For decades, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern region has been subject to insecurity and violence stemming from a complex mix of local and regional conflicts. With violence once again inflamed in eastern DRC, the regional organization East African Community (EAC) is deploying forces to one of its seven member states for the first time since its founding in 1999 in what could be seen as a test of its ability to respond to violence in the region and stabilize the country. The regional force, which is still in the process of deploying, could comprise up to 12,000 troops from Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, and South Sudan, and will operate under a six-month renewable mandate.
Much of the insecurity has stemmed from the armed group M23, which has been resurgent over the past year and prompted Angolan President João Lourenco, the African Union-appointed mediator between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, to convene a “mini summit” on November 23. The meeting resulted in an agreement that included a ceasefire set to take effect at 6pm on November 25, as well as a decision to respond with force should the M23 refuse to comply.
This is not the first time that regional actors have deployed forces to try and tamp down an M23 insurgency. In response to the M23’s initial uprising in 2013, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) proposed sending an intervention brigade, which was eventually brought under UN auspices in the form of MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). Thus, the decision to deploy the EAC force may feel like “deja-vu all over again.” While some factors are different now than in the previous decade, not all developments are promising.
First, unlike the FIB deployed in 2013, the EAC will retain authority over the regional force, with the DRC national forces (FARDC) retaining command of operations. Some have suggested that the EAC force’s robust mandate presents a greater opportunity to engage with non-state armed groups; however, the FIB is similarly mandated to undertake offensive operations, and the strength of its mandate has not been the primary cause of its ineffectiveness, which has more to do with lack of political will from member states and ineffectiveness in dealing with threats from other armed groups, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
There may be some advantages to a regional force overseen by the EAC, particularly because the regional body is also leading the political dialogue. One of the key downfalls of previous military responses in the region is that they have not been adequately linked to a political process. When the FIB was deployed in 2013, it was intended to be the “teeth” to the regional political agreement; however, the two were never fully integrated. While the mission had oversight over the FIB, it did not have a leading role in the political process, and it struggled to keep military and political interventions aligned. Conversely, EAC members have reiterated their commitment to a political process and have acknowledged that there can be no purely military solution, suggesting the two could be more mutually reinforcing.
Nevertheless, even if the EAC attempts to link its military intervention with a political process, there is no guarantee that such efforts will be successful. The decades of violence show just how intractable the conflict is, with more than 100 non-state armed groups operating in the region, many of which are supported by regional actors. Thus far, there has been no indication that Rwanda will cease (or even acknowledge) its support of the M23, nor has the international community done much to call for accountability on this front. Further, the DRC has refused to enter into dialogue with the M23, which it considers a terrorist organization, for fear it will embolden other armed groups.
Deploying a force overseen by the EAC presents other challenges. When the ICGLR first proposed a regional force in response to the 2013 insurgency, the UN pushed to have oversight specifically because it foresaw such challenges, including the need to ensure coordination with its own forces in the country. While the EAC force concept of operations remains opaque, early indications suggest that proper communication and coordination among forces in the region will indeed pose a problem. This is a lesson that has already been learned from the 2021 deployment of Ugandan forces to the DRC to combat the ADF, which created confusion regarding the extent of MONUSCO’s mandate to support operations involving foreign forces. While the UN has indicated its intention to partner with the regional force, the practicalities for doing so remain unclear.
There is also a concern that the regional force could elevate the risk of human rights violations. Previous reporting has documented the potential harm to civilian protection that can arise from crowded theaters, including varied interpretations of civilian protection obligations and lack of clarity regarding attribution and accountability for violations. One important change that took place when the UN took oversight of the FIB was an increased focus on the protection of civilians (POC) within the FIB’s mandate. While civilian safety in eastern Congo continues to be a major problem, the UN nevertheless remains a standard bearer among international actors when it comes to POC. As opposed to MONUSCO forces, the EAC force does not have a protection mandate, and it is unclear the extent to which it will prioritize civilian harm mitigation in its planning and operations.
Violations against civilians could undermine the force’s legitimacy, which is already likely to be weak given the history of abuses committed by foreign forces in the Congo. Already, Kinshasa has refused to allow Rwanda to deploy troops as part of the regional force. Other contributing countries have a history of supporting armed groups in the region, and the political economy of war in the Congo has been of benefit to a number of its neighbors.
As noted by Daniel Levine-Spound, a researcher with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) based in the Congo, many of the countries involved in the force have recently undertaken military operations on Congolese soil, so “there is a significant amount of mistrust and uncertainty among civilians that the force will need to overcome.” This will require adequate engagement with civil society organizations and prioritizing civilian safety in military operations.
Finally, the M23 of today is not the same M23 of ten years ago. Not only is it acting with more sophisticated weaponry and tactics (which may be evidence of Rwanda’s support) but it also has a more centralized command and control and has operated more strategically than in 2013. The boldness of the group’s march on Goma in 2013 elicited a swift response not only from the region, but also the international community, which ultimately led to the group being routed into neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. While the M23 is still operating within the vicinity of Goma in North Kivu, it has avoided taking the city. It has instead focused on taking over larger areas of the surrounding territory, and it could gain control over both roads into Goma.
Whether or not the EAC regional force is up to the task remains unclear. EAC member states’ proximity to the conflict may lead to more sustained political will in tamping down the violence and finding a political resolution. Yet, the countries’ individual interests in the conflict mean that not all players will have the DRC’s best interest at heart. Further, because some of the contributing countries to the force are among the same that have sent forces to the FIB, there are some doubts that the regional force can be any more successful than previous efforts. There are also questions related to financial sustainability, as each country will foot the bill for its own troop contributions, and additional financial support from the UN seems unlikely.
These factors and previous experience cast doubt on the effectiveness of bringing in foreign military forces to resolve unrest in the DRC, as past interventions have not eliminated threats overall, and in some cases have increased violence against civilians; led to the exploitation of natural resources; and undermined Congolese authority over its own territory. While the current crisis is unlikely to be resolved without military force, any hope for success requires that operations remain closely tied to a political process, and that neighboring countries remain accountable to support the security and sovereignty of the DRC.
A version of this article was first published by The Conversation.
Jenna Russo is the Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).