The East African Community regional force began its withdrawal from the strife-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday after Kinshasa deemed it ineffective and refused to renew its mandate.
The seven-nation EAC first deployed troops in the violence-plagued region in November 2022, at the invitation of the DRC authorities, to free areas taken by the resurgent M23 rebel group.
But the future of the deployment was thrown into doubt after President Felix Tshisekedi and local residents accused the force of cohabiting with the rebels rather than forcing them to lay down arms.
On Sunday morning, two contingents of around 100 Kenyan soldiers flew out of the airport in Goma, capital of the eastern region of North Kivu.
There were no Congolese officials present on the tarmac when the planes left at around 05:00 am (0300 GMT) and 10:30 am respectively, and as of midday there was no statement from the authorities.
Late last month, the EAC said the DRC, which is a member of the bloc, had decided not to renew the force’s mandate beyond December 8.
A spokesman for the EAC force present on Sunday said the two military contingents were flying to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, but gave no details as to the next stages in the withdrawal of the force, which also comprises soldiers from Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda.
“We are happy to see the EAC leave,” a taxi-scooter driver in Goma, Emmanuel Agaye, told AFP.
“We know they came to help us fight. But they didn’t fight.”
Accusations of collusion
“The EAC has no place here,” added Goma resident Innocent Niyibizi.
“Imagine our surprise when the M23 rebels overtook the EAC positions and seized new areas,” he said.
Rebels from M23 (the Movement of 23 March) re-emerged in North Kivu in late 2021, seizing large swathes of the province with backing, sources say, from neighbouring Rwanda, another EAC member.
Kenya soldiers began arriving in Goma a year later, at the invitation of the DRC authorities.
All but the Burundian contingents of the East African force (EAC-RF) were later accused by Kinshasha and local of colluding with the rebels.
Fighting continues between M23 and the DRC army, supported by militia who call themselves “patriots”.
M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa reacted to the Kenyan troop withdrawal on X, formerly Twitter, saying his armed group “does not intend to let the Kinshasa regime’s military coalition invade the areas it (M23) ceded to the EAC-RF”.
Numerous armed groups and other militias have been active for three decades in the east of the DRC, a legacy of the regional wars that erupted during the 1990s and 2000s.
In addition to the EAC force, a United Nations peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, has been present in the country since 1999.
But MONUSCO has also been accused of ineffectiveness and Kinshasa has demanded it start next month to make an “orderly” but “accelerated” departure.
The UN force comprises around 14,000 peacekeepers, deployed almost exclusively in the east of the country.
The DRC, a vast country of around 100 million inhabitants, is scheduled to hold a general election on December 20. President Tshisekedi, in power since 2019, is standing for a second five-year term.
But due to the fighting with M23, the elections will not take place in two areas of North Kivu.
Tshisekedi is hoping to replace the EAC soldiers with security forces from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which the DRC is also a member.
However, the creation of a SADC force, which has been mooted since May, has so far failed to materialise.
According to the DRC authorities, the national army is building up strength so it can defend the country by itself from “aggression” by neighbouring states, particularly Rwanda.
Source: France 24