Just three months since the first deployment of military contingents, the East African Force in the Democratic Republic of Congo has become heavily contested by Congolese activists and parts of the Congolese population. The protests, which took place in Kinshasa, Goma and Bukavu, powerfully demonstrate that regional military initiatives are no panacea for multi-level security challenges but may in fact run the risk of intensify existing challenges and conflict dynamics.
“Since they arrived, they have not done anything. They are incapable of ending the war. That’s why we protesters say, they should return home.” This is a statement I received from the Congolese activist Emmanuel Ndimwiza Murhonyi. Emmanuel is one of the activists who took part in protests in Bukavu against the peace operation of the East African Community (EAC) in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Only days later, similar protests in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, escalated into violence.
Protest against International Peacebuilding
These are by far not the first protests against international peacebuilding in the DRC. In fact, resistance against the ongoing peacebuilding operation of the United Nations (UN) known as “MONUSCO” has a long history. In 1999 the UN Security Council mandated the operation, then operating under the name MONUC, to observe the implementation of the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement to end the Second Congo War. Yet, the war did not end. Rather, five years later Laurent Nkunda violently conquered the city of Bukavu in South Kivu. In response, students organised protests in the DRC’s capital Kinshasa. Back then, they criticised that MONUC had failed to prevent the atrocities committed by Nkunda’s forces. Since then, MONUSCO has adopted a more robust and militarised approach, centring stabilisation and the protection of civilians.
Whilst MONUSCO has proven to have had a positive impact in certain regions such as Tanganyika province, the overall security situation in Eastern Congo has remained fragile. As data from the Kivu Security Tracker suggests, the level of violence in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu has been rising. The UN Group of Experts recently stated that the DRC has been “affected by episodes of intense violence”. Especially in North Kivu and Ituri the “security and humanitarian situation (…) significantly deteriorated”, with violent groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) being able to expand their territory. Recently, the 23 March Movement (M23), an armed group created in 2012 and allegedly supported by DRC’s neighbour Rwanda, re-emerged, worsening an already tense situation. After M23 had signed a peace deal with the Congolese authorities in 2013, the group was largely inactive until end of 2021. In recent months, however, it has started a new offensive – allegedly to push the government in Kinshasa to implement the 2013 agreements. Moreover, it is claiming to defend Congolese Tutsi against discrimination. Beyond these rhetorics, however, the group has committed numerous atrocities against Congolese civilians on the ground, oftentimes worsening the situation for those whom M23 is claiming to protect. In Kishishe and Bambo in North Kivu alone M23 killed at least 171 people during a massacre in November 2022. According to Thomas Fessy from Human Rights Watch, M23 has been “leaving behind a growing trail of war crimes against civilians” – a situation which has continued until today.
The Contested Deployment of the East African Force
To address these security challenges, the EAC decided to deploy troops in Eastern DRC (known as EACF). Based on the complex history between the DRC and Rwanda as well as the recent rising tensions between both countries, Tshisekedi decided early on that a Rwandese deployment in Eastern Congo is off the table. Consequently, the EACF is supposed to comprise up to 12.000 soldiers from Kenya, Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda. Yet, from these 12.000 soldiers only Kenyan troops have arrived in Eastern Congo until today.
This, however, does in no way mean that other regional players have been inactive. Interestingly, Uganda has already deployed its army (UPDF) in the DRC since 2021. The UPDF has supported the Congolese army (FARDC) fighting against ADF, which has carried out atrocities in North Kivu close to the Ugandan boarder. Additionally, Burundian troops are thought to have fought in the DRC since December 2021. Their operations, which have never been officially confirmed, are said to have targeted the RED-Tabara insurgency, an armed force opposing the Burundian government. Accordingly, the new EAC combat force “would mostly reinforce troops who have already been deployed to the DRC in recent months, with each contributor pursuing a distinct mission”. The DRC, which joined the EAC in 2022, officially welcomed this military deployment. In fact, it was president Tshisekedi’s hope that together with regional peace negotiations this deployment would “allow the country to turn over and focus on the economic and social growth” and that the DRC would “shine in front of the world”.
Yet, far away from the seat of the Congolese government in Kinshasa, people in the East have been rather sceptical from the beginning. The level of mistrust of Congolese people in regional players is high, which is understandable given that “several of the DRC’s neighbours have repeatedly and deliberately undermined stability in its east by bolstering proxy fighters and tapping its huge natural resources”. For example, more and more evidence suggests that Rwanda is actively supporting M23. Moreover, there are rumours that Ugandan troops were standing by when M23 took over the border town Bunagana in June 2022. Given these allegations, it might not come as a surprise that after the EAC had decided to create a regional force, thousands marched against this decision in Kinshasa. The citizen movement “Lutte pour le Changement” (LUCHA) denounced that especially any potential involvement of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, which “have been involved for more than two decades in the destabilisation” in Eastern Congo, was unacceptable. Yet, despite these concerns, the first Kenyan troops operating under the umbrella of the EACF started arriving in November 2022.
While East African leaders continue to stress that peace in the DRC remains one of their top priorities, many Congolese doubt their credibility. They challenge whether the EAC is actually fighting for the DRC – or whether certain regional leaders are merely pursuing their own interests at the expense of the Congolese people. According to a recently published analysis by Insecurity Insight, almost 89% of social media users from North and South Kivu hold “negative sentiments“ towards the EAC and their military operation. Interestingly, their report suggests that those writing rather positively about the EACF “have either expressed pro-M23 sentiments in the same post or reply, or elsewhere in their account”. It seems that many Congolese take the view that the EACF as well as the interconnected political process is nothing more than “a political-military scam” (“une arnaque politico-miliaire”), aiming to further destabilise the country. According to critics of the EACF, many of the political leaders themselves have “no obvious interest in flying to the aid of the DRC”, since they are economically benefiting from the DRC’s instability. In particular, the fact that the regional forces are authorised to temporarily control the territory they re-captured from M23 is perceived as a threat to the DRC’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. To preserve the latter, the Congolese activist Bienvenu Matumo recently argued that the DRC must resign from the EAC immediately. Broadly speaking, many Congolese reject the creation of these so called buffer-zones, as they allegedly “prove the complicity of the EAC alongside the M23”, as well as Tshisekedi’s inability to “take the actions expected of him” to defend his country’s interests against regional pressure.
When Protest Culminates in Targeted Violence
Considering these tensions, it might not be surprising that the DRC has recently witnessed numerous protests against the EACF. Only two months after the arrival of the first Kenyan troops, people started protesting in Goma on the 18th January. Against the backdrop of the persisting violence by M23, they criticised the EACF’s alleged passivity, demanding that “they should either go home or go to the front line against the enemy”. While local authorities had banned the march, hundreds participated in the protest. According to regional media, protesters as well as journalists covering the event were met with heavy repression from the Congolese police.
Despite this, similar protest activities in Goma and Bukavu continued. And unfortunately, with more protest came more violence. On the 6th February, hundreds of Congolese marched in Goma, demanding the EACF’s departure. In some neighbourhoods they started using large stones to build road blocks and asked traders to close down their businesses and join the protest. Especially on the 7th February, videos showing the looting of private property and the destruction of a church from the Banyamulenge community circulated on social media. The UN office Human Rights office in the DRC confirmed that certain shops and places of worship were targeted “because of the identity of their owners”. For the Mahora Peace Association, a Banyamulenge organisation located in New York City, this targeted violence once more shows how quickly demonstrations against the EACF can turn into violence against Congolese Tutsi, who are being accused of supporting M23 (to gain more insights, click here). According to them, the rise of sentiments against the EACF is strongly connected to “increased hate speech, targeted arrests, and persecution and killings against Congolese Tutsi”. LUCHA, whose members have been repeatedly confronted with accusations of spreading hate against Congolese Tutsi, condemned the riots in an official statement. Rejecting any form of violence, the collective called for an end of the discrimination against Congolese Tutsi for the benefit of national unity and an in-depth investigation of the incidents on the 6th/7th February.
Hope for Regional Peace?
For now, things have seemingly calmed down in Goma. However, one might wonder if this is just the quiet before the next big storm. Whilst the African Union has advocated for “African Solutions to African Problems” and the UN has welcomed regional efforts to take on responsibility for security matters (principle of subsidiarity), the EACF evidently faces substantial challenges. Clearly, one might argue that a complex context such as the DRC requires, among other measures, a joint regional approach taking the historical complexities of the Great Lakes Region into account. While many UN operations have suffered from being perceived as outside invaders lacking knowledge and sensitivity for the regional/local conflict dynamics at play, a regional approach may be able to navigate these complexities more effectively. Optimistic voices thus claim that if the EAC succeeded in bringing peace to Eastern Congo this would be a “game changer of continental significance”. For many — perhaps more modest — outside observers, the EAC’s operation constitutes at least “a test of its ability to respond to violence in the region”.
Taking the lack of military success and the recent protests against the EAC into account, one might question whether the EAC will be able to pass this test in the long run though. In fact, one might claim that the recent developments in the DRC powerfully demonstrate the “dark side” of regional deployments. The Congolese scholar Dr. Felix Ndahinda argues that lasting peace in the DRC requires a comprehensive approach, coordinated efforts and a “good will at the political level to solve issues”. Yet, one might wonder when some of the relevant actors will start developing this political will. Even though it might be the case in other contexts that countries with close proximity have a special interest in supporting peace and stability, this does not seem to hold true for the DRC. If some regional players see little political/economic incentives to build peace but are in fact benefiting from a country’s instability, the chances are high that these countries will “continue to push their own agendas” rather than fighting for peace.
Initiatives from the civil society like the Amani Festival in Bukavu (Amani meaning “peace“ in Swahili) clearly demonstrate that the dream of regional cooperation and peace continues to live. Yet, the vested interests of some regional political elites may provoke a situation in which observers and policy makers need to pay attention if, in the end, this regional force is not causing more harm than good for the Congolese people. Indeed, some analysts warn that the deployment of the EACF could lead to more human rights violations, as the force is equipped with a purely offensive mandate without centring the protection of civilians. Ensuring that the EACF is operating based on the rule of law thus constitutes the bare minimum the Congolese people expect from yet another external force claiming to promote peace and stability in their country.