The East African Community decided to deploy troops in one of its member states for the first time in June 2022. The deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will test the regional body's ability to respond to complex conflicts.
Already, the regional bloc has scored some early victories. Most significantly, on 6 December, following peace talks in Nairobi, Kenya, 53 of the over 100 armed groups operating in the DRC agreed to a ceasefire .
The DRC – which joined the East African Community in April 2022 – has been trapped in cycles of violence for nearly three decades. The reasons include ethnic intolerance, illegal exploitation of the country's vast natural resources and a Congolese elite that benefits from the chaos.
The most recent wave of conflict follows the reemergence of the armed group March 23 Movement (M23). International forces drove the group out of the country in 2013. Its resurgence this past year has led to heightened levels of violence and mass displacement.
This has prompted the East African Community to mobilise a regional force that could comprise up to 12,000 troops from member states. It will operate under Kenyan command , with a six-month renewable mandate to support the DRC's national forces in containing, defeating and eradicating negative forces in the restive eastern region.
This is the second time regional actors have deployed a military force to tamp down an M23 insurgency. Following the armed group's initial uprising in 2013, the 12-member International Conference on the Great Lakes Region proposed an intervention brigade. It was eventually brought under the umbrella of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. It became known as the Force Intervention Brigade.
The June decision to deploy an east African force may feel like déjà vu. While some factors are different now, not all developments are promising.
For more than a decade, my research has focused on armed conflict settings, with an in-depth analysis of the DRC. In my view, while the current Congo crisis is unlikely to be resolved without military force, any hope for success requires that operations remain closely tied to a political process.
One difference between the East African Community's intervention now and the 2013 Force Intervention Brigade mission is the merging of political and military processes.
The East African Community will retain authority over the regional force, while also leading the ongoing political dialogue .
One of the downfalls of previous military responses in the Congo is that they haven't been adequately linked to a political process. When the Force Intervention Brigade was deployed, it was intended to be the “teeth” of a regional political agreement . However, these military and political interventions were never fully integrated.
Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the east African region's effort to integrate the two processes will succeed. Decades of violence indicate just how intractable the conflict is. For instance, so far there has been no indication that Rwanda will cease (or even acknowledge) its support of the M23 . The international community hasn't 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 organisation, for fear that this will embolden other armed groups.
Deploying a force overseen by the East African Community presents the challenge of communication and coordination with other actors in the region. The confusion this can create was seen in the 2021 deployment of Ugandan forces to the DRC to combat the armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces. This confusion largely had to do with the extent of the UN peacekeeping mission's mandate to support operations involving foreign forces.
While the mission has indicated its intention to partner with the east African regional force, the practicalities for doing so remain unclear.
There is also a concern that the east African force could elevate the risk of human rights violations. Past reports have documented the potential harm to civilian protection that can arise from crowded theatres. Actors may interpret their civilian protection obligations in different ways. And it may not be clear who is accountable for violations.
As opposed to the UN peacekeeping mission, the east African force doesn't have a protection mandate. It is unclear to what extent it will prioritise civilian harm mitigation in its planning and operations.
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Violations against civilians could undermine the east African 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 neighbours.
As noted by Daniel Levine-Spound, a researcher with the Center for Civilians in Conflict ( CIVIC ) based in the Congo:
Because many of the countries involved in the force have recently undertaken military operations on Congolese soil, 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 organisations and prioritising civilian safety in military operations.
The task ahead
The M23 of today is not the same M23 of 10 years ago. It has more sophisticated weaponry and tactics , and a more centralised command and control.
Additionally, it's operating more strategically than in 2013. The boldness of the group's 2013 march directly on Goma – the capital of North Kivu in eastern DRC – elicited a swift response from the region and the international community. This ultimately led to the group being routed into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.
While M23 is currently operating within the vicinity of Goma, it has avoided taking the city. It has instead focused on taking over larger areas of surrounding territory and could gain control over both roads into Goma.
Whether the east African regional force is up to the task remains unclear.
Its member states' proximity to the conflict may lead to more sustained political will to tamp down the violence and find 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.
Previous experience casts doubt on the effectiveness of bringing in foreign military forces to resolve unrest in the Congo. These interventions have in some cases increased violence against civilians, led to the exploitation of natural resources and undermined Congolese authority over its own territory.
A successful intervention will require that neighbouring countries remain accountable to support the security and sovereignty of the Congo.
Jenna Russo is the Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.
By Jenna Russo, Researcher and lecturer, City University of New York