Southern Africa: South Africa-Led SADC Deployment in the DRC Will Destabilize the East African Region


There were many opportunities for peace. They have all been thrown out on the altar of military brinkmanship and tribalistic politicking.

On December 15, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) deployed forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ostensibly “to address the unstable and deteriorating security situation prevailing in the Eastern DRC”. This was supposedly in line with SADC’s mutual defense pact which states that “any armed attack perpetrated against one of the State parties shall be considered a threat to regional peace and security and shall be met with immediate collective action.” But will SADC deployment address the insecurity in the DRC or will it destabilise further the East African region?

Kinshasa’s stubborn refusal to consider peace talks

Consider this. The deployment came on the backdrop of Tshisekedi’s persistent frustration with his colleagues in the East African Community (EAC) for refusing to transform the mandate of the force the community had deployed – from a peacekeeping mission that would get the DRC government and M-23 rebels to ceasefire and ultimately negotiate a political solution to an offensive mission seeking to defeat militarily the M23 rebels. Initially, Tshisekedi had sought to designate the M-23 as a terrorist organization and, as a result, pressure the EAC leaders into military action. However, during the Luanda summit in November 2022 and according to sources privy to the meeting, President Lourenço made it plainly clear that these rebels had legitimate political grievances and could therefore not be designated according to Tshisekedi’s desires. Lourenço’s position explains Angola’s reluctance to join SADC’s deployment which is led by South Africa, with Angola repeatedly emphasizing its willingness to deploy only to oversee the cantonment of M-23 rebels and President Lourenço underscoring that Kinshasa had to create the conditions for this process by including the rebels in the Nairobi peace process. In other words, unlike South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, Angola, a SADC member, was supporting a process led by the EAC block instead of undermining it.

In this regard, President Laurenco was echoing President Museveni’s views which the latter expressed in a long lecture to representatives of the DRC government who had traveled to Uganda. President Museveni underscored the same message regarding the legitimacy of the grievances of the M-23 and how the only way out of the conflict was a political settlement.

Even President Ruto who had initially been misinformed about the nature of the conflict – and who Tshisekedi had hoped would eventually turn around towards his proposal – began to openly state that only a political resolution was viable. Indeed, Tshisekedi expected the EAC force to encounter a belligerent M-23 and that the resultant hostility would help to transform the mandate from peacekeeping to an offensive assault. However, the decision of the M-23 force to hand over some of the territories it had captured to the EAC force amicably without confrontation and the camaraderie that resulted from this cooperation, created and reinforced a perception that this was a politically mature movement and not the terrorists Tshisekedi was claiming they were. However, negotiations were not politically tenable for Tshisekedi, given he had made promises to the Congolese public that he would defeat the M-23 and that the EAC force had deployed in the DRC to do just that. It was a lie he had told to his people in the lead-up to a heated political campaign whose results he couldn’t otherwise predict.

With all the EAC leaders having rebuffed all his overtures, save for Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimiye, Tshisekedi turned to SADC for a political lifeline, to deliver his promise of defeating M-23 militarily. SADC initially resisted his pleas but eventually gave in and decided to deploy soldiers. The hesitation had to do with the obvious: its military intervention would break the EAC consensus regarding whether M-23 had legitimate political grievances, and whether a political rather than a military solution was appropriate. The choice SADC made constitutes an affront to the EAC. Rather than bring stability to the DRC, the deployment of military forces will, in all likelihood, destabilize the region.

Tanzania’s and South Africa’s cognitive dissonance

No sooner had the SADC deployment been confirmed that Burundi walked away from the EAC consensus, which it had led with its president as the chair of the regional block. Ndayishimiye went on to deploy forces on a bilateral basis, thereby contributing to efforts to confront the M-23 militarily.

Tanzania did not deploy forces as part of the East African force. When SADC decided to deploy, however, Tanzania was quick to join in and dispatch its forces to confront M23. Clearly, its double membership in the EAC and SADC has produced a cognitive dissonance, if one is to go by a recent statement on social media. In the statement, January Makamba, the country’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted this in response to reports and praise that Tanzania was fighting M-23:

“Tanzania is not at war with any armed group in DRC. We are in DRC as part of the SADC Mission (SAMIDRC), which is a result of the August 2023 SADC Summit decision to accept a request by the DRC government, in conformity with SADC Mutual Defense Pact, to deploy a military mission to assist it address security challenges on its Eastern part. A number of SADC countries are contributing troops and finances for the Mission. The description in the headline is erroneous as no armed forces of a troops contributing member is operating independently, outside a unified operational command of the Mission. Also to add, Tanzania aligns itself with both Luanda and Nairobi processes, regional political mechanisms for peaceful resolution of the Eastern DRC conflict”.

Makamba’s statement betrays Tanzania’s cognitive dissonance because the SADC Mission is the mirror opposite of the EAC/Luanda mechanisms. Aligning with both positions is not only deceptive but points to an attempt at a cover-up regarding what the minister wants the people of Tanzania to understand regarding the deployment of their forces in the Kivus. Indeed, when Makamba says that the Tanzanian forces are under a unified operational command, he confirms the fact that its forces are involved in a genocidal alliance, a cooperation that involves the notorious FDLR. These are the UN-sanctioned genocidaires who committed genocide in Rwanda, in which up to a million people perished, then relocated to the DRC where they found a safe haven. These are now the same people with whom the Tanzania People Defence Forces are operationally connected in a “unified operational command”. These are the same people that prompted Nyerere and Mandela to arm Rwanda when the post-genocide government sought to dislodge them from the refugee camps which they were controlling in Zaire and from which they were preparing and launching attacks against the country from which they had fled after their defeat in 1994.

Speaking of genocide and cognitive dissonance, South Africa apparently has no qualms with leading a court case against Israel which it accuses of committing genocide against the Palestinians while also deploying forces to “assist” a government that is guilty of incitement to ethnic hatred and of conducting genocide against Congolese Tutsi as the solution to its internal political troubles. The original crime Congolese Tutsis committed seems to be their kinship with Rwandans across the border. This, to some Congolese in and outside the government, is sufficient reason to justify wiping them off the DRC map. Thabo Mbeki’s rejection of the kind of state-sponsored hate speech seen in the DRC and related killings should have made South Africa and SADC think twice before intervening in an offensive posture. Indeed, the DRC government has openly admitted to its alliance with those who committed genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, presumably in order to benefit from their genocidal expertise. The FDLR is a UN-sanctioned entity. By entering into an alliance with them through its security partnership with the DRC government, SADC violates all UN sanctions against the FDLR. As an accomplice, SADC is now in breach of UN resolutions and is directly responsible for whatever FARDC, the various Congolese militias rebranded Wazalendo, and FDLR are doing.

Ironically, SADC is abandoning Mozambique and destabilizing the East African region at a time when terrorist activities are increasing in its areas of responsibility in the Province of Cabo Delgado, where it deployed troops reluctantly in 2021. Instead of reinforcing its deployments in Mozambique where terrorism threatens the stability of the entire southern bloc, SADC has chosen to reinforce a coalition made of the same forces that have created havoc in the Great Lakes region for the past 30 years since the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

Is military escalation a solution to a preventable conflict?

SADC’s and the UN’s obsession with a group (the M-23) whose people are chased from their ancestral homes and whose families have fled to neighboring countries should worry any fair-minded observer. The tragedy here is that the humanitarian catastrophe induced by Kinshasa’s refusal to negotiate a political settlement has led to a conflict that was totally preventable. There were many opportunities for peace. They have all been thrown out on the altar of military brinkmanship and tribalistic politicking.