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Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo

Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo

Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta has been praised for helping end the Tigrayan conflict in Ethiopia. As a retired president and a glad-handed statesman, he became an obvious choice for the East African Community (EAC) in its pursuit of peace in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the complexity of the Congo conflict has left Kenyatta gasping for breath, with support and opposition coming in equal measure.Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo

So what happened?

Interviews with people close to the peace process in the DRC paint a complex picture of the conflict, with parties routinely shifting bases or allegiance depending on interests.

‘Bidding for own side’

Kenyatta, the official facilitator of the EAC peace process, now faces lamentations from the same parties that praised him.

“Everybody is bidding for their own side; some want to win the glory of bringing peace to the DRC – so the issue of who takes credit is important here. It is a no-win situation,” said an official who has worked with Kenyatta on the programme.

“The situation is very complicated, with too many people trying to get into DRC. We should not forget that the DRC is a very complicated place with very many forces at play. It is not as simple as Ethiopia.”

Last week, Kenyatta skipped the EAC Summit in Bujumbura called by President Evariste Ndayishimiye to help broker a ceasefire to the violence in eastern DRC. Although it was a heads of state summit, his absence raised curiosity but his office “clarified” that logistical reasons were behind his absence.

Ideally, this would have been the forum where he presents a status report.

Kenya’s politics

The meeting came at a time the former president was the target of criticism by allies of President William Ruto, who accused him of being party to a push by the opposition for public protests over governance and the state of the economy. It was also a time the Kenyatta family was accused of not paying taxes on family businesses. Some MPs demanded that Kenyatta be dropped from the DRC role.

Zaheer Jhanda, a Kenyan legislator from the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, suggested Kenyatta be dropped for “refusing to quit politics” after he retired.

“I think Kenyatta can make a good opposition leader with Raila (Odinga). I suggest the boss gets a replacement for him, and for Raila (who is the AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development), and have someone committed to the work to help Kenya and Africa so that he can fully focus on his role,” Jhanda told The EastAfrican.

‘Doing a fantastic job’

“Uhuru is doing a fantastic job on his assignment of brokering peace in the region,” said Owen Baya, deputy Majority leader in the Kenyan National Assembly. “But as he is doing that he cannot be seen to be associating with the people who want to breach the peace in Kenya.”

Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s roles were granted by the EAC and AU respectively – even though they are voluntary – so technically, President Ruto cannot just drop them. As such, Kenya’s only way of getting Kenyatta out is to suggest that the EAC names someone else, or for Kenyatta to step down.

Making Kenya proud

On Friday, the Kenyan government distanced itself from the push by the ruling party MPs. Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Cabinet Secretary Alfred Mutua told The EastAfrican that the government has no plans to replace the former president as the facilitator for the DRC peace process.

“Actually, the prevailing feeling is that he is doing an excellent job and making Kenya proud,” Dr Mutua said.

Kenyatta’s domestic troubles, however, are only part of the problem in brokering peace in the DRC. On Thursday, he endorsed the Summit’s call for a ceasefire and withdrawal of rebels from the positions. But he also asked for EAC countries to “legitimise” his role by implementing decisions of previous Nairobi meetings.

One of the missing links has been the continued refusal by Kinshasa to negotiate with the rebel group M23. This was seen as critical in influencing communities allied to M23 to send representatives to the next meeting of elders from the conflict area.

M23

DRC insists M23 are terrorists and it will never negotiate with them. Its condition for opening talks is the withdrawal of rebels. Uhuru believes ceasefire, withdrawal and dialogue will build confidence for peace.

The M23, on their part, are demanding “direct negotiations” with the Congolese government. The rebels also asked to express their grievance to Kenyatta, whom they have met at least twice this year.

According to a source in the DRC’s Ministry of Communication, Kinshasa is indifferent to the meetings between Kenyatta and M23.

Our source did not say whether the Congolese government still wants Kenyatta as facilitator.

“It is at the discretion of the president (Tshisekedi),” he said.

Friends

Kenyatta and Tshisekedi have been friends, even before the Congolese man ascended to the presidency.

After the Bujumbura Summit, the EAC said President Ndayishimiye will carry out additional duties for the region, including working to ensure that decisions are followed. Ndayishimiye is the EAC Summit chair.

“President Evariste Ndayishimiye now has an additional responsibility to oversee the process, coordinate the process and ensure that he followed the process and reports regularly to the members of the summit,” said EAC Secretary-General Peter Mathuki.

The Burundi leader will now lead the Regional Oversight Mechanism (ROM), an African Union and UN-supported regional mission in the Great Lakes Region meant to help end violence in eastern DR Congo.

The ROM is meant to ensure parties to the conflict adhere to the peace process, including ceasefire, withdrawal from occupied territories, departure of foreign armed groups and for foreign countries to stop fanning armed rebel activity.

This seems to overlap with Kenyatta’s role.

EACRF challenges

On Thursday, Kenyatta asked all East African troop-contributing countries to deploy soldiers to the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) “throughout eastern DRC, and in the case of North Kivu, for the regional force to inter-pose itself between the fighting forces in areas where the withdrawal of the armed groups has been effected.”

There has been a problem ever since DRC agreed to the EACRF. So far, only Kenyan troops are in Goma, the capital of North Kivu region and the centre of violence. Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan pledged to send troops but they haven’t been released, with some sources indicating Kinshasa is uncomfortable with South Sudan.

The Force has faced a perception crisis, with Kinshasa demanding that it militarily routs M23. This contradicts the EAC Heads of State stance – that the situation in eastern DRC can only be sustainably resolved through a political process involving dialogue among all parties.

Fears among civilians

In a circulated video, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi was seen at the summit remonstrating with the EACRF commander Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah, demanding sterner action against the rebel group. According to Kinshasa, Congolese forces should be allowed to take over areas surrendered by M23. But this could create fears among civilians.

Congolese authorities issued a statement after the Burundi summit, insisting that EACRF goes into combat with M23.

“The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo wishes to recall that the mandate of the regional force is unequivocally offensive, in accordance with the letter and spirit of the communiqués of the three conclaves of the Heads of State of the East African Community of April and June 2022 in Nairobi, as well as the final communiqué of the Luanda mini-summit,” said the statement by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Christophe Lutundula.

Hostility from locals

Now, EACRF is facing hostility from the local population in Goma, where it is headquartered, due to what they see as its “inaction” against the armed groups.

But the Force says its buffer has prevented Goma from falling into the hands of M23, and it has protected internally displaced persons and secured areas been vacated by M23 – such as Kibati, Kibumba and Rumagambo.

It has also opened up the Bunagana-Kiwanja-Rutshuru-Goma route, aided humanitarian assistance through Medicap aand conducted joint patrols and training with FARDC.

“EACRF respects the constitution of the DRC and its territorial integrity and its mandate cannot allow for balkanisation as accused,” an official in Goma told The EastAfrican.

Oversee M23 withdrawal

Maj-Gen Nyagah has said the priority for his troops is to oversee the withdrawal of M23 through a political process.

Akilimali Saleh, a resident of Goma, told The EastAfrican that “what is disturbing is the fact that the EACRF troops are staying in their hotel instead of facing the rebel advance.”

The Congolese authorities feel the same way, although they don’t say it openly.

“The government understands the frustration of the people of Goma, but we must avoid falling into the enemy’s trap. The Luanda roadmap is the only plan for the return of peace,” said Patrick Muyaya, spokesman for the Congolese government.

According to the M23 rebels, “demonstrations in the city of Goma against the forces of the East African Community are the direct consequences of President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi remarks against the commander of EACRF during the Bujumbura Summit”.

Pressure for the Force to engage M23 rose after the killing of a UN Peacekeeper from South Africa in a helicopter attack last week.

Parallel force

Now, Congolese politicians are suggesting that DR Congo enters into a bilateral agreement with Kenya or another country with which it doesn’t share a border to fight the rebels.

Christophe Mboso N’Kodia, president of the Congolese National Assembly, said: “We will advise the President accordingly.”

This parallel arrangement would help overcome the encumbrances that prevent the EACRF from fighting. It could also give Kinshasa the reprieve it needs to prepare for elections in December.

Meanwhile President Tshisekedi, has been on a shuttle diplomatic mission across the region, and on Thursday he met President Azali Assoumani, who is tipped to take over the rotating presidency of the AU from Senegal next week.

Tshisekedi was also in Angola earlier this week for talks with President Joao Lourenco, who is the AU mediator between the DRC and Rwanda.

“Everywhere I went I spoke about my country and this barbaric war imposed on us by Rwanda,” Tshisekedi said, expressing the hope that Assoumani will make the crisis a priority.

Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo
Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo
Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo
Uhuru’s delicate balancing act in DR Congo

By Mary Wambui, Patrick Ilunga, Aggrey Mutambo and AFP

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