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EAC troops withdrawal from DR Congo and lesson on covering security operations

An event with significant regional ramifications for the East African Community quietly took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday morning, December 3.

Breaking the story, AFP reported that the first batch of the East African Community Regional Force (EAC-RF) in Eastern DRC – about 100 troops from Kenya – left Goma airport.

It was the beginning of the exit of the EAC-RF after DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi accused the troops of unholy alliance with the M23 rebels they were deployed to tame. He claimed the soldiers were ineffective; that they failed to wrest firearms from the rebels who continued to kill and maim local people. The EAC top leadership granted him his wish to bring in security forces from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to replace the EAC-RF. DRC is also a member of SADC.

On November 25, the East African Community issued a communiqué from its headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, in which the Summit of the Heads of State announced that Kinshasa had expressed unwillingness to renew the mandate of EAC-RF beyond December 8, 2023. EAC partner states that contributed troops to the mission were Kenya, Burundi, South Sudan, and Uganda.

Almost all mainstream media in these countries published the story on Sunday morning from AFP. The French news agency handled the story in a manner that provides free lessons to journalists on how to report sensitive security operations. Listen to the intro:

“The East African Community (EAC) regional force began its withdrawal from the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday morning after Kinshasa deemed it ineffective and refused to renew its mandate.” The double-barrel stated what happened and why.

Being a sensitive, secretive, and high-level security operation, how did AFP get the story? “… according to a spokesman for the force on the ground who did not provide more detail on further withdrawals.”

That was to shield the source from any likely reprisals from the force command. There was a deliberate effort not to mention the exact number of the exiting troops (“a first group of around 100”) or those remaining because the figures could land in the hands of the enemy. Why? “[f]ighting continues between the M23 group and the DRC army, supported by militia who call themselves ‘patriots’.”

In case readers wanted to be sure the Kenyan soldiers actually departed from Goma airport; the story responded: “AFP journalists saw their plane taking off shortly after 05:00 am (03:00 GMT).”

AFP also demonstrated a deep understanding of reporting on delicate security operations by providing several pictures of the Kenyan team, taken at different timelines – but with emphatic captions. Media houses had varied picks. For example, Kenya’s Citizen Digital published a picture of the soldiers – each carrying a gun and standing next to an aircraft- likely to have been taken at dawn, with the rays of the rising sun deep in the horizon. It was captioned, “Kenyan soldiers from the East African Community regional force (EAC-RF) prepare to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo at Goma airport on December 3, 2023.”

In Uganda, the New Vision ran seven pictures of the troops at Goma airport: (a) boarding a plane (clear early morning); (b) preparing to leave (also published by Citizen Digital); (c) standing, with Congolese counterparts (at night, floodlights are on); (d) boarding a plane (dawn); (e) preparing to leave (midday, judging from shadows); (f) boarding a plane (dawn); and (g) preparing to leave (midday, short shadows).

To lend movement and add value to the AFP story, media houses in the countries which contributed troops needed to have called their defence and diplomatic sources to fetch answers to some urgent questions. For example, what will be the security situation in eastern DRC since the EAC-RF is withdrawing before the arrival of the SADC alternative? Is the region left at the mercy of the weak DRC army in their unpredictable clashes with M23 rebels? What next if SADC forces fail to report, or fail? What are the ramification of DRC President Tshisekedi’s lack of faith in the effectiveness of EAC-RF on Kinshasa’s continued membership to the trading bloc? And will his decision have a bearing on continued relationship between his country and those that contributed the troops? Put shortly, was EAC-RF ineffective, or did President Tshisekedi fail to understand its mandate?

Indeed, the media in the troop-contributing countries must get a fair assessment of the mission. For starters, they must not forget the strong statement the EAC secretariat issued on May 1, 2023, enumerating some of what were claimed to be the EAC-RF milestones.

And in Kenya, the media should seek answers to more questions: Why were Kenya’s troops released first? Did Nairobi willingly recall her soldiers, or it was President Tshisekedi’s demand? Recent media reports from Goma showed that the locals were more miffed with the Kenyan troops than their counterparts from the other three countries. Why?

It was intriguing that, the Daily Nation and the Star came late Sunday evening to ‘reveal’ that Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla had, indeed, visited the troops in Goma on Saturday, a day before the departure of part of the team. Had Department of Defence ‘sat’ on the story, or had it been embargoed for security reasons? The two publications detailed the story in a manner suggesting the reporters accompanied the good General to Goma. However, their stories did not answer the crucial questions. Intriguingly, Daily Nation put the figure of the Kenyan troops who returned in the phased-out withdrawal at 300. It didn’t say who provided the statistic.

Lessons learnt? High-level regional security operations are delicate. Covering them demands that journalists are not only aware of the secretive nature and security implications but also strive to answer circumstantial questions touching on the intentions of participating member states.

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