed DRC soldier was killed in a shootout with Rwandan troops after he crossed the border at the Goma crossing in North Kivu. This incident sparked a diplomatic crisis and resulted in the DRC shutting down its border with Rwanda. The border was only reopened on 26 June following the EAC intervention led by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The deployment of a regional EAC peacekeeping force is unlikely to have a major impact on calming the tensions between the two countries as the distrust between the two governments runs deep. Rwanda and DRC will likely accuse one another of undermining the EAC deployment. Further, the EAC has limited resources to call upon which would be acceptable to DRC leaders. The DRC government will not tolerate Rwandan forces in the regional force and will also likely oppose the inclusion of Uganda, given that it also has tensions with the Ugandan government over its actions in the eastern DRC. This leaves Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, and Burundi to form the bulk of the deployment. However. South Sudan and Burundi have limited military resources available for external deployment, and the bulk of Kenya’s armed forces are focussed on combatting al-Shabaab in its northern regions. Even Tanzania is over-committed as it is a member of the Southern African Development Communities (SADC) regional peacekeeping mission combatting militants in Mozambique.
As a result of these constraints, the EAC force will likely be limited in capacity, equipment, and funding and will unlikely be able to fully contain M23 and the plethora of other militant groups operating in the DRC.
This will especially be challenging without DRC and Rwanda cooperating. Rwanda has the most capable security and intelligence services in the Great Lakes region and is instrumental in preventing the spread of militant groups from the eastern DRC. The current tensions between Rwanda and DRC will create a more enabling environment for these groups. This is not just limited to M23 and the Hutu nationalist militant groups, but also more dangerous organisations such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The ADF is an Islamic State-affiliated extremist organisation which operates in North Kivu and Ituri provinces and has also proven capable of orchestrating attacks in Uganda. Illustrative of the threat posed by ADF, between 24 and 35 people were killed in a series of attacks orchestrated by the group in the Beni region of North Kivu province.
The security situation in eastern DRC is deteriorating and can only be properly reversed through effective regional security cooperation. This involves the deployment of regional troops but also requires full intelligence and security cooperation between the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda. The open enmity between Rwanda and the DRC will undermine any peacekeeping effort and will enable these militant groups to strengthen. Further, these tensions risk further destabilisation of the security environment as the possibility of further, and more intense, clashes between Rwandan and DRC security forces remains.