Renewed fighting in the Congo threatens to drag the country back into full-scale conflict, in a country where five million civilians died in war between 1998 and 2003.
The largest country in Central Africa, approximately the size of Western Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most resource rich areas on the planet. North and South Kivu, the areas currently witnessing the recent violence, provide much of the world’s coltan (a staple of the technology industry) and cassiterite (necessary for producing tin). Yet the DRC is one of the poorest countries on the planet.
Media coverage frequently depicts the conflict as a “civil war” between rival ethnic groups. But the situation today can only be understood as a continuation of the earlier war, driven by outside competition over the DRC’s mineral wealth.
The roots of the conflict go back to the beginnings of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. But the Rwandan genocide of 1994 triggered the current tensions. North and South Kivu experienced the influx of over a million Hutu refugees fleeing reprisals from the incoming Tutsi regime in Rwanda.
This fed into pre-existing tensions. In order to subdue Tutsi groups inside the Congo, then President Mobutu gave support to militias amongst the incoming Hutu refugees.
This led, in late 1996, to a coalition of both Tutsi and non-Tutsi militias launching a rebellion against President Mobutu. But this coalition was fragile. Whilst the Tutsi militias within it were backed by Rwanda and Uganda, other regional powers supported different elements in the rebel coalition.
After Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 and the leader of the coalition, Laurent Kabila, placed in power, the new regime failed to fulfil its promises to Tutsi groups living in the Kivu provinces.
Rwanda and Uganda knew perfectly well that by backing Tutsi groups in these areas they could gain access to mining resources. Thus the disappointment for the Tutsis also denied them access to Congolese minerals.
Both countries therefore supported a new rebellion—this time against the new president Kabila. One of these militias was led by the very general who is today declaring war against the Congolese government—Laurent Nkunda.
The importance of outside powers in the conflict was clearly shown when the second rebellion reached the capital, Kinshasa, in 1998. Military intervention by Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola saved the Kabila regime and prevented Rwanda gaining greater influence over the Congolese government.
These countries had increased their access to lucrative Congolese resources by supporting Kabila. This outside interference contradicts the views of those who regard the ongoing conflict as primarily a “civil war”.
Violence has been continuous, particularly in the East. As Human Rights Watch wrote before the recent upsurge, “at least 150,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes due to ongoing fighting since the Goma peace agreement was signed on January 23, 2008.” The UN currently estimates that there are approximately 1.2 million internally displaced refugees in the area and that the ceasefire agreements here have been violated at least 250 times between January and August 2008.
But in late August peace talks between Nkunda’s militia and the Congolese government broke down.
Nkunda’s claims to be defending Tutsis against government and militia attacks are a veil for the real motives underlying the conflict. When Nkunda began his rebellion the first towns on his list of targets—Bukavu, Goma and Uvira—were all key mining areas. As the director of the International Crisis Group recently stated, “Nkunda is being funded by Rwandan businessmen so they can retain control of the mines in North Kivu. This is the absolute core of the conflict.”
Sending in more UN troops will not end the conflict. During the recent violence the UN has fled from oncoming forces and failed to protect civilians. Recently fleeing UN forces were attacked with stones by civilians disheartened by its incapacity to help them.
A lasting peace requires an end to the jockeying for Congo’s mineral wealth by outside powers and addressing the abject poverty which pushes everyday Congolese into the arms of militias. This requires far more foreign aid to help stabilise the country and the use of the country’s wealth to benefit the local population, not foreign powers.
By David Robertson