The days of the South African composite helicopter unit (CHU) as a major contributor to MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the Democratic Republic of Congo could be numbered with indications the partnership between the UN and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is fraying.
This interpretation comes from African Defence Review (ADR) director Darren Olivier following a virtual meeting between the world body and the regional bloc with a position paper on reconfiguration of the FIB the sole agenda item.
Apart from the first public confirmation MONUSCO, currently the largest UN peace mission, is no longer paying to keep the Rooivalk attack helicopter capability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the virtual meeting heard proposals for changes to the structure of the FIB.
The unit is currently the only UN peacekeeping one with an offensive mandate to enforce efforts to keep civilians from harm’s way in the strife torn central African country. It comprises a battalion each from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania, all SADC members.
Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula defended the current composition of the FIB against suggestions one of the brigade’s three battalions be replaced by a multi-sourced composite battalion. Also on the virtual table was a suggestion for non-FIB/SADC officers to take command of FIB headquarters.
South Africa’s formal response by Mapisa-Nqakula, according to Olivier, is “strenuous disagreement with the actions proposed”.
The FIB should remain a SADC-led force with expanded capabilities rather than become “just another MONUSCO unit”.
Since its establishment, the SA Air Force (SAAF) CHU, operating Rooivalk combat support and Oryx medium transport helicopters, has distinguished itself and been on the receiving end of congratulations for tasks professionally executed, often under difficult circumstances.
As an example, 19 Squadron Oryx pilot and second in command of the AFB Hoedspruit-based unit, Lieutenant Colonel Stefan King, was last year nominated for the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage, the UN’s highest peacekeeping award. The SAAF helicopter systems directorate earlier this year was presented with the Sword of Peace, the highest operational award in airborne service of the national defence force. While not stated as such, the award is widely seen to be for work done by the CHU.
South Africa has, according to Olivier, been covering the cost of having the home-grown rotary-wing aircraft in the DRC “for some time”. He points out a new letter of association proposal for the Rooivalk is “a symbolic US$1”. This goes back to suggestions last year, following a US decision to cut the amount of funding to the world body. In response there was talk of downsizing some of 13 peace missions the UN currently manages worldwide.
In a statement post the virtual meeting, Mapisa-Nqakula is quoted as saying: “South Africa reaffirms the FIB is an integral part of MONUSCO and appeals that SADC be considered for the position of the Chief of Staff for inclusion in the MONUSCO decision making process to bridge the divide between MONUSCO and the FIB”.
She asked the Secretariat (no idication of whether it UN Peacekeeping Department or SADC) to “reconsider the decision to replace an FIB battalion and FIB HQ reconfiguration by non-FIB TCC (troop contributing countries)/SADC staff officers, to maintain regional co-ordination and coherent approach to achieve peace and security in eastern DRC”.