Bold African Union role needed to stabilise east DRC

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The African Union lacks a coherent strategy that can reduce tensions between countries and improve security coordination.

Security in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Great Lakes is worsening despite numerous stabilisation efforts. A step-up in attacks since February by the M23 and other armed groups in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu provinces has increased fatalities and forced displacement, making humanitarian access difficult.

The escalation has strained already tense relations between Rwanda and the DRC. Multiple parallel and often competing regional initiatives have been launched to address the crisis – each facing considerable obstacles. The African Union (AU) also has sought solutions but lacks a coherent strategy for the DRC. Could such a strategy break the deadlock and open a path to stability in the region?

The Nairobi Process, led by Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta under the auspices of the East African Community (EAC), included military and diplomatic efforts. The deployment of the EAC Regional Force from November 2022 to December 2023 facilitated a short-lived ceasefire among the warring parties and partially opened some supply routes. It also helped return displaced people in certain areas.

However the DRC expelled the force on the grounds that it failed to attack and disarm insurgents, including the M23. This widened the security gap and raised questions about the future of the Nairobi Process. Attacks by armed groups have since intensified, especially Sake and Goma, North Kivu’s capital, eroding the process and slowing momentum. A Great Lakes expert told the Institute for Security Studies’ PSC Report that the initiative was being kept alive by DRC President Félix Tshisekedi’s personal relationship with Kenyatta.

Meanwhile, strained DRC-Kenya relations, which soured further with the emergence of the M23-affiliated Alliance Fleuve Congo movement,continue to limit prospects for a peaceful solution.

In December 2023, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC) entered the fray, taking up the responsibilities left by the departing East Africa force. So far, the mission has had a shaky start. A shortage of financial resources and logistical and operational limitations suggest it might suffer a similar fate as the East African Regional Force.

To date, only 800 of the promised 2 900 South African troops have been sent, and there’s no confirmation that the 5 000 Tanzanian and Malawian soldiers have been deployed. M23 has consequently taken more territory, attacking troops and causing casualties among South African and Tanzanian forces. Along with Rwanda’s opposition to the deployment, SAMIDRC is bound to encounter numerous obstacles.

The Luanda Process, led by Angola’s President João Lourenço on behalf of the African Union (AU), is the most active political initiative aimed at stabilising the region. Angola hosted the first EAC summit last June, which brought together the Economic Community of Central African States, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and SADC under the auspices of the AU. A framework was adopted to align existing peace initiatives, assign responsibilities, set timelines and coordinate regional peace initiatives.

Despite this progress, a Luanda Process meeting on the sidelines of the 37th AU summit in February revealed mistrust and a lack of buy-in of its initiatives. Efforts to encourage direct talks between Tshisekedi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame caused animosity between the two. And although they eventually agreed to further diplomatic engagements, accusations between Kigali and Kinshasa continue to impede dialogue.

The AU has backed decisions stemming from these peace efforts and has collaborated with ad hoc regional initiatives under the principle of subsidiarity. But many have criticised its lack of direct involvement as inadequate and aloof, saying it needs a well-defined engagement strategy.

To date, the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the DRC and Great Lakes, signed in 2013, is the AU’s most significant initiative. It brings together 13 countries and four guarantor institutions. In 2023, the AU Peace and Security Council recognised this as the most ‘viable instrument to support the DRC and institutions in the region to achieve peace and stability,’ calling for it to be revitalised. Since then, steps have been taken to build trust among signatory countries, guarantors and other stakeholders, and secure commitment towards implementation.

The PSC also recently asked the AU Commission to expedite funding from the AU Peace Fund Crisis Reserve Facility and transfer equipment donated to SADC by the AU Continental Logistics Base in Douala, Cameroon, to support SAMIDRC operations.

Still, regional efforts overshadow the AU’s involvement in the DRC. A clearly defined AU strategy is needed that avoids duplicating regional measures, reduces competition for influence among states and regional groups, eliminates coordination gaps and limits ad hoc deployments.

The strategy should hinge on equipping a military force that can effectively combat M23 and other armed groups. The PSC should facilitate sufficient funding beyond meagre allocations from the Crisis Reserve Facility to bolster SAMIDRC operations. A pledging conference for the DRC could attract financing from non-traditional sources, including the private sector. The recently adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2719 also offers an opportunity for the AU to secure funding for SAMIDRC’s operations and logistics.

Deploying the African Standby Force to the eastern DRC could also allow for a more structured continental approach to troop and resource mobilisation. This contrasts with current ad hoc regional deployments and their inherent limitations.

A diplomatic source told PSC Report that despite the tensions between Kigali and Kinshasa, the leaders are open to talks under a tripartite arrangement (DRC, Rwanda and Angola). This could open the door to concessions and a political solution through the Luanda Process.

Written by Hubert Kinkoh, Researcher, African Peace and Security Governance, ISS Addis Ababa.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.