In September 2023, DRC authorities issued an ultimatum, demanding that the M23 rebels disarm and withdraw from the remaining defensive positions they held. Given past failures by the DRC’s armed forces (FARDC) and its allies to defeat the M23 rebels, Kinshasa’s willingness to risk breaking a ceasefire imposed by regional Heads of State and potentially losing more territory was perplexing. However, it has become evident that Kinshasa’s newfound confidence primarily stems from the support of a new ally within the East African peacekeeping force deployed in North Kivu in November 2022: Burundi. The involvement and complicity of Burundian troops in violating a months-long ceasefire jeopardize the limited, but promising, progress thus far registered by the East African Community (EAC) in its efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully.
A volatile situation on the frontline
Since October 1, 2023, DRC and its allies, which include militias and European mercenaries, have been causing havoc in Rwandophone communities: burning villages, stealing cattle, and targeting Tutsi Congolese in Masisi and Rutshuru territories. This unmistakably genocidal violence is clearing the way for Kinshasa to regain control of areas previously held by the M23 rebels and handed over to regional troops, as mandated by the EAC Heads of State. What’s even more surprising is that this blatant violation of the ceasefire has been facilitated by the Burundian contingent in the areas under its control making Burundi at once an aggressor and peacemaker in the DRC conflict.
In response, the M23 group has issued warnings, calling on the international community, particularly the EAC, to take adequate measures to prevent further bloodshed. Failing this, it says it reserves the right to defend the targeted communities. So far, M23’s demands have fallen on deaf ears, prompting it to temporarily reoccupy, before surrendering again – as a gesture of goodwill (according to their communications) – areas that had fallen under Kinshasa’s control with the complicity of the Burundian contingent.
The rebels seem determined to convey a message that if no action is taken to prevent ongoing genocidal killings and hold Kinshasa accountable for contemptuous disregard towards the EAC Heads of State’s recommendations and the Nairobi-Luanda Peace Process, there may be no stopping a potential M23 counteroffensive, and no one can be sure how far it would go this time around.
The East African Community under scrutiny
Why would Burundi, a country that chairs the EAC, undermine the peace process that is led by its own president, Evariste Ndayishimiye? To make sense of the region’s current predicament, one must scrutinize the context surrounding the deployment of the East African force. Several key factors are worth noting.
One, the peace process has stagnated due to Kinshasa’s obstinate refusal to enter dialogue with the M23 rebels. But as long as this situation persists without coercive measures to hold uncooperative belligerents accountable, there can be no meaningful peace process.
Two, financial resources to support the East African mission remain limited. Consequently, countries that deployed forces are bearing the cost of some of their troops’ logistical needs. For those facing dire economic challenges, the financial burden of deployment is debilitating.
Three, and related to the second, Kinshasa is determined to secure support at any cost, even if it means depleting valuable national resources. This strategy has been tested in the past, as the DRC government has, on previous occasions, offered mining contracts and minerals to gain armed support from groups like the FDLR. Even countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa – which at the time of Congo’s second war had relatively stable economies – succumbed to these generous offers.
Presently, Kinshasa is using public funds to recruit and arm local militias and European mercenaries. Further, it is financing the genocidal FDLR to reorganize and train new recruits, with the stated objective of destabilizing neighboring Rwanda. Simultaneously, as highlighted in the most recent UN group experts report on the DRC, gold smuggling networks, run by Kinshasa’s political elites and local military commanders, are using Bujumbura as a route to export their illicitly acquired minerals.
In this context, the temptation is great for countries that have deployed their troops to trade their military services for minerals and other trade agreements. The incentives are even more pronounced for Burundi, given its urgent need for foreign currencies amidst ongoing disruptions in the supply of critical imported goods such as oil, drugs, and construction materials, to say the least about its record-high inflation.
Furthermore, additional evidence of the contradictions between Burundi’s interests and its peacekeeping mandate has recently come to light through a leaked document signed on July 21, 2023, that reveals that Kinshasa supplied arms and ammunition to the Burundian army in the guise of bilateral cooperation. This naturally raises the question: How can the Burundian army maintain a neutral stance on the ground, required of a peacekeeper, while receiving equipment from one of the belligerent parties, namely the DRC government?
The spectacular failure of African solutions
As mentioned earlier, the situation on the frontline remains highly volatile, and the risk of sliding into a full-scale war between Kinshasa and its allies on one side and the M23 rebels on the other is undeniable. The EAC is taking a substantial risk, potentially damaging its reputation, as well as the credibility of the capability of Africans to conceive solutions for their problems, by failing to uphold neutrality and protect innocent populations. Furthermore, the risk of having one of its members, Burundi, caught in the crossfire and actively involved in the conflict, is something the regional bloc should not entertain.
In any case, if we consider past and current events on the ground and the warnings issued by the M23, it’s reasonable to expect a massive counteroffensive by the rebels in the coming days. Unfortunately, given the silence of the international community, particularly the apathy of the EAC, in the face of the destruction of entire villages by FARDC troops and their allied militias and mercenaries, no one will have the moral authority to call for yet another meaningless ceasefire that would only allow Kinshasa to regroup and reignite hostilities. The international community has once again let down the Congolese people, forcing them to take responsibility for their own security.
Ultimately, the DRC may be the graveyard for “African solutions” with the EAC as the posterchild.