• The local population is so steeped in conflict that it is hard to disentangle
• KDF bid to restore peace, stability without discharging a shot is causing friction
MJ is six years old and lives in Goma. He has not been to school for as long as he can remember. He plays with a rod, which he holds like a gun, and gestures as though aiming and shooting, making a gun-like sound, while turning around.
MN, on the other hand, lives in Bunagama near the DRC-Ugandan border, tens of kilometres from Goma. His pastime is selling sugarcane, which is the staple of the region. Like MJ, the seven-year-old also can’t remember when he last went to school.
These two children represent the poignant destinies bequeathed upon the younger generation of the DRC by war in the country, which has raged on for decades.
While one is growing up immersed in an environment of war, with their greatest aspiration being to get actively involved as a gun-wielding combatant, the other is aspiring to do business and make quick money, even if not schooled.
Talking to residents of North Kivu province in DRC, one gets the inescapable sense that the ongoing conflict in the expansive East African country is hurting its younger generation — a lost generation, as some call it.
Apart from a generation whose future is getting systematically decimated by each shot fired, bloodshed and life lost, hundreds of thousands of citizens — mostly women, young children and older men — are squatting in dehumanising IDP camps.
Young men have been reduced to joining militias, crime and destroying the environment for charcoal burning to feed their families in the camps and at home.
They are also mostly on the streets, riding motorbikes and wooden handcarts, locally known as Chukudu.
At Kanyaruchinya IDP camp, the Star witnessed infants as young as three months old desperately enduring hunger, with the mothers saying the little ones have to survive on irregular meals.
The Congolese state in Kinsasha is up against various armed and violent groups. There are in excess of 120 armed groups in the country.
But M23, one of the violent groups, is the main militia troubling Kinsasha, to the point of marshalling regional support to counter it.
So powerful is M23 that late last year, it was at the cusp of capturing Goma city, a strategic capital of the mineral-rich North Kivu province, in its separatist crusade.
It was also at the cusp of capturing Goma International Airport, a critical installation central to operations of the region.
At the nick of time, East African Community Heads of State cobbled together a regional force and deployed it in the disturbed area to at least act as a buffer and at most contain the groups.
Kenya Defence Force was the first to fly into the country in early November 2022, setting a foothold at Goma International Airport.
By end of April, forces from all countries in the region had taken their place in the theatre of war: Kenya in Kibumba, Rumangabo and Tongo, Burundi in Sake, Karuba, Mushaki and Kilolirwe; Uganda in Bunagana, Chengerero, Rutshuru/Kiwanja and Mabenga; South Sudan in Rumangabo towards Tongo, alongside Kenya; and Rwanda along its border with DRC.
But sentiments from opinion leaders and the undertones in the region suggest that it will take more than boots on the ground to restore DRC and put it in the desired growth trajectory.
Multiple interviews with them paint a picture of a society deeply percolated by suspicion, ethnic disaffection and acclimatisation to the power of guns.
Daniel Michombero, a freelance journalist based in Goma, says the population is increasingly fond of the Burundian forces because of reports that it had engaged M23 elements in a gunfight at a recent encounter.
“People feel like they are not like the Kenyans, who have not fought. They came to help us [fight], but they seem not interested in that; only trying to engage M23 in different ways,” he said.
Immediate former regional force commander Jeff Nyagah insisted that he was in the country to restore peace and protect unarmed civilians but not engage the groups in a fight.
“My mandate is to ensure progressive withdrawal of the M23 from their areas to the areas of cantonment. This is happening as the Luanda ceasefire is holding, for a month now,” he said.
He said he has also overseen the opening of main supply routes, removal of illegal roadblocks that hinder humanitarian aid flow, and gradual return of IDPs to their farms.
In fact, the former commander says, the claims of a kinetic engagement of Burundian forces with M23 elements are not true.
“The Burundian forces acted professionally and did not engage in any fight,” Nyagah said.
“They got attacked by armed elements but they disarmed them, arrested them and brought them to force headquarters before we handed them to FARDC.
“We cannot say they are M23 members because we have no way of knowing that. Also, we handed them to the local authorities because as a force, we do not hold suspects and we don’t interrogate them. We are not a rogue force.”
But the thirst for conflict was perhaps better expressed by one Muhazi Mbohozi, a trader in Goma. He alleged that the fact that EACRF is unwilling to engage the groups in a combat suggests it is fraternising with the group.
“I don’t have confidence in the force commander. Why can’t they fight these people?” he said.
The push to engage the fighters in an offensive was broached by the DRC President in Kinsasha in a February summit attended by Nyagah and President William Ruto.
Tshisekedi told Nyagah as Ruto stood by that he thought his troops were favouring M23 and that he should have been out firing.
“Don't favour the M23. It would be a shame if the population took it out on you. You came to help us and not to have problems. Pay attention to this, communicate with the population," Tshisekedi told Nyagah.
The push for a combative engagement of the groups is pulpable, a move the former commander resisted.
He viewed an effective intervention to be counter-productive to the dialogue that was ongoing to resolve the conflict.
Former President Uhuru Kenyatta is leading the Nairobi process to restore peace in DRC, an initiative running alongside talks in Luanda, Angola.
This posture has earned the immediate former force commander mistrust, suggesting EACRF may not be the ultimate solution to the DRC war.
He has since been replaced by Major General Alphaxad Kiugu.
But the new general seems to be running directly into the destructive winds, as disquiet has already emerged in Kinsasha about the process that produced him.
Local media reports say Kinsasha was not happy with another Kenyan head of the force and that Ruto appointed him unilaterally without consulting other heads of state.
The reports suggest that they want the commander to come from other regional countries on a rotational basis.
It is a matter of wait and see if Nairobi will accede to the demand, given that KDF has acted as an anchor to the participating forces in terms of logistical support and facilitating them in their daily operations.
In addition, the intrigues of competing interests about the country is another factor compounding the peace-finding mission.
The Wagner group, the Russian mercenaries known for graphic dismembering of their targets, is present in the country.
Driving in the North Kivu region, the group members are seen whiling away the time, smoking besides the roads.
They occasionally patrol streets aboard their armoured military vehicles, carrying heavy weapons.
Experts say the group was invited into the country by the government when M23 was increasingly getting out of control.
Murabuza Joseph, a Congolese security analyst based in Nairobi, says they, too, have found the going rough.
“The group failed because M23 proved superior to them in this terrain. That is why with the new approach of EACRF not confronting, some of these players are not happy,” he said.
“Someone powerful entity does not want Congo peaceful and stable. Even more irking to them is the success of the EAC force because it will, in the long term, ring-fence the resources in the country to benefit the country and the region. Some people don’t want that.”
He continued: “That is the reason why the EAC force is getting undermined and the propaganda against them is sowed with much effort.”