by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.During the second edition of the Paris Peace Forum, held in November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced military support for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), aimed particularly at combating the militant Islamist group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which has waged a series of attacks on the DRC’s northeastern Beni region since 2014. Aside from a brief reference to the importance of intelligence-sharing, few details about the mission were offered in the announcement, such as how many French troops might be deployed or what their mandate in the DRC might be. This presents some concerns, both regarding France’s future engagement in Africa and for the principle of multilateralism.
Without a clearly defined mandate, the Beni intervention is at significant risk of “mission creep“. On the one hand, this region has been at the epicentre of the 2018-2019 Ebola outbreak, with more than 3,300 cases reported there so far (and more than 2,200 causalities; “Situation épidémiologique du 12 Décembre 2019“, Comite Multisectoriel De La Riposte a La Maladie a Virus Ebola, 12 December 2019). French soldiers deployed to the Beni region would not only face the ADF insurgency but also a local populace panicked by the horrors of the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and widespread disinformation. In particular, “fake news” has led some segments of the local population to believe that the EVD is a hoax or that the World Health Organization (WHO) and the local health authorities are intentionally infecting people with the EVD rather than providing treatment. As such, a laboratory in Beni was attacked in June 2019 and protesters have frequently interfered with the vaccinations by EVD response teams.
The French intervention would also have to contend with the extra-territorial dimension of the ADF. Despite perpetrating several atrocities across the North and South Kivu provinces of the DRC, the ADF has its roots in Uganda and was established with the impetus to effect a regime change in that country. Originally, the ADF received funding and support from the Sudanese authorities, but the group now reputedly has some connections with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab (an al-Qaeda affiliate active in the Horn of Africa), and Boko Haram (a terrorist organization active in West Africa that pledged alliance in 2015 to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The ADF has regenerated in the wake of past military offensives because of the ill-enforced border between the DRC and Uganda, financial support from the aforementioned entities, and the abundance of other armed groups in the region that can distract a military intervention, like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
If Macron’s remarks at the Paris Peace Forum are to be taken at face value – that the objective of the French forces in the DRC is to eliminate the ADF as a regional security threat – then formal cooperation should be established with the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), Uganda’s professional military, in order to prevent the ADF from simply relocating across the border once more, rebuilding, and then returning to the DRC once the French forces have withdrawn. Although the DRC’s new leader, President Felix Tshisekedi, travelled to Uganda just prior to attending the Paris Peace Forum, there seems to have been little consideration on the part of French policymakers to engage the Ugandans in a regional effort to fight the ADF.
This is symptomatic of Macron’s increasingly unilateral approach to international politics. Just a week prior to hosting the Paris Peace Forum, the French President heralded “the brain death of NATO“. In October 2019, he went against the consensus of the European Council by blocking accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia, both prospective members of the European Union. Presented with the United States’ isolationism under US-President Donald Trump, it seems Macron has interpreted this as a greenlight to similarly hollow out multilateral institutions and adopt a “go-it-alone” approach to security. Case in point: there is already an international military presence in the very region of the DRC to which Macron wishes to send French troops. MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) has been in place in some form or another since 1999, involving over 16,800 military and 1,400 police personnel, including a small complement from France. MONUSCO also has direct experience fighting against the ADF in the Beni region, including an attempted siege in December 2017 of a MONUSCO forward operating base and an attempted storm of a MONUSCO base in Beni at the end of November 2019 (see video below). Yet MONUSCO did not seem to merit even any honourary mention in Macron’s remarks.
If the French intervention is to amount to anything more than a political vanity project, there must first be a clear vision as to what will be accomplished. This mandate should be distinct from that of MONUSCO or else the mission will be redundant before it even begins. Additionally, the mission must make use of existing regional tools for addressing threats like the ADF; this means engaging effectively with the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the African Union (AU), and of course with the Congolese and Ugandan authorities, to close all avenues of escape for those militants. It should not, however, lead to “reinventing the wheel” by establishing an entirely new regional framework for security cooperation, much as France has done with the G5 Sahel to combat militant Islamist groups like Boko Haram, rather than shoring up the existing Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
If France wishes to extend its influence in Africa, it must demonstrate that it can be a credible security partner, or even a security guarantor. Flashy announcements like the one at the Paris Peace Forum do little to advance that credibility.