What next after the exit of EAC force commander?

Major General Jeff Nyagah, the commander of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) who has left the mission area in DR Congo. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG PHOTO FILE

What you need to know:

  • This week, the commander of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) announced he was exiting in a huff out of fear for his life

Arusha. In November last year, Major General Jeff Nyagah from Kenya was deployed to the troubled eastern DR Congo to tackle the rebels.

This week, the commander of the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) announced he was exiting in a huff out of fear for his life.

Back in Nairobi, he was appointed by President William Ruto to head the Western Command of the Kenya Defence Forces.

But his new appointment did not erase mounting questions about the circumstances that led to his unceremonious exit.

General Nyagah claimed that his job had become increasingly difficult not only due to little co-operation from the DRC government.

His image had been painted red by the Congolese public, which had intimidated and threatened him to the extent that his life was in danger.

The EACRF was sent to the troubled eastern Congo to stop a renewed insurgency that claimed thousands of lives in April 2022.

So far, the force is made up of troops from Kenya, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan. Military officers from Rwanda were kicked out.

The EAC secretariat has been the brain behind the regional force that has not been popular with the DRC people, including those in the volatile east.

Even though hostility towards the force started only weeks after landing in North Kivu, General Nyagah managed to buy time, hoping for the best.

But only a few days ago, he lost patience and wrote a letter to the EAC secretary general, Dr Peter Mathuki, informing him he was quitting.

He noted that there was “a systematic plan” to frustrate the efforts of the EACRF that he was tasked to head and bring an end to hostilities.

Until yesterday, analysts in the region were still weighing the reasons he advanced for his resignation and his purported personal insecurity. The military commander had, from February 2021 to February 2022, been deployed to Somalia to lead the war against the Al Shabaab terrorists.

The purported resignation of the force commander has raised questions as to whether it was on target in executing its mandate.

Others are not sure whether the EACRF was deployed there as an intervention force or a peace-keeping force. The two are different.

An intervention force is called for collective self-defence and to restore order in a volatile conflict situation.

Most peacekeeping operations are undertaken with the authorisation of and are often led by, the United Nations (UN).

But regional organisations such as the EAC may also conduct peacekeeping operations and in some cases, single states have undertaken such operations as well. Peacekeeping forces are normally deployed with the consent of the parties to a conflict and in support of a ceasefire or other agreed-upon peace measures.

Peacekeeping forces are therefore usually unarmed or only lightly armed, use the minimum force necessary and then only exceptionally.

Peace enforcement refers to the use of military assets to enforce peace against the will of the par-ties to a conflict when, for instance, a ceasefire has failed.

Allan Moses, the president of Arusha-based Friends of East Africa, sees EACRF as a peacekeeping force that was deployed to eastern Congo to disarm the rebels.

However, he said the force has failed to disarm the M23 rebels, who are alleged to be behind the latest insecurity in eastern DRC, having taken large swaths of land under its control.

“General Nyagah got the job without realising the difficulties. He did not know the complexities. Going to the military service is not a banquet,” he told The Citizen.

Mr Moses said the EAC states had expected the security situation in besieged eastern Congo to normalise with the deployment of the regional force.

“Maybe, the rebels—including M23—have proved to be superior to the regional forces,” he said, noting that peace remains elusive in that part of the DRC.

At times, M23 fighters were reported to have advanced to within 20 km of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, after the DRC army abandoned their defensive positions.

Another regional observer based in Arusha, who spoke on condition of anonymity, hinted that the mandate of the EACRF was not made public from the beginning.

He said that in the eyes of many people in East Africa, the joint force was expected to quell the insurgency in the restive region.

“It has failed the mission. It has failed to tackle M23 and that is why it (the EACRF) remains unpopular with the Congolese people,” he explained.

He went on; “Peace enforcement often exceeds the capacity of peacekeeping forces and is thus better executed by more heavily armed forces.”

General Nyagah was explicit from the beginning that the regional force (EACRF) was an intervention force, not a peacekeeping one.

That means its mandate was to get into combat to end the bloodshed and protect innocent people when necessary.

There is an ethnic component to the fighting in North Kivu. M23 is made up mainly of Tutsis who have roots in Rwanda.

The rebels have accused the Congolese government of failing to protect their families against other rebel groups in the region.

Yet other security experts say M23 was one of the most heavily armed groups and remains a real threat to the region’s stability.

The Kinshasa government believes Rwanda was behind the resurgence of the rebel group last year, an accusation denied by Kigali. Residents of Goma, Kinshasa and other cities in the DRC have often raised concerns about what they allege is the “passivity and inaction” of the regional force.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi appeared to have been against the regional force from June 2022, when it was proposed and has to date spurned direct talks with M23.

On its part, the EAC has said it is committed to a peaceful solution to the DRC conflict and that it will strive to ensure this is achieved.

“We call upon all local militia groups in eastern DRC to embrace consultations, lay down their arms and join the political process”, said the secretary general.

However, he reiterated his full respect for the territorial integrity of the DRC, restating his commitment to the utilisation of existing regional and global frameworks to address conflict.