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East DRC: Commencement of East African Regional Force Withdrawal Amidst Criticisms

Kenyan soldiers from the East African Community regional force (EAC-RF) prepare to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo at Goma airport on December 3, 2023.   -  
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ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP or licensors

Democratic Republic Of Congo

In a significant development, the regional force of the East African Community (EAC-RF), viewed as ineffective by Kinshasa, has initiated its withdrawal from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after opting not to renew its mandate. On Sunday morning, a first group of approximately one hundred Kenyan military personnel, part of the multinational force that includes soldiers from Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan, departed from Goma's airport, the provincial capital of North Kivu, en route to Nairobi.

The aircraft took off shortly after 05:00 local time (03:00 GMT). A spokesperson for the EAC-RF on-site confirmed that the plane was heading to Nairobi, carrying only Kenyan military personnel. However, detailed information regarding the force's withdrawal plan was not immediately provided.

Kenyan soldiers had commenced arriving in Goma in November 2022, approximately a year after the resurgence of the M23 rebellion in North Kivu. Allegedly supported by Rwanda, the M23 had seized significant portions of the province. At that time, Congolese authorities had invited the EAC to deploy its force to reclaim territories captured by the rebels.

However, both the local population and the Congolese government swiftly became highly critical of the EAC troops. With the exception of the Burundians, they accused the regional force of coexisting with the rebels rather than compelling them to disarm.

Following an EAC summit held on November 25, the regional organization announced in a statement that the DRC "would not renew the mandate of the regional force beyond December 8, 2023."

The departure of Kenyan soldiers occurs amid ongoing clashes between the M23 and the Congolese army, supported by militias identifying as "patriots." A Kenyan soldier from the regional force had been killed on October 24 by shell fragments.

Elections on December 20

Numerous armed groups and militias have been active for three decades in the eastern DRC, a legacy of regional wars in the 1990s and 2000s.

In addition to the EAC force, the United Nations mission, MONUSCO, formerly MONUC, has been present in the DRC since 1999. Kinshasa has also criticized its inefficiency, demanding its "ordered" and "accelerated" departure starting from January 2024. MONUSCO comprises approximately 14,000 peacekeepers, deployed almost exclusively in the east of the country.

General elections are scheduled for December 20 in the DRC, a vast country with around 100 million inhabitants. The incumbent president, Félix Tshisekedi, in power since January 2019, is running for a second five-year term.

Due to the M23 rebellion, elections cannot take place in two territories in North Kivu. To replace the EAC force, Félix Tshisekedi is relying on the deployment of contingents from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to which the DRC also belongs. However, the establishment of this force, discussed since May, has not materialized so far.

Since late 2022, about a thousand former European military personnel, presented by Kinshasa as "instructors" and distributed among two private companies, are also present in North Kivu.

Congolese authorities also assert that the national army is gaining strength, with the goal of ensuring its own territorial defense and protecting the country from "aggressions" by its neighbors, especially Rwanda.

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