Democratic Republic of Congo’s five-year war officially ended in 2003, but the country is still regularly listed as the site of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Congo should be rich from its gold, diamonds and minerals, yet millions of its people suffer from a lethal combination of disease and hunger caused by ongoing conflict and displacement.
A History of Exploitation
Congo has a long history of exploitative leaders. In the 1880s, King Leopold II of Belgium took control of a vast territory in Central Africa that he named “Congo Free State” – there was nothing free about it, save the wanton abandon he showed in pillaging Congo’s natural resources – primarily rubber. Under his rule, 10 million people died from violence, forced labor and starvation. His destruction of Congo for his own personal wealth set the stage for decades of exploitation by future leaders.
An international human rights movement raised awareness of Leopold’s reign of terror and pressured him to hand Congo over to the Belgian government in 1908. While the humanitarian situation improved under Belgium’s rule, the colonizing government created no democratic institutions and the governor general imposed a sort of apartheid on the native population, with curfews and de facto segregation. Eventually Congolese nationalism won out, and Belgian Congo was granted independence in 1960.
The nascent government in Congo faced political instability almost immediately upon independence. Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu began his 32-year rule of Congo in 1965 when he took power in a coup. His rule was supported by both Belgium and the US, who used Zaire as a springboard against Soviet-backed Angola. He renamed the country Zaire, ostensibly to shake off the last vestiges of colonial influence, and renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko – the first part of a full name which, translated, means “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”
Mobutu’s rule has been defined as a “kleptocracy,” or rule by thieves. Following King Leopold II’s example, Mobutu systematically used Congo’s mineral wealth to enrich himself and his allies. He is conservatively estimated to have stolen at least $5 billion from his country.
First War (1996 – 1997)
The current crisis in Congo has its roots in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. As Hutu perpetrators of the genocide fled following the collapse of their regime in Rwanda, Mobutu provided shelter for them in Zaire. He turned a blind eye as they continued to kill Tutsis fleeing from Rwanda across the border. The overspill of the Rwandan Genocide sparked the first war, as Rwanda and Uganda invaded Zaire in an effort to root out the Hutu perpetrators. The war ended in 1997 with the overthrow of Mobutu and the accession to power Laurent-Désiré Kabila, backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila renamed Zaire as Democratic Republic of Congo, the name it holds today.
Second War (1998 – 2003)
Not long after coming to power, Laurent Kabila broke ranks with Rwanda and Uganda and expelled his Rwandan advisors. Kabila was fearful that Rwanda was plotting a coup against him, in hopes of installing an ethnic Tutsi leader who would report directly to the Rwandan leadership. Rwanda invaded again in 1998, and other nations quickly joined in. Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi joined forces to fight Kabila’s DRC, while Kabila found support from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia. Multiple rebel groups and militias, some home-grown, some sponsored by invading countries, also joined in. The ensuing regional war raged from 1998 to 2003. Nearly all of the combatants aimed to gain control of Congo’s vast natural resources, which include diamonds, gold, and minerals used in electronics.
A ceasefire agreement was reached and signed in Lusaka in July 1999. Although a UN peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym, MONUC, was authorized to monitor the agreement, the conflict continued as all sides violated the accord. President Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, assumed the presidency.
Joseph Kabila immediately called for multilateral talks with all parties and began negotiating peace. By February 2001, a peace deal had been brokered between Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda, leading to withdrawal of foreign troops and the installation of a UN peacekeeping force.
Transitional Period (2003-2006)
By 2003 all foreign forces had left the DRC and Kabila had set up a temporary power-sharing government with four vice-presidents, two of them from former rebel groups. Kabila officially won presidential elections – the first ever in 40 years – in 2006. Over 25 million citizens—85% of those eligible—participated in the elections.
While this landmark election was largely free of major violence and serious irregularities, the country still has many challenges to surmount. The new government is weak and barely functioning in many respects, and faces persistent political and security challenges. Predatory armed groups, including Rwandan rebels and the Congolese army, continue to prowl eastern Congo with impunity. Congolese women and girls in particular bear the vicious brunt of this crisis.
Current Situation: Conflict-Driven Humanitarian Crisis (2006-Present)
The democratic election did not ensure peace in DRC. Despite peace accords and the presence of the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, the fragility of the state and its institutions has allowed conflict and human rights abuses to continue, particularly in the eastern provinces. Conflict mostly focuses on exploitation of the region’s significant mineral resources, including diamonds, copper, zinc, gold, and several minerals used in today’s electronics. As a result, women and children bear the brunt of this violence. Hundreds of thousands of women have been violently raped, many not surviving the attacks. Because children are often kidnapped, drugged, and turned into child soldiers for the warring groups, Reuters has named the DRC the worst place in the world to be a child.
For several years, the main conflict in Congo has been focused in the provinces of North and South Kivu, two extremely resource-rich areas. The conflict has mainly been between the government of Congo – Kabila’s government and his army – and the rebel movement CNDP. The CNDP, a rebel group until recently led by the Congolese Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, was originally supported by the Rwandan government. The CNDP’s main argument against the Congolese government was its support of the rebel group FDLR, a militia made up at least in part by former perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Ostensibly to protect Congo’s very small Tutsi minority, Nkunda’s forces have maintained their rebellion in the east. In truth, the continued existence of the FDLR has likely been only a convenient excuse to continue exploitation of Kivu’s mines by both the CNDP and Rwanda.
The Congolese government and army has, in fact, been supporting the FDLR, often supplying them with weapons and other equipment in order to launch joint attacks against the CNDP. The Congolese army is a very disparate group – made up of both government soldiers and integrated members of former rebel groups from Congo’s civil wars, the soldiers often complain of being underpaid. They have been little match for the well-organized and unified CNDP. As such, the Congolese government has supported the FDLR specifically because the CNDP continues to exist in the East.
Nkunda has absolutely refused to negotiate with the Kabila government – even after being offered the post of general in the Congolese army during the political transition period. Despite a ceasefire signed by Nkunda’s forces and Kabila’s government in January 2008, Nkunda was clearly hungry for power and unwilling to make peace. In August of 2008, he and his forces advanced on the regional capital of the east, Goma – stopping just kilometers outside its borders as a signal to the Kabila government that he demanded power. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were newly displaced in the wake of his advancing troops.
In January 2009, Nkunda was ousted by General Bosco Ntaganda, Nkunda’s former military chief of staff, who took command of the CNDP. The rebel group under its new leadership quickly pledged to abandon its four-year insurgency and integrate into the Congolese armed forces, raising fresh hopes for peace. Later that month, Nkunda was arrested in Rwanda on charges of war crimes. Some of these alleged crimes have been documented by New York-based Human Rights Watch which says his troops have carried out numerous killings, torture and rapes. See its October 2007 report. Ntaganda himself, however, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers to fight in Ituri province in 2002 and 2003. Despite this, he is playing a prominent role in the Congolese army’s offensive against the FDLR according to Congolese army documents seen by Reuters in April 2009.
Unfortunately, the war in the Kivus is far from over. The joint Congolese-Rwandan operation against the FDLR is known as Kimia II (Kimia means “calm” in Kiswahili) and is backed by the UN. But in many places, government army units collaborate with the FDLR in commercial dealings, sharing mines and taxation and smuggling opportunities with their former allies – sources from within MONUC have reported that the FDLR still at times procures arms and ammunition from the Congolese armed forces.
The FDLR in turn has taken revenge on the civilian population for the attacks on its forces. Nearly 800,000 civilians have been newly displaced since January 2009, bringing the total internally displaced population in Congo up to 2 million people. Fighters from the FDLR are destroying communities, killing scores of civilians and raping many women. While MONUC officials state that civilian protection is their top priority, entire communities have been uprooted in the wake of Kimia II, recruitment of child soldiers has increased and certain areas have seen incidences of sexual violence double or even triple. Despite assertions by Rwanda and Congo that the FDLR has been routed, the 6000 strong militia is incredibly powerful; though it was scattered, few of its leaders have been arrested.
|Population||68,692,542 (July 2009 est.)|
|Area||2,345,410 sq km|
|Ethnic Groups||As many as 250 ethnic groups, the most numerous are the Kongo, Luba, and Mongo|
|Languages||French, Lingala, Kikongo (Kituba), Swahili, Tshiluba|
|Religions||Roman Catholic, Protestant, Kimbanguist, Muslim, indigenous beliefs|