Kenya, DRC Relations Thaw After Ruto ‘Special Message’ to Tshisekedi

There was hope last Thursday for a resolution of the diplomatic standoff between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has simmered for over a year, after a meeting between both states’ officials in Kinshasa.

President William Ruto on Wednesday dispatched Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi to the Congolese capital with a special message to President Felix Tshisekedi after matters came to a head following the detention of two Kenya Airways staff in Kinshasa in controversial circumstances.

The Kenyan flag carrier was forced to pull out of the DR Congo route after military intelligence agents ignored a court directive to release the two airline staff, whom they had arrested on April 19.

But things seemed to ease after the Thursday meeting, with officials confirming that Kenya Airways was returning to the route and that the sticky issues between the two capitals were being resolved.

By the time Mr Mudavadi’s delegation visited, the Congolese authorities had already set free Lydia Mbotela, the KQ station manager in Kinshasa, and her Congolese colleague Olivier Lufungula. The airline released a statement on Monday stating that it had reinstated its flights to the country.

Kenya Airways Chief Executive Officer Allan Kilavuka and Transport Principal Secretary Mohammed Daghar were part of the Kenyan delegation to Kinshasa.

Mr Mudavadi, who is also Kenya’s Foreign Affairs minister, met with Christophe Lutundula, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and agreed on a raft of issues whose implementation is expected to strengthen cooperation between the two countries.

The discussions touched on the resumption of Kenya Airways operations in DR Congo, thereby enhancing connectivity and trade between Nairobi and Kinshasa.

Mudavadi acknowledged President Tshisekedi’s intervention in the Kenya Airways saga, saying the visit was to appreciate his efforts to ensure the matter was resolved amicably.

“We appreciate the intervention of the President on the KQ incident, which has been resolved amicably. We were here to thank him and reaffirm that the partnership is bigger and we’ll continue to work together into the future. We also want to affirm trade and business between the two countries’,” Mr Mudavadi told journalists after the meeting.

“The DRC ambassador, who had been recalled, will promptly resume duties in Nairobi. In return, the new Kenyan ambassador to the DRC will present credentials and commence work without delay,” Mr Mudavadi said in a statement.

The teams further agreed to form technical teams to lay the groundwork for a joint commission for cooperation, a meeting of which “will be held at the earliest convenience”.

“My mission here in Kinshasa was to deliver to President Felix Tshisekedi a special message from President William Ruto of Kenya, that we are partners and, as countries within the East African Community, have to continue working together very cordially and closely,” Mr Mudavadi said.

“Kenya respects the territory and sovereignty of DRC and I assure the people of DRC that Kenya will always work with them to ensure their peace and harmony in the region at all times. We are also happy the president communicated with us with a lot of respect and I have a message to take to President Ruto.”

Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Korir Sing’oei, who on Wednesday night spoke at Kenyan TV station Citizen, traced the friction between Kenya and DRC to the deployment of the Kenyan military in eastern Congo in 2022 under the East African Community Regional Force and the subsequent withdrawal of troops in 2023.

The tensions caused icy diplomatic ties between the two states and, until Thursday, Kinshasa had not allowed Kenya’s newly appointed ambassador Shem Amadi to report to his station.

Former Independent National Electoral Commission boss Corneille Nangaa rubbed salt in a festering wound when he formed the Congo River Alliance in Nairobi, ostensibly to target Congolese leadership under Felix Tshisekedi. The Alliance has since merged with the M23 rebel group.

Nairobi denied claims that by allowing the Nangaa team to launch a “rebellion” on its soil it was supporting M23, but President Ruto argued that Kenya was a country that allowed people to freely speak on any issues and that did not amount to supporting them.

Dr Sing’oei said that efforts by Kenya’s military attaché, foreign relations office and the charge d’affaires had helped secure the release of the KQ staff held in Kinshasa over a controversial cargo that was presented to the airline for transportation.

The cargo in question was banknotes from a Congolese bank that was reportedly being transported to the United States.

“We want to reiterate that our employees are innocent and were only carrying out their duties in strict adherence to the laid-out procedures. We stand by their innocence and will continue to support them,” Mr Kilavuka said.

The cancellation of flights was going to affect fares on the Kinshasa-Nairobi route, with KQ also looking at loss of critical revenue.

One of only two airlines that provide daily flights between the Congolese capital and their hubs in eastern Africa, the cancellation of flights took roughly a third of the eastbound airline seats out of the market.

Particularly impacted were passengers who depend on transit through Addis Ababa, Entebbe and Nairobi to their final destinations.

Kenya is not the only EAC partner state that is mending relations with DRC. Rwanda and Uganda are still grappling with a hostile Kinshasa, despite having bilateral military and infrastructure projects.

DRC has been accusing Rwanda of supporting M23 rebels in eastern Congo, an accusation that Kigali has always denied. DRC has since taken Rwanda to the East African Court of Justice over the matter. The case is yet to be heard.

In the aftermath of the national elections in DRC in December 2023, clashes between the military and insurgents—most prominently, M23 and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)—have continued in eastern DRC. On Thursday, eight civilians were reported dead from an attack on a health centre in North Kivu province by alleged ADF militia.

The attack came after another one on May 3 on a camp for displaced people in the same province, and a May 7 bombing in a village in a neighbouring province.

Social Affairs Minister Modeste Mutinga Mutushayi said the toll from the attack on the camp had risen to 35 by Thursday, with an additional 37 people injured.

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