Goma – Many people in the conflict zones of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have greeted the proposed deployment of a regional force with mistrust and outright hostility.
The proposal to deploy a peacekeeping force was announced on Monday in the Kenyan capital Nairobi at a meeting of the East African Community (EAC).
But opponents of the move have pointed to the chequered history that some of DR Congo’s neighbours have in the war-torn east of the country.
They have called instead for reforms and reinforcements in the Congolese armed forces (FARDC).
“We vigorously reject” the EAC project and “call on you to give it up”, the citizens’ movement Lucha (Fight for Change) declared in a letter to President Felix Tshisekedi, citing “security, economic or geopolitical” objections.
Lucha was founded 10 years ago in Goma, the capital of troubled eastern North Kivu province, which borders Uganda and Rwanda.
The group added in its letter: “At least three of the seven member states of the East African Community – Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi – have been involved for more than two decades in the destabilization of our country, through interventions directly from their armies or through armed groups.”
All three named countries, DR Congo’s eastern neighbours, were involved in the two civil wars that wracked the vast mineral-rich country between 1996 and 2003.
Kinshasa rejects Rwandan presence
Kinshasa has already made it clear it opposes Rwanda’s participation in any regional force, accusing it of backing the resurgent M23 rebels. Kigali denies the charge.
The Kenyan presidency gave no details of who will make up the force, intended for the eastern border provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri to the north.
Even without Rwandan involvement however, some in Goma are not convinced by the idea of such a regional force.
“I’m against it, really, that’s enough!” said samosa seller Tito Rushago on a street in Goma on Tuesday.
“There are all the countries here, Senegalese, Tanzanians, Uruguayans…,” he said, reeling off the participant countries in the large UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO.
Biker Patrick Bahati agreed, arguing that the international UN force, present in the country for 20 years, had changed nothing.
Several people interviewed on the streets of Goma called instead for a “reinforced” and “overhauled” FARDC.
The nation’s troops needed to be well paid and properly equipped, and corrupt officers replaced, they said.
‘Very bad memories’
For many in the region, it was not clear how any new regional force could succeed where MONUSCO had failed.
“I doubt the effectiveness of this force,” said James Biensi, pastor of a church in Bunia, Ituri province.
The EAC countries did not all get along, he argued, and he was wary too of a “hidden agenda”.
Raphael Wekenge, the coordinator of the Congolese Coalition for Transitional Justice (CCJT) took a similar view.
“I am sceptical about the operational side of a force made up of countries that have interests in our own,” he said, speaking from South Kivu’s capital Bukavu.
And Paulin Mulume, from the Amka Congo collective of citizens’ movements, argued:
“We have already had several joint operations in the east of the country, which have not borne fruit.”
He regretted the decision taken in Nairobi, which he said brought back “very bad memories”.
“We don’t know what prompted our president to get involved in this affair,” Mulume added. “It should have gone through parliament.”
Judith Maroy, from Lucha in South Kivu, was hopeful that there was still a way out.
“We think he (Tshisekedi) will come to his senses,” she said.
And in Bukavu, the Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege has also come out against a “regional force including countries at the root of destabilization, atrocities and the plunder of our resources”.
This “will bring neither stability nor peace and risks worsening the situation”, he warned last week. He too called for a reform of the country’s armed forces.
Mukwege, a gynaecologist and surgeon who has treated thousands of women victims of rape in the conflict region, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.