President Museveni has stated that the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) will fight any player in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who refuses to implement the East African Community (EAC)-approved peace agreement.
The President’s statement came after he dispatched UPDF soldiers from the East African Regional Force to the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, specifically to the M23 rebels’ strongholds at the Bunagana border and the Rutshuru territory in North Kivu.
On Wednesday, the UPDF began deploying their 5,000-strong force in rebel-held areas.
The deployment comes just a few weeks after Angola sent 500 troops to the same area. Uganda’s troops will serve as observers, but President Museveni announced last week that, with the approval of the EAC heads of state, Uganda will crack the whip “if one of the stakeholders refuses to implement the peace agreement we have agreed on.”
The discussion behind closed doors
Following a closed-door meeting with commanders and leaders in the standoff on Thursday, the UPDF top brass—including Gen Wilson Mbadi (the Chief of Defence Forces) and Lt Gen Kayanja Muhanga (the commander of the Lands Forces)—emphasized that Uganda’s sole goal is a peace mission.
“The UPDF peace contingent in the DRC will remain there until peace and stability are achieved,” said Gen Mbadi, adding that “the situation in the DRC will determine how long the UPDF soldiers on peace mission will remain there.” If the situation improves, the UPDF soldiers will leave immediately. We don’t have a time limit or a deadline.”
Gen Jeff Nyagah, the commander of the East African Community Forces (EACF) in the DRC, Brig Emmanuel Kaputa, the representative of Congolese government forces or the FARDC, M23 rebel leaders, and UPDF commanders attended the closed-door meeting.
Gen Nyagah stated that they have reached an agreement with the M23 rebels to open the main route from Bunagana to Goma to allow cross-border trade. The Bunagana-Rutshuru area is a major thoroughfare connecting Uganda to Goma City, one of the largest in the eastern DRC.
A warm welcome
On Thursday, the M23 rebels released photos and videos of their members, led by spokesperson Maj Willy Ngoma, warmly greeting UPDF soldiers at the Bunagana border.
President Museveni was quick to point out in a statement last week that the UPDF’s presence in the Bunagana-Rutshuru area is not intended “to fight the M23, but to act as a neutral force while the Congolese use the time to sort out their political problems.”
“Unless we are attacked, we will not fight,” President Museveni emphasised.
On Thursday, Gen Nyagah revealed that the UPDF contingent would occupy Bunagana and Kiwanja before moving to the Mabenga areas of Rutshuru territory.
“We must be patient as the M23 rebels withdraw from these areas because they have troops that must be moved from one location to another without causing panic among the locals,” he said.
“DR Congo refugees should return home because the EACF will ensure their safety by not allowing any armed groups to interfere with local population security,” Gen Nyagah said.
“We are prepared to work with the EACF deployed in this area.” The Congolese government should also listen to our concerns, particularly our desire to be recognised as Congolese citizens, as this is the only long-term solution to the conflict,” Maj Ngoma said.
Meanwhile, President Museveni revealed that talks were underway between the DRC government and the M23 rebels. He went on to say that the talks “have been going on and should continue so that the problem is dealt with politically.”
While Maj Ngoma reiterated the M23 rebels’ demand to be recognised as Congolese citizens, Kinshasa has designated them as a rebel group while refusing to meet with them. The Congolese leaders have publicly stated that they will not speak with M23 rebels until they retreat to areas where they are supposed to be cantoned.
After a nearly decade-long lull, the M23 rebels resumed fighting in 2021 and captured Bunagana. They have since taken more territory, bringing them within a few kilometres of Goma. Their relentless march compelled the EAC heads of state to form a regional force in April 2022 with the sole purpose of being deployed on a peace mission in the eastern DRC. Burundi, Angola, and Kenya have already sent troops to the hotspot.
Rwanda is accused by the DRC government of supporting the M23 rebels. Many DRC officials claim that Uganda also supports the same group, which both Kampala and Kigali deny.
The regional agreements of Luanda, Angola, and Nairobi, Kenya, as well as previous agreements concerning peace in eastern DRC, have been interpreted differently by various parties or stakeholders. This has resulted in the continuation of armed conflict.
Two wars raged in the DRC in the late 1990s, engulfing several neighbouring countries. Rwanda and Uganda backed Congolese rebels against a coalition of troops from Chad, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s government.
Uganda and Rwanda were forced to withdraw their troops from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While sending troops to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola’s presidency stated that their military would keep the M23 rebels where they were directed to withdraw under the Luanda mini-summit.
“The said unit’s primary objective is to secure the cantonment areas of the M23 elements and protect members of the Ad Hoc Verification Mechanism,” according to a statement issued by the Angolan presidency.