Burundi’s President and current chair of the East African Community (EAC), Evariste Ndayishimiye, hosted his regional peers for an emergency summit of heads of state held in Bujumbura on 4 February 2023. According to Ndayishimiye, one of the objectives of the Summit was “to come up with decisions that will ameliorate the security situation and facilitate the restoration of peace” in the embattled Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the Congolese army continues to lose ground to the counter-offensive of M23 rebels. The heads of state directed the immediate cessation of hostilities in the DRC and decided to expedite additional troop deployments in the country. While the emergence of a regional consensus on the steps needed to restore peace calls for celebration, there are reasons to believe that the cessation of hostilities, if any, will be short-lived,
Deception as a political strategy
For one thing, the DRC government continues to resort to deception as a means to further President Tshisekedi’s political ambitions. Indeed, politicians, especially those in power, rarely admit that they got it all wrong. It is true for European leaders who double down on sanctions that hurt the economies of their own countries, and it probably won’t be any different for Congolese leaders who pinned their reelection hopes on an elusive military victory over the M23 Movement. Thus, as the 2023 elections in the DRC approach, the Tshisekedi government is likely to reject the path of political dialogue and double down on its ill-conceived strategy of scapegoating Rwanda for the many ills plaguing the country, ranging from the government’s inability to rein in the over a hundred armed groups roaming the country and provide security to ordinary citizens, its unwillingness to peacefully repatriate the hundreds of thousands of refugees languishing in refugee camps, to the shrinking Gorilla population, some of whose members have found safety in neighbouring countries. Indeed, it is safer to assume that Tshisekedi will continue to plagiarize Martin Fayulu’s anti-Rwanda discourse rather than abide by regional recommendations and agreements since creating an external enemy against who the Congolese will rally appears more appealing and easier to achieve than honouring a regional-led process which, he fears, would put paid to his political ambitions.
For this reason, the Tshisekedi administration has been deceiving the Congolese people on what the November 2022 Luanda agreement actually entails. For the keen observer, the evidence of this deception abounds. For one thing, it is evident from the repeated demands (for the recently deployed regional troops to leave the country) coming from some corners of the Congolese civil society that the government misrepresented the aims of these deployments as primarily militaristic and targeting M23 rebels when, in fact, the agreement’s primary objective is to create the necessary conditions for dialogue between the DRC government and Congolese armed groups, including the M23 Movement. As a result, the reluctance of Kenyan troops to confront M23 rebels in combat has come as a shock to a section of the Congolese population and is used by ill-intentioned actors as a pretext to demand their departure.
For another, the DRC government refuses to admit that for such conditions to exist, it agreed to temporally relinquish jurisdiction over parts of the Congolese territory to the East African regional force, meaning that the government’s troops will not set foot in areas vacated by M23 rebels so long as the envisioned political dialogue has not borne fruits. Obviously, from the perspective of the DRC government, such an admission would be the last straw that would break the camel’s back – the end of Tshisekedi’s short and uninspiring political career and a red carpet for the original promoters of Congolese nationalism led by Martin Fayulu. Thus, to avoid this political fallout, the Tshisekedi administration ordered a series of offensives in the past two months meant to retake control of territories occupied by M23 rebels before they could be surrendered to regional troops. Ironically, this violation of the Luanda agreement resulted in the loss of more territory after devastating counteroffensives by M23 rebels. As of today, the emblematic city of Goma which had fallen under the control of M23 in 2012 is almost entirely surrounded by the M23 and cut off from the rest of the country, with large swaths of the Rutshuru and Masisi territories in the North Kivu also firmly under the control of the rebels.
Chickens coming home to roost
For Tshisekedi, nothing is going as planned. Military offensives against rebels’ positions have failed and the morale of Congolese troops is at its lowest. Moreover, the ambiguities of the Luanda agreement that he took advantage of to order these offensives and indefinitely postpone negotiations have been removed by the declaration signed by EAC heads of state in Bujumbura. Indeed, from now on, the DRC army and M23 rebels are considered at par as parties to the conflict. Accordingly, the DRC army must abide by the same directives imposed on M23 rebels and other armed groups and its violations of the Luanda agreement have to be reported to the heads of state. Also, the withdrawal of rebels from conquered territories is not a precondition to dialogue as advertised by Congolese officials. Instead, it will be accompanied by dialogue. This is a bitter pill to swallow for those who expected regional troops to support the offensives led by the DRC army and its allies – a coalition of local militias, which include the genocidal FDLR group.
On the domestic front, Tshisekedi’s hopes for reelection are vanishing. On the one hand, successive military setbacks have radicalized the very nationalistic clique driven by anti-Rwanda and anti-Tutsi hatred which Tshisekedi had hoped to rely on by adopting Fayulu’s dangerous rhetoric. For this extremist section of the political divide, these setbacks are further evidence of his inability to govern. On the other hand, a timid rejection of the current divisive politics in the country is also mounting under the leadership of his former ally, Moise Katumbi. Left and right, the political backlash does not bode well for his much-desired second term.
On the regional front, the strategy of blaming Rwanda for Congo’s woes has not produced the desired outcome as the region seems determined to put responsibility where it belongs. Nor has the terrorist label imposed by Kinshasa prevented the East Africa facilitator for the Nairobi Peace Process, Uhuru Kenyatta, from meeting M23 political leaders, another indication of the region’s firm intention to include the M23 in the political dialogue. According to credible sources, the heads of state, particularly Angola’s President João Lourenço, rejected the notion that the M23 is a terrorist group and concluded that its grievances were legitimate during the mini-summit in Luanda last year.
In light of all these, any reasonable politician would adopt a new strategy, and perhaps a more conciliatory one. It is highly doubtful, however, that having gone to such lengths to antagonize a neighbour and prevent negotiations with the M23, Kinshasa would choose the reasonable path.
The scorched earth policy
Tshisekedi returns to Kinshasa a frustrated man. Already, the Congolese government has issued a communiqué insisting that regional troops have an offensive mandate and that the withdrawal of M23 from occupied areas is a precondition to any political dialogue. Here, any sensible person would wonder why Tshisekedi agreed to sign the declaration issued by the summit of heads of state only to contradict its resolutions a few hours later. More worrying than his disappointment are the veiled threats he uttered against the Kenyan commander of regional troops in the DRC, Maj. Gen. Jeff Nyagah, in a video that has now gone viral on the internet.
“You didn’t come to favour M23. It would be unfortunate if the people were to attack you. You came to help us, not to have problems,” Tshisekedi told the military commander in the presence of Kenya’s President William Ruto after the summit, as he expressed his frustration at the cautious posture adopted by the troops whose help Tshisekedi had counted on to turn the tide of his militaristic adventurism.
Less than 24 hours after this encounter, violent protests against the presence of regional forces – characterised by attacks against perceived Tutsi and their properties- erupted in the city of Goma, and by all indications Kinshasa will keep inciting the population against East African troops as a means of pressuring the region into supporting the military option against the M23.
If indeed Kinshasa is determined to derail the peace process, a more cynical and frightful strategy that consists in inciting the killing of Congolese Tutsi is not out of the cards. The killings would leave no choice to the M23 but go on the offensive in desperate attempts to save as many people as possible, a move which Kinshasa would subsequently portray as a violation of the agreement – an opportunity to bury the peace process. Here, the vigilance and resolve of the region will be needed.
A cornered man is a dangerous man. But hopefully, the region’s resolve to bring order to the East African family will prevail.