The guns have fallen silent in North Kivu, giving respite to civilians who have spent most of 2022 running for cover.
But the combatants are still raring to resume fighting if their bases are attacked, even if by a third party, something fuelled by comments by prominent civil society groups opposed to the deployment of the regional force.
A week after the M23 rebel group agreed to a ceasefire and moved out of Kibumba, handing it over to troops of the East African Regional Force (EACRF), the Congolese army (FARDC) declared that it remains vigilant.
The M23 announced that they would meet with EACRF at the weekend as part of its ongoing commitment to implementing the resolutions of the Luanda mini-summit, where leaders gave an ultimatum to the group to surrender occupied territories or be forced to.
On December 12, M23, FARDC, the UN Mission in Congo (Monusco) and EACRF met in Kibumba, North Kivu, to discuss the implementation of the resolutions of the Luanda summit, which brought Rwanda and the DRC to the table to accelerate de-escalation in Congo.
Read: M23 agree to withdraw from Kibumba
The biggest question now is whether the meeting on New Year’s Eve will lead to further withdrawal as demanded by the FARDC.
M23’s decision last week was still being viewed, with suspicion within the ranks of the FARDC suggesting enduring mistrust. FARDC Spokesman Maj-Gen Sylvain Ekenge said that the M23’s withdrawal from Kibumba was “a decoy and a mere publicity stunt to distract the Congolese and the international community.”
“All the units disengaged from Kibumba, [but] instead of returning to their initial positions in Sabinyo, [they] are taking another direction to reinforce positions in Tongo, Kishishe and Bambu,” Maj-Gen Ekenge said, suggesting the group plans to occupy west of Goma to launch more offensives on FARDC.
This suggests the EACRF may have a more prominent role in mediation and to prevent violence that could get them in the middle of the warring parties.
Maj-Gen Jeff Nyagah, the EACRF commander, said his forces will be taking over the erstwhile occupied territories abandoned by M23.
This week, South Sudan also sent its forces to the EACRF. But the strengthening EACRF has been met with opposition by some who claim the territory should have been handed to FARDC instead.
Former prime minister Matata Ponyo, opposition leader Martin Fayulu and Nobel laureate Dr Denis Mukwege signed a joint statement warning that the EACRF could just as well balkanise the country.
“Our country, the DRC, is going through one of the darkest moments of its existence,” they wrote on Monday. “And if we do not wake up to act with courage, haste, wisdom and determination; history will remember that we will have been accomplices to its crumbling, and therefore to its balkanisation.”
They did not name the EACRF by name but criticised President Félix Tshisekedi whom they claimed “has favoured a policy of outsourcing national security to foreign forces and, worse, to states at the root of the destabilisation of the country.”
They accused Rwanda and Uganda of interference in the DRC to illegally exploit resources. Uganda has been running a parallel operation with the FARDC to pursue the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan terrorist group. But Rwanda has been in the crosshairs of many in Kinshasa, accused of fuelling M23 violence, a charge Kigali denies.
Read Also: UN experts point to Rwanda role in DRC rebel crisis
Dr Mukwege argued that the international community must change the mandate of Monusco to help restore peace in the country. Monusco’ s mandate was extended to December 2023 and they were given an operational mandate to work with the EACRF, an indication that the UN Security Council now recognises the regional force.
The DRC was also allowed to begin purchasing weapons from the international market without first seeking permission from the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee. The DRC had been under an arms embargo but now than ban will only apply to non-state actors such as rebel groups.
Source: The East African