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Why Ethiopia Must Have Secure Access to Maritime Ports – A Holistic Analysis from Kenya

Ethiopia must secure long-term (or even sovereign) access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean in order to realize its geopolitical and economic potential, besides maintaining its historical destiny as the heart of Africa. Ethiopia has existed for over two millennia and its destiny has never been to become the most populous landlocked country in the world. So, why should Ethiopia be held hostage by mutable political geography?

A country does not have permanent friends or eternal enemies. Even the national interests are not permanent. What a country has is friends who support, aid, and attend to their existing interests.

Antony Kagirison

‘ETHIOPIA wants outlet to the SEA,’ read the words that were hurriedly brushed and inked on a poster that a young Jomo Kenyatta sat in front of – and partially obstructed. This poster was displayed during the Fifth Pan-African Congress that was convened in October 1945 in Chorlton-on-Medlock Townhall in Manchester. The theme of this congress was ‘The Challenge to the Colonial Powers’, and the laconic statement issued by its delegates read “We are determined to be free. We want education. We want the right to earn a decent living; the right to express our thoughts and emotions, to adopt and create forms of beauty”. Among the conditions set by the delegates as necessary for the freedom of Africans and the realization of the economic potential of Africans was the demand that Ethiopia be granted access to the Red Sea. This message was directed at the British who then administered Eritrea as a trust territory, and the hope was that the British would transfer the administration of Eritrea to Ethiopia so as to prevent Eritrea from becoming a trustee of the Soviet Union or suffering dismemberment along religious lines so that Muslim Eritreans become part of Sudan while Christian Eritreans fell under Ethiopian sovereignty.

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Jomo Kenyatta in 1945. PHOTO CREDIT: First Cut Media & Performing Arts.

This message also reflected the bid of Emperor Haile Selassie who had just recovered his throne in 1941, and wanted to absorb Eritrea into his dominion so that Ethiopia would regain her coastline on the Red Sea. Eritrea was finally absorbed into the Ethiopian Empire, first through a federal agreement in 1952 and later through blunt annexation in 1962 which relegated its status into one of the provinces of the then Ethiopian Empire.

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Provinces of Ethiopia in 1987. CREDIT: Wikipedia.

To prevent Ethiopia from gaining a Red Sea Coastline, Egypt used the Muslims in Eritrea as the warrant for proposing in September 1945 that Eritrea be merged with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan so that Egypt could rule Eritrea. This proposal was fronted by Abdul Hamid Badawi Pasha – the then Foreign Minister of Egypt – and it was countered by a Soviet proposal that it should be awarded Eritrea as a trust territory. These Soviet and Egyptian proposals were chastised by imperial Ethiopia whose Emperor stated that Eritrea was “stolen from the Ethiopian Empire”. A few weeks later, the Fifth Pan-African Congress made its stance clear on this issue – Eritrea was part of Ethiopia.

To Africans (including Kenyans led by Jomo Kenyatta), Ethiopian sovereign access to the Red Sea was a pan-African objective that was realized in 1952 and sustained through the Marxist Derg era until the early reign of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which allowed Eritrea to secede from Ethiopia on April 27, 1993 – a secession that made Ethiopia the largest landlocked nation in Eastern Africa.

With the loss of its outlet to the Red Sea, Ethiopia lost the Port of Assab through which it had been conducting about 70% of its external trade. The EPRDF as a ruling coalition was then dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and because of its promotion and legalization of ethnic federalism (i.e each major tribe must have its own federal state), the name of the nation was changed from the exonym Abyssinia into the current designation: Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE). As expected, TPLF was blamed for leading Ethiopia to lose its Red Sea harbors as well as constitutionalizing ethnic separatism (principally through the incorporation of a secession clause as outlined in Article 39(1) in the FDRE constitution adopted in 1994). To Ethiopian nationalists, these were monumental mistakes that endangered the future survival of Ethiopia.

Following secession, Eritrea allowed Ethiopia to use the ports of Assab and Massawa until 1998 when the Ethiopian-Eritrean War broke out due to an unresolved contest over Badme – a small town then administered by Ethiopia as part of Tahtay Adiyabo district of Tigray State, despite Eritrea claiming that the town belonged to Gash-Barka region of Eritrea. It is this fallout between Ethiopia and Eritrea that has destabilized the Horn of Africa (HoA) region since 1998. It has also throttled the socio-economic development in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

For Ethiopia, the loss of its former coastline locked the nation in a geographical prison, thus denying 120 million Ethiopians direct sovereign access to maritime trade. This situation needs to be remedied as it disadvantages Ethiopia greatly. Ethiopian leaders have expressed their concerns publicly.

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Port of Massawa. CREDIT: Wikipedia.

“150 million people cannot reside in a geographical prison…whether you’d like it or not, [the prison] will blast somewhere,” said the Prime Minister of FDRE on October 13, 2023, when warning that lack of Ethiopian ports traps the entire HoA region in a state of potential conflict that will one day become bloody. It is also why the Ethiopian Prime Minister has prioritized access to maritime harbors as “an existential issue” for the Ethiopian people.

Ethiopia as the Heart of Africa and the Beheading of Africa

The Red Sea and the Nile will determine Ethiopia. They are interlinked with Ethiopia and will be the fundamentals that will either bring in Ethiopia’s development or bring about its demise.

Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of FDRE.

If Africa is anthropomorphized into the human body, then Ethiopia is the heart of Africa. If the heart is sick, then the body is sick. If Ethiopia is unstable, then Africa is unstable. If Ethiopia is poor, then Africa is poor. If Ethiopia is undermined, then Africa is undermined. If Ethiopia is destabilized, then Africa is destabilized. Likewise, if Ethiopia is prosperous, peaceful, and vibrant; then Africa is more likely to be prosperous, peaceful, and vibrant.

Antony Kagirison

Ethiopia has been an enigma to both Africans and non-Africans. It is not an ordinary post-colonial nation-state like Kenya, Tanzania, or Somalia. Instead, Ethiopia is more akin to India, China, Russia, and Iran due to its status as a modern nation-state that co-exists as a civilizational state whose roots can be traced to antiquity.

The earliest record of a polity in this region is the coastal Kingdom of Damut which was established circa 980 BCE in what is today parts of Eritrea and the Northern Ethiopian Federal State of Tigray. This Kingdom had a coastline on the Red Sea. It was succeeded by the Empire of Aksum which started as a coastal kingdom in 150AD and developed circa 250AD into an empire that covered parts of Modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Northeastern Sudan, and Southern Yemen thus dominating the Bab el-Mandeb Strait of the Red Sea. At its height, the Empire of Aksum (or Axum) covered an area of about 2,500,000 square kilometers (Km2) which is twice as large as modern-day Ethiopia whose total area is about 1,112,000 Km2. It is the Empire of Aksum that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali referenced in a televised speech when explaining why Ethiopia direly needs a harbor.

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Administrative Map of Ethiopia in 2022. CREDIT: Wikipedia.

Equally, Aksum’s coastline explains why the 19th Century Tigrayan national hero (who successfully led battles against the Khedivate of Egypt, Italy, and Mahdist Sudan), Ras Ras Alula “Abba Nega” Engida declared that the Red Sea is the natural (northern) boundary of Ethiopia. This argument that the Red Sea is Ethiopia’s natural boundary was reiterated on October 13, 2023, by Premier Abiy Ahmed Ali when addressing lawmakers in Addis Ababa.

Now, let us consider a question. Why should Africans care about Ethiopia and its well-being? This question matters when one considers the words of Mengistu HaileMariam in one of his televised interviews: “My grandparents did not know peace, my father did not know peace in this country, and I don’t know peace. And who knows, my child or my children also will never experience peace”.

The reality is that Ethiopia has endured conflicts and wars. The principal reason for this state is that it exists at the fault lines of civilizations, including competing religious civilizations (Coptic Orthodox Christianity versus Sunni Islam) and ethnocultural civilizations (Semitic versus Cushitic versus Nilotic ‘civilizations’).

The fall of Roman Egypt to the invading Arab armies of Amr ibn al-As ibn Wa’il al-Sahmi spelled a monumental shift in African history, with Ethiopia establishing itself as the political successor of Coptic Egypt and ferociously defending itself against repeated attempts by jihadists to destroy and Islamize its people. This fall of Egypt is characterized by Africans as the “beheading of Africa and xenografting of Arabs into the African body”. The reason for this is simple – this event marked the dearth of Africa with the attendant loss of its intellectual vitality and cultural heft. The Neoplatonism and Gnosticism that originated in Egypt were replaced with Islam, and the death of the Egyptian mind ensured that Africa would no longer host a superpower, despite hosting two superpowers in history – Ancient Egypt and Roman Africa. This led Africa to lose its geopolitical significance and consequent marginalization from international affairs. “Africa has been marginalized”, said Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea, but he never said when this marginalization began. It began with the Islamic conquest of Egypt.

Ethiopia Saved East Africans at a Cost of their Own Lives

I am in Kenya, and Christians in Kenya and East Africa credit Ethiopians for stalling the violent southward expansion of Islam. By absorbing large-scale attacks launched by jihadists and keeping the jihadists pinned down in North Eastern Africa, Ethiopians saved lands to their South from succumbing to the jihadist plague. Likewise, our religious traditions recognize Ethiopia as the heart of Africa that preserved the dignity of Africa following the fall of Egypt.

To Africans (including me), Ethiopia without a coastline is akin to a human body without a pair of lungs. In other words, without an Ethiopian coastline, Ethiopia cannot breathe properly. Many Africans consider this a historical injustice that needs to be rectified, even if it means going against the prevailing Westphalian system of state sovereignty.

Vietnam, Korea, and Africa’s Sahel

When North Vietnam was warned by the United States Government (USG) and its European allies against its quest to reunite the Vietnamese people in a single Vietnam that erased South Vietnam from the modern world map, it was admonished for disacknowledging the Westphalian state system. Still, Ho Chi Minh – the leader of North Vietnam – denounced these threats and invoked the historical right of Vietnamese people to restore their Đại Việt (Great Viet) that was established in 938 AD after the 1000-year war of liberation from Chinese domination. Ultimately, North Vietnam reunited the Vietnamese people in 1975, as well as ensured that the neighboring American-allied governments in Cambodia and Laos were toppled in the same year.

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American helicopter evacuates people on April 29, 1975, a day before Vietnam was reunited. CREDIT: Wikimedia.

This defeat in Vietnam made USG detest nationalism that advocated for neighboring nations to band together and have collective security frameworks (CSF) to defend themselves against foreign aggression. Already, USG had suffered another defeat attributed to CSF.

To Africans (including me), Ethiopia without a coastline is akin to a human body without a pair of lungs. In other words, without an Ethiopian coastline, Ethiopia cannot breathe properly.

In July 1950, the USG dragged the United Nations (UN) into a war in the Korean Peninsula following the invasion of South Korea by 130,000 communist troops from North Korea. The North Korean invasion started on June 25, 1950, and took only 3 days for the communist troops to capture Seoul – the capital city of South Korea. This should have served as a warning of the quality of the military developed and trained by Americans in Asia. To defend its weak ally from being erased from the world map, America convinced the UN to militarily save South Korea and defend the Westphalian state system. To this end, America led a 21-nation military force to fight against North Korea.

Initially, North Korea fought single-handedly against the American superpower and the armies of 20 nations (including Ethiopia) that were allied with the USG. In fact, the North Koreans fought incredibly well at the beginning as they defeated the combined force of Americans and South Korean soldiers, and pushed them into a pocket that came to be known as the Pusan Perimeter – a sliver of land (measuring about 2500 square miles) at the Southern tip of South Korea.

To prevent the capture of the Pusan Perimeter, Americans executed the largest amphibian landing since World War II by landing about 70,000 American troops at Inchon during Operation Chromite. This allowed Americans to gain the initiative and push North Korean troops from Seoul after 11 days of fighting. During this phase of the war, General Donald MacArthur declared that Korea would be reunited under a capitalist regime.

This turn of events forced China to deploy the People Volunteer Army (PVA) into North Korea in September 1950 just as the Americans approached the Yalu River – which marks the boundary between Communist North Korea and the People’s Republic of China. PVA could be deployed in North Korea because of an existing CSF between the two communist nations. The PVA defeated the American-led UN Army in North Korea, and by January 1951, had occupied Seoul. To avert another long-drawn war, peace talks began in 1951 and the American goal of destroying North Korea turned into a cropper.

It is not only the Americans who have suffered defeat due to CSF operationalized by Third World nations, France has also suffered loss of face due to CSF. This happened recently in West Africa when irate Nigeriens overthrew their French-backed government and replaced it with a nationalist government that denounced France for forcing failed counter-terrorism strategies on poor African nations. France threatened to invade Niger, and even got Nigeria to support this invasion. However, this invasion never materialized because Mali and Burkina Faso swore to fight alongside Niger if any foreign army invaded Niger. So, to Americans and the French, CSFs are considered threats to their geopolitical influence. Even the British fear that CSF in East Africa could lead to the expulsion of British troops from the region.

About the Horn of Africa region, a potential CSF that could have been signed by Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia was scuttled through subterfuge and indirect support for TPLF rebels.

Breach of the Westphalian State System

Peculiarly, the reunification of Vietnam and its breach of the Westphalian state system set the stage for nations like landlocked Bolivia to attempt in 1978 to reclaim the coastal lands that it had lost to Chile following the 1879-1884 Nitrate War – which resulted in Bolivia losing its coastal stronghold known as Atacama Department to Chile. Nonetheless, despite Bolivia stating that exercising maritime sovereignty on the Pacific Ocean would increase its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 20%, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled against any form of coercive negotiations between Bolivia and Chile. So, can Ethiopia hope for ICJ to help it gain a harbor in the Red Sea? Likely not in my opinion.

This brings up another issue. How should Ethiopia manage its landlocked status? To address this question, we must consider a related issue.

For landlocked Ethiopia, how has it managed to engage in maritime trade since 1998?

Costly Bargain?

“How can Ethiopia depend on Djibouti for access to the Red Sea?”, my father commented when I told him that Ethiopia pays US$2 billion per year for access to Port Djibouti. This US$2 billion is paid as commercial port fees, and it accounts for more than half of Djibouti’s annual budget which currently stands at US$3.87 according to statistics published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Therefore, Ethiopia literally sustains the economy of Djibouti. “What about the fees that Djibouti collects from land leases that it has given to the American and Chinese governments so that they can build military bases?”, one may ask. These land leases are insignificant compared to the commercial port fees paid by Ethiopia, with America paying about US$63 million per annum, while the Chinese pay about US$100 million per annum. Therefore, these American and Chinese leases are collectively comparable to only 8% of the Ethiopian port fees.

What about Ethiopia? How do these port fees compare to its annual budget? The 2023/2024 Ethiopian budget stands at US$14.7 billion and thus the commercial port fees account for 13.6% of its annual national budget. As Andrew Korybko explains in his analysis, Ethiopians must bear this significant budgetary burden because 95% of their international trade goes through the Port of Djibouti (via the Port of Doraleh). This port is now almost exclusively accessed via the Djibouti-Addis-Ababa-Railway (DAAR) that was built by the Chinese. The A10 motorway that connects Addis Ababa to Djibouti is seldom used for terrestrial logistics, mainly because it still has an unpaved 570km stretch.

“So, Ethiopia is only connected to the outside world by a single railway line and a port located in a foreign soil? That is akin to a person breathing through a tracheal tube following tracheal intubation, which is always an emergency surgical intervention. In simple words, it is unnatural and reveals an unhealthy state of affairs”, my father commented.

My father came of age during the Vietnam War and witnessed how the will and determination of peasant people could overcome the military might and financial resources of global superpowers. “If a people want to liberate themselves from economic or political subjugation, they can do so if they have the will, determination, and requisite political and social organization to bear the cost of liberation struggle”, has always been his mantra. This liberation includes economic liberation.

For Ethiopia, the unnaturalness of relying on a foreign port is exposed when one considers what could happen if the Port of Djibouti is blockaded by a foreign power and/or a section of DAAR is damaged by sabotage.

“What can we do to the 120 million Ethiopians in the event that the consequence of great power games on the Red Sea puts the country’s lifeline-Port Djibouti under siege?”, asked Abiy Ahmed when speaking to Ethiopian lawmakers in November 2023. This question is valid and points to concerns that Ethiopians have about the existing Great Power competitions which have already plunged Israel and Ukraine into intractable wars that have bled their armies and civilians. In fact, besieging Port Djibouti was proposed in 2021 during the war between the Ethiopian government and rebels of the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF, which was the armed wing of TPLF). This proposal was made in Kenya.

Kenya in the Fray

If Africa is a human body and the jihadis are the deadly virus, where should Africa seek treatment from? If the so-called French and American experts of counter-terrorism are the doctors, then Africa is doomed as they tell the patient to learn to live with the virus instead of seeking to eliminate the virus from the body.

“Why are Kenyan state officials arrogant? What explains the hubris of KDF (Kenya Defense Forces)? KDF is an incompetent military that cannot win any war, and GoK (Government of Kenya) suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to geopolitics and regional affairs!!! KDF could not recover their base in el-Adde after it was overrun by al-Shabaab and had to ask Somali elders to negotiate with al-Shabaab so that they could access the base and retrieve the half-rotting corpses of Kenyan soldiers”, commented a Tanzanian friend and member of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). He was among the party members who were infuriated by a secret proposal made in early 2021 that the East African Community (EAC or Jumuiya in Kiswahili) form a regional peacekeeping force to be deployed to Ethiopia. He made these remarks when we were talking about the stability of EAC since the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) joined EAC and if we could spread our message to Congolese. He was vexed with how GoK always seemed to jeopardize the security of Jumuiya with hare-brained ideas that are usually supported by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Now, he was vexed with Somalia joining EAC.

“Why is Somalia in Jumuiya? No one wanted them except for GoK and the British Government who want to offload the Somali terrorism problem to EAC as a regional body. Our leaders are also to blame”, he asserted.

“Somalia joining EAC is a mistake and an ill-willed move”, he said.

“Ill-willed?”, I asked.

“Yes, ill-willed. GoK wanted Somalia to join EAC so as to deny Ethiopia access to the long coastline of Somalia. Also, GoK wants to drag the entire region into the war in Somalia because it knows that its KDF cannot survive a one-on-one war with al-Shabaab should those jihadis take Mogadishu and form a government. The British Government lobbied and financed this folly so as to pollute EAC and avert what happened in West Africa where France was expelled by natives infuriated with the French-led war against jihadis. People were calling for all jihadis to be killed, while France (and its American ally) rejected the idea that killing jihadis would lead to peace in the region. The Americans even provided medical treatment to elders who had called on their community to join jihadis in their fight against the Nigerien government”.

“Let me get this right”, I started my response, “The French and Americans wanted Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso to swallow poison and never engage in any form of detoxification. To explain it using the metaphor of body and health. If Africa is a human body, the jihadis are a virus, and the so-called French and American experts of counter-terrorism are the doctors who tell the patient to learn to live with the virus instead of seeking to eliminate the virus from the body. Am I right?”, I queried.

“Yes, you are right. These American experts in counter-terrorism are basically quacks whom Africans have been forced to regard as their only doctors. That is a tragedy”, he answered.

“Kenya cannot defeat the Somali terrorists on its own and the Americans and British know this. They also know that in the future, Kenyans may ask EAC to deploy soldiers in Kenya to fight the jihadis, who have now infiltrated the Kenyan security forces. Basically, EAC soldiers will be forced to kill Kenyan soldiers and policemen who are jihadis,” he said. He then continued.

Another more concerning issue that British and American governments predict is that Kenyans may call on EAC to help them depose a tyrannical regime. Consider the following two scenarios.

In the first scenario: The year is 2027 and Ruto has lost the election but refuses to leave power and orders the army and police to massacre Kenyans. In the second scenario: Ruto and Gachagua have a fallout that leads to political conflict that descends into an armed conflict that displaces Kenyans and forces Kenyans to enter Tanzania as refugees.

In these two scenarios, the British and Americans back Ruto, and Kenyans need help to free themselves from tyranny. If EAC is made up of people who share the same culture, it can easily raise an army and fight to depose Ruto from office just as Tanzania did when it deposed Idi Amin in Uganda. Also, look at how Shia Iran has assisted Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen to fight off savage terrorists. Now, the British and Americans want Somalis to pollute this brotherhood and ensure that no regional army can be raised in case an American-backed tyrant needs to be overthrown by the combined efforts of the armies in this region.

A Tanzanian Friend

“What you are talking about is a collective security framework (CSF) that obliges member states to protect the dignity of their people from enemies within the region and outside the region. Do you know that North Vietnam used such a CSF to defeat American-backed tyrants in Laos and Cambodia, thus expelling Americans from the region? Definitely, the Americans will seek to subvert such a CSF. They have already done so in the Horn of Africa where they subverted the CSF informalized by Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia”, I explained.

Concerning the Ethiopian angle, he said.

“Why do GoK and KDF preach this gospel of the devil that Ethiopia should be dismembered into new nation-states? KDF which would have been defeated by al-Shabaab were it not for AMISOM still has the temerity to think that it can protect Kenya from fighters coming from a collapsed Ethiopia. Uganda and Rwanda are another problem. Both nations are ruled by dictators who miss their friend, Meles Zenawi, and want to drag EAC into conflict with Ethiopians. Museveni’s son, Muhoozi (Kainerugaba), openly backed the TPLF rebellion. We cannot forget the cabal formed by Kagame, Museveni, and Kibaki (former President of Kenya) in 2012 to isolate and undermine Tanzania. This cabal even opposed the stabilization of Eastern DRC. They seemed to relish the suffering of Congolese, and were again relishing the suffering of Ethiopians”.

The cabal he was talking about is the Coalition of the Willing formed in 2012 by President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, President Kagame of Rwanda, and President Museveni of Uganda to isolate Tanzania within the EAC bloc so that they can successfully push for South Sudan to join EAC as well as veto any attempt to deploy a joint peacekeeping mission to Kivu region where Tutsi rebels armed and backed by Kagame and Museveni were engaged in mass killing. To make matters worse, the idea of calling themselves the Coalition of the Willing was conceive maliciously as it invoked the American-led multi-national coalition formed in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.

“Was Kenya thinking of expelling Tanzania from Jumuiya through this coalition? Was this coalition backed by the Americans who were infuriated that Tanzania refused to deploy its soldiers to Somalia? You now understand why we called this coalition the Coalition of American Puppets!”, he explained.

In October 2013, the Government of Tanzania publicly denounced this Coalition of the Willing. This denunciation was made in a statement publicized via a media briefing at the offices of government information services, which falls under the docket of the Ministry of East African Cooperation.

In November 2013, Tanzania successfully dislodged the Tutsi rebels of the March 23 Movement (or M23) from Kivu. however, they achieved this under the auspices of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which comprised armies from member states of the South African Development Council (SADC). The Tutsi rebels fled to Uganda, and from there found their way back to Rwanda. President Museveni and President Kagame ensured that M23 was not destroyed by FIB in 2013. As expected, M23 came back to destabilize DRC in early 2022 thus necessitating another need for regional intervention. This time, EAC formed the EAC Regional Force (EACRF) which Tanzania refused to join, and Rwanda (through M23 communiques) denounced. EACRF was to be led by Kenya as per the agreement reached in June 2022 at an EAC Summit convened in Nairobi.

“This EACRF will achieve nothing especially now that the British and Americans have embedded themselves in its affairs. I can assure you that EACRF will cohabit with M23 and provide cover for them. The best thing that the Congolese should do is to expel EACRF and ask SADC to deploy a peacekeeping force to Kivu. Still, there will be no peace in Eastern DRC until Kagame and Museveni are deposed similar to how Gaddafi was deposed”, my Tanzanian friend explained candidly. True to form, EACRF was accused by the President of DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, of refusing to fight M23, with the Congolese President publicly condemning KDF for cohabiting with M23 rebels.

End of Part One
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