Avatar photo

By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

Are our troops safe in DRC?

South Africa's deployment of 2,900 troops aims to combat the heavily-armed M23 insurgents in the DRC.

Lacking in numbers and air power capability, the Southern African Development Community Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) – beefed up by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s deployment of 2 900 soldiers in the war-torn country – is facing heavily-armed and hardened Rwanda-backed M23 insurgents.

Military, intelligence and defence experts who spoken to The Citizen yesterday predicted a prolonged battle ahead, with no possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough.

The Presidency announced this week that Ramaphosa ordered the deployment of the SA troops – fulfilling the country’s international obligation towards the SADC – “to assist in the fight against illegal armed groups in the eastern DRC”.

Budgeted at R2 billion, the Presidency said the year-long deployment, would not impact provisions for the cash-strapped SA National Defence Force’s (SANDF) regular maintenance and emergency repairs.

Overstretch of the SANDF

However, leading defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman said the most “immediate worry is the overstretch of the SANDF” and the likely lack of effective air support.

ALSO READ: South Africa sends 2,900 troops to the DRC

“The government is trying to be a regional power, while funding little more than a border guard. And why is Angola not coming to the party – with the largest army and air force in the SADC? And what about other SADC members?”

On whether SAMIDRC troops had capability to face the M23 fighters – amid reports that elements of Rwanda’s army supporting the insurgents in eastern DRC have this week fired at least one surface-to-air missile – Heitman expressed concerns about preparedness for the mission.

“The planned 5 000-strong force was laughably too weak and, now, it will apparently be fewer than 5 000.

“How can anyone expect 5 000 or fewer troops to achieve what the roughly 15 000 that Monusco (United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) could not?

“And I see no real mention of what air support the troops will have – reconnaissance, mobility and combat. The reality is that a force of 15 000 to 20 000, with real air support, would be needed,” said Heitman.

ALSO READ: Two SANDF members injured after helicopter comes under fire in DRC

SADC troops numbers and capability in question

Jasmine Opperman – a military intelligence analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project said the SADC troops numbers and capability is in question.

“The Rwanda-supported M23 insurgents, comprising about 120 armed groups, have serious advantages – sophisticated weapons, intelligence and a guaranteed constant supply, even if they should lose battles.

“In looking at the recent chopper incident, we have seen a lack of air force cover – a limited capacity, which led to a tragedy.

“If we could not counter them in Mozambique’s northernmost volatile province of Cabo Delgado, how can we expect them to do that in the DRC, which is far more complex? The special forces are stretched and few.”

She said the SANDF deployment in Cabo Delgado province was “in a crisis because of financial support”, and the DRC commitment would be far more expensive and far more prolonged.

ALSO READ: Militants linked to Islamic State kill 5 civilians in DR Congo

“An armed group supported by Rwanda, with all its capabilities, compared to the stretched youth of our military?

“Unless Rwanda and South Africa can come to an agreement at a diplomatic level – which is highly unlikely – the troops are facing a long war, with no possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough.”

Soured political and diplomatic relations

South African defence and aerospace company Milkor’s marketing communications director Daniel du Plessis said there were “soured political and diplomatic relations between the DRC and Rwanda, with ongoing investigations launched against Rwanda’s involvement in the growing capabilities of the M23 rebel forces”.

He added: “Although none of these investigations have brought conclusive evidence against these allegations, the imminent threat of a full-scale direct conflict between these two countries is a growing concern in the region.

“The M23 rebel forces have been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths, relocation of thousands that have fled from the province of North Kivu, and the frequency of reported attacks have increased dramatically over the past few months.”

ALSO READ: DR Congo goes to the polls amid conflict in east

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits