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Regional military force in eastern DRC fuels fears of fragmentation, hopes for peace

Regional military force in eastern DRC fuels fears of fragmentation, hopes for peace
Soldiers from the South Sudan People's Defence Forces (SSPDF) awaiting a flight for eastern DRC at the airport in Juba, South Sudan Monday, April 3, 2023.   -  
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Samir Bol/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Democratic Republic Of Congo

The EAC troops are tasked with defusing the tension flared up in eastern DRC by rebel groups. Then why do some Congolese fear a fragmentation of their country from these troops?

The Democratic Republic of Congo has once again been fighting M23 rebels after the armed group re-emerged in late 2021.

After a series of setbacks on the front, the seven-nation East African Community (EAC) which includes the DRC decided to form a military force to respond to the crisis last June.

Kenyan soldiers deployed in November, followed in recent weeks by Burundian, Ugandan and South Sudanese troops.

They are tasked with overseeing the withdrawal of M23 fighters from eastern DRC.

On April 3rd, a spokesperson for the regional force announced that Ugandan troops had taken control of Bunagana, a key town that was captured by the M23 rebels in June 2022.

Despite some positive developments, the role and presence of certain neighbouring countries in the regional force have some Congolese concerned.

Distrust and inaction

Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for helping rape victims in the region, recently tweeted that the EAC force is made up of "destabilising states."

Congolese MPs also recently asked the Defence and Foreign Affairs ministers for clarifications about the EAC force, and in particular the role of Ugandan troops. It is because Uganda has a history of interference in eastern Congo.

During the first and second Congo war (mid1990's to 2003), the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) invaded their neighbour, looting minerals among other crimes. The second conflict involved up to nine African countries, including Burundi. Rwanda supported rebel groups in DRC's mineral-rich east.

But all doesn't belong to the past, recent reports have made Congolese even more suspicious.

United Nations experts said in December that the Ugandan government appeared to have turned a blind eye to M23 fighters moving back and forth over the Ugandan-DRC border.

The distrust and the perceived lack of progress of the EAC mission prompted thousands of people to demonstrate in Goma (February 6), the commercial hub in eastern DR Congo, to protest the East African military force.

Fighting apprehension

The Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya acknowledged "apprehensions" surrounding the EAC force, during a press briefing on April 3rd.

However, he stressed that EAC force had been deployed at the invitation of the Congolese government and as part of a regional push to de-escalate the crisis.

"This must not be viewed as balkanization," [Editor's Note: fragmentation of the DRC ] Muyaya said, referring to the division of a country into smaller states.

According to residents, M23 fighters have withdrawn from some villages and towns in North Kivu since early April.

Yet the fighters remain present in others towns, including where the EAC force is deployed, which, like the UN, is unable to bring peace and is accused of passivity with the rebels.

If the total size of the EAC force is unclear, the troops will try to enforce the March 30th deadline that was supposed to mark the end of the withdrawal of "all armed groups", according to a timetable adopted by the EAC.

Who are the M23 rebels?

Dozens of armed groups plague eastern DRC, a legacy of regional wars that raged in the 1990s and 2000s.

One group, the M23, has been accused of killings and has caused hundreds of thousands of people to displace since it re-emerged from dormancy.

The rebels first came to international prominence in 2012, when briefly capturing North Kivu's capital Goma before being driven out and going to ground.

The Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the M23 rebels signed a deal in 2013.

It effectively ended the Kampala Dialogue which aimed at reaching a final and principled agreement that ensured the disarmament and demobilization of the M23 and accountability for human rights abuses.

When taking up arms again, the rebels accused the Congolese government of failing to meet commitments on the demobilization and reintegration of its combatants.

UN experts reported last year that the M23 rebels were backed by Rwanda.

Kinshasa accuses Kigali and its alleged M23 "auxiliaries" of wanting to get their hands on the minerals in eastern Congo.

Rwanda has on many occasions condemned and denied the accusations.

The rebels, a group consisting of Tutsi Congolese, claim for their part to be defending a segment of the population whom they say is threatened.

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