East African heads of state have gathered for a closed-doors meeting in Kenya to discuss the deteriorating security situation in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the DRC military has been fighting a resurgence of M23 rebels.
The rebels are a group of mainly Tutsi fighters that were defeated in 2013 by the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers. DRC accused Rwanda of backing the rebels – which Rwanda denies – sparking a diplomatic row between the neighbouring countries.
Six out of seven regional leaders were present at the East African Community (EAC) meeting, including the DRC president, Félix Tshisekedi, and the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, chair of the EAC, convened the bloc meeting to discuss the deployment of a regional force to eastern DRC, which leaders hope will restore peace in the region.
Tens of thousands of people have been forcibly displaced in the latest wave of fighting between the government forces and rebels claiming to be part of the M23. In a statement announcing Monday’s meeting in Nairobi, Kenyatta said the people of eastern DRC had “long suffered and continue to pay an inordinately heavy price in loss of lives, property and elusive peace”.
Kenyatta has stepped up mediation efforts between DRC and Rwanda since the former joined the EAC in April this year.
Analysts say a de-escalation of the conflict is crucial. “The tensions between these two countries could destabilise a region that’s already facing political instability,” says Nelleke van de Walle, a project director for the Great Lakes Region at the Crisis Group.
There are longstanding tensions between DRC and Rwanda dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, following a mass exodus of Rwandan Hutu refugees, who were accused of killing Tutsis, into eastern DRC. Relations between the two countries improved when Tshisekedi entered into office in 2019, but soured after the M23 resurgence.
Kenyatta said the regional force proposed by EAC leaders would work alongside local authorities and Monusco – a UN force in DRC – to disarm anyone bearing illegal weapons. DRC welcomed the security cooperation effort from the bloc but was against Rwanda’s participation in the force.
Tensions between the two countries deepened on Friday after a Congolese soldier was killed while attacking border guards inside Rwandan territory, prompting DRC to close its border with Rwanda. According to Van de Walle, cross-border attacks between the two countries could pull in other nations in the region.
The border closure came after hundreds of people held anti-Rwanda protests in Kinshasa, DRC’s capital, in late May. In recent days, hate speech against Rwandans in DRC has increased.
Van de Walle said assembling a regional force under a unified command was an interesting development and would be a stronger option than neighbouring countries deploying their own forces separately. However, she raised concerns that “having more boots on the ground in DRC could engender more instability rather than curb violence”.