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Few optimistic about DRC peace talks in Kenya

Cai Nebe
April 28, 2022

Talks in Kenya between the DR Congo government and rebel groups were aimed at ending violence. But few observers believe fighting will cease. Some notable rebels were not even present. So why do the Nairobi talks matter?

Congolese soldiers patrol the streets of Beni, Congo
Congolese forces have struggled to maintain control over parts of eastern DR CongoImage: Jerome Delay/AP/picture alliance

The Congolese presidency said on Thursday that the first round of peace talks to end one of the world's worst and longest-running humanitarian emergencies had concluded. 

This past week, about 30 delegations representing armed groups from DR Congo's Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu states, as well as the Congolese government, met in Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

More than 27 million people face food shortages, and nearly 5.5 million have been displaced in eastern DR Congo, according to the United Nations. 

Some armed groups snubbed the Nairobi talks; others could not attend for logistical reasons. Most notably absent was the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which operates near the border of the eastern Congo and Uganda.

Laying down weapons

The ADF, which had been designated a terror organization by Uganda, was not invited.

Another significant player, the M23, left after the first day, when skirmishes between its fighters and the Congolese army were reported in the Rutshuru region. Both sides accused each other of starting the fight. 

Still, the talks went ahead.

In his closing remarks on Wednesday, President Felix Tshisekedi said he hoped armed groups would accept the government's demand to stop fighting, and "join a track of unity with the Congolese state." 

But many Congolese people are not optimistic that the talks will bring peace, or even a meaningful cease-fire, because there is not enough political will from neighboring regional countries. 

UN fails to bring peace to DRC

Why does M23 matter?

The Nairobi talks were planned as a thinly veiled attempt to figure out what to do with M23, DW correspondent and regional analyst Saleh Mwanamilongo said.

The Rwanda-backed rebel group — which mainly operates out of the North Kivu state, bordering Uganda and Rwanda — was defeated in 2013 but has resurfaced and has military positions in Rutshuru. 

M23 rebels walk in the streets of Goma, eastern Congo
M23 briefly held the eastern Congolese city of Goma in 2012, before disbanding in 2013Image: Simone Schlindwein

"The talks are aimed at giving M23 a way to go back home if they can," Mwanamilongo said. "But they are already home — the trouble is to get them to lay down their arms."

Some Congolese are angry that the Congolese government has even engaged with the rebel groups. Opponents of the talks want the rebel groups to be defeated militarily.

Others, such as the human rights advocate and former combatant Didier Bitaki, say too many lives will be lost in military action, and that the only solution is peace.   

Mwanamilongo said the instability in the eastern DRC, and Kinshasa's inability to control national territory had led to a bizarre situation where "each regional actor is playing his game or agenda for Congo." 

Thawing relations

Policy and ambitions of the geographically much smaller Rwanda and Uganda significantly affect stability in the mineral-rich DRC, because Rwanda and Uganda have backed and supplied different militias with weapons to carry out operations that benefit Kigali and Kampala, respectively. 

Refugees displaced by fighting carry belongings a road
Civilians have borne the brunt of instability in the eastern Congo, with millions displacedImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. D. Kannah

"M23 were never really defeated, only disbanded, and Uganda has always seen M23 as a Rwandan problem," the analyst Phil Clark, from SOAS University of London, told DW. 

Indeed, with the talks ongoing, Rwandan leader Paul Kagame was in Uganda visiting President Yoweri Museveni for talks widely interpreted as a sign of thawing relations between the two nations. 

"To really simplify it, Rwanda sees its relationship with Uganda as more important than its relationship with Congo," Clark said. "And one of the demands that Uganda has made in this new period of detente is for Rwanda to deal with the M23." 

He pointed out that improved relations between Rwanda and Uganda was a new development.  

"It seems Uganda has told Rwanda that, if this new relationship is to go forward, Rwanda must deal with M23. But Rwanda doesn't want M23 on their soil either. So it seems then Rwanda has reinvigorated M23 across the border in Congo, which has undermined its relationship with Congo," Clark said.

A UN peacekeeper patrols a new base
UN troops as part of the MONUSCO mission have been active in the Congo since the early 2000sImage: Glody Murhabazi/AFP/Getty Images

Without M23, what's the point?

Ostensibly, creating lasting peace was the aim of the Nairobi talks.

But many talks and negotiations have come and gone since the eastern Congo devolved into sporadic fighting, and continual instability, in the late 1990s. 

In Nairobi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta welcomed the delegates, and pledged to facilitate travel and attendance for groups who stop fighting. 

"I think this is really about the East African Community's attempt to be seen as a much more serious regional bloc within Africa," Clark said, adding that the EAC makes "some big demands at AU level."

The bloc's ambition to integrate the massive Congo, with its potential wealth, into its sphere of influence is a double-edged sword.

A miner holds raw coltan in his hand
Congo's considerable mineral wealth would be a boon if it could be extracted regularly Image: Imago Images/ZumaPress

"One of the things that always gets thrown back at the EAC is: 'You've got some of the most intractable conflicts on the continent in your own backyard,'" Clark said.

This limits the EAC from becoming a bigger player, Clark added. Integrating the DRC into the East African bloc was another strategic driver for Nairobi to hold the talks. 

Congolese men push their makeshift bicycle past peacekeepers from India serving, in MONUSCO
Despite UN peacekeepers, DRC still face challenges to protect communitiesImage: Reuters/File Photo/O. Oleksandr

The Congolese commentator Didier Bitaki told DW that the premise that the DRC's fate would essentially be decided by outsiders is "inappropriate."

"This is an internal problem, and has to be resolved by the Congolese themselves," he said.

Bitaki said the externally supported militias' tendency to use "local people" to create problems meant that instability would continue if all foreign support and weapons were to dry up.

"Local governance regarding natural resources and the economy is a problem. We have leadership in Kinshasa that doesn't care about the well-being of citizens, and local militias with weapons destabilize the country for their own survival," he added. 

Why DRC's art is worth fighting for

More troops in the Congo?

AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki welcomed a motion to deploy a regional peacekeeping force to clamp down on groups that refuse to surrender. But the move has already been criticized as unworkable. 

Clark said the situation in the eastern DRC could not be solved by "military means," while acknowledging that incentives such as political appointments, resource concessions and promises of amnesty have not really worked in the past either. 

A long line of Rwandan soldiers wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus
Rwandan troops have also been deployed in northern Mozambique to fight Al-ShababImage: Cyril Ndegeya/Xinhua/picture alliance

Bitaki said previous significant deployments of troops through the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC and the African Union had failed to bring stability to the eastern Congo. 

 "It's like they're doing the same thing and expecting a different result," he said. 

"Instead of bringing peace," he said, "it's going to increase the severity of the conflict." 

Edited by: Keith Walker