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Congo: SADC soldier deaths underline concerns over mission

April 10, 2024

The deaths of Tanzanian soldiers raise questions about the ability of the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) mission to defeat M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Soliders hold weapons as they sit on armoured trucks as people mill around on the street next to them
Regional bloc SADC deployed its mission to Congo in December 2023 to help the government tackle armed groups in its restive eastern regionImage: AUBIN MUKONI/AFP

Three Tanzanian peacekeepers deployed to eastern Congo as part of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission were killed by rebel mortar fire this week. Three others were wounded in the attack.

Their deaths again raise questions about the capacity of the SADC Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as SAMIDRC, to neutralize the M23 rebel group in the country's conflict-hit east.

SAMIDRC is made up of forces from South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. They started deploying in December after DR Congo, one of SADC's 16 members, sought support under the bloc's mutual defense pact.

The deaths of the Tanzanian soldiers are "very worrying," international relations analyst Gilbert Khadiagala told DW, because it shows M23's determination to continue their sweeping attacks across Congo's eastern region.

M23 (March 23 Movement) emerged from dormancy in late 2021 to take up arms again. It has since seized vast swaths of Congo's North Kivu province, including, more recently, several strategic towns on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Goma.

Recent flares in fighting are exacerbating an already catastrophic humanitarian situation in the east of the country, where over 6.3 million people have fled their homes.

Base under attack

The three peacekeepers were killed in a strike on SAMIDRC's Mubambiro base, just outside of the town of Sake, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Goma. This is the same base where two South African soldiers were killed and three wounded by a mortar bomb in mid-February.

Men in military uniform carry a coffin draped with the South African flag. Family members dressed in black look on.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said that two of its soldiers were killed in a mortar strike near GomaImage: Marco Longari/AFP

"This highlights the vulnerability of this base and the likelihood that this will remain the case as combatants continue to rely on artillery and long distance ordnance," wrote Piers Pigou, Southern Africa Programme Head at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, in response to questions by DW.

"It raises questions of SAMIDRC's ability to defend such bases and whether it has the requisite defensive options or will have them in the future."

M23 grows in strength

Congo, the United Nations and many Western countries as well as independent observers have accumulated strong evidence of Rwanda's support for M23.

The M23 rebels are increasingly wielding military-grade weaponry not usually associated with militia groups, including sophisticated assault rifles, GPS-guided long-range mortars and even surface-to-air missiles.

Stephanie Wolters, an expert on the Great Lakes region, stresses that M23 is "very different" now compared to back in 2013 when SADC forces defeated the rebel group in Congo after it temporarily seized Goma.

DR Congo conflict: Who are the main players?

M23 is a "very determined military force at this point," said Wolters, a senior research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), and "heavily backed by Rwanda."

"Rwanda is highly motivated. I think that it will invest as much as it can into supporting the M23 to avoid being defeated."

Smaller SADC deployment

The current SADC force is also considerably smaller than the 5,000 military personnel originally pledged. South Africa has said it will mobilize 2,900 soldiers but only around 600 have been deployed so far, according to South African media. Malawi and Tanzania have committed 2,100 soldiers.

Addressing the UN Security Council at the end of March, Bintou Keita, the head of the UN's MONUSCO peacekeeping mission in Congo, said 2,000 SADC troops were in the DRC. 

It's "unlikely" the full complement will be deployed, Pigou said, an assessment echoed by other analysts.

Can Southern African forces bring peace to the DRC?

SAMIDRC also lacks vital support and equipment. In an interview with South African station Newzroom Afrika, the South African National Defence Union said last week that its soldiers lacked field kitchens, field hospitals and medical military personnel.

More notably, analysts have repeatedly criticized the mission's lacks of air assets such as transport and attack helicopters deemed vital if SAMIDRC is to defeat M23 in the tricky terrain of eastern Congo.

"The region's dense forests, vast landscapes, and the highly mobile nature of insurgent groups mean that robust air capabilities for effective area surveillance, quick force deployment, and logistical supporter are crucial in order to have any realistic hope of tracking, containing, and neutralizing them," wrote military analyst Darren Oliver in a 2024 article for SA Flyer, Africa's largest aviation magazine.

Multiple players involved

SADC forces, however, aren't fighting the rebels alone. With an offensive mandate, the SADC troops are doing battle alongside an informal coalition which includes the Congolese army, forces from neighboring Burundi and Uganda and armed groups allied with Congo's government.

Burundian soldiers sit in the back of transport truck, seen though the windscreen of a car
Burundi hasn't officially acknowledged having troops in DRC, but its solidiers, seen here in the back of a truck in South Kivu province, are openly visibleImage: ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP

At the same time, SADC forces are also deployed in a region where the UN has started pulling out its 15,000 MONUSCO peacekeepers after Congo's government asked it to leave, citing its failure to secure the country.

"I think that we're really talking about … probably at best a situation where SADC is able to exert such military pressure on M23 that that forces Rwanda to the negotiating table and to make some concessions with regards to its support to the M23," said analyst Wolters.

"There has to be a political solution. This isn't going to end militarily."

Edited by: Keith Walker

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.