At its worst, it was called the World War in Africa, a transnational conflict that cost the lives of millions of people. At best, for the past few decades, there has been a fragile peace. But there has never been a definitive end to the conflict in eastern DRC.
Now it is resurfacing. The growing tension between the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) and its neighbor Rwanda threatens to trigger a war in the African Great Lakes region. However, like other crises in Africa, such as famine, drought, coups and ethnic violence, it has received little international attention with all eyes on the war in Ukraine.
For weeks, the Congo has accused Rwanda of backing the M23 rebel group, which has killed civilians in a series of new attacks, captured a cross-border trading town, provoked more than 25,000 people to flee and likely shot down a United Nations helicopter, killing eight peacekeepers on board, according to a recent UN report. Rwanda has denied supporting the rebels, but relations between the two countries remain tense. Even a Congolese official declared that if Rwanda “wants war, it will have war”.
In mid-June, President Felix Tshisekedi of the Congo bilateral agreements suspended with Rwanda and accused the country of wanting to occupy the land of the Congo to take advantage of its great mineral wealth.
“Civilians in eastern Congo are innocent under the brutal attack of our neighbor,” he said.
Rwanda, in turn, accused the Congo of attacking its border. In May, Rwanda’s Defense Ministry said that two of its patrolling soldiers were kidnapped by the rebels, and then announced their return after a diplomatic intervention.
Each side has accused the other of firing rockets across the border. On June 17, the Congo closed its border after a Rwandan police officer killed a Congolese soldier who, according to Rwanda, had shot and wounded his security forces inside Rwandan territory.
Thousands of Congolese have taken to the streets to protest what they see as Rwandan aggression. Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned of an escalation in hate speech and discrimination in the region against speakers of Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.
Here’s why there has been so much turmoil in eastern Congo.
A paradise on earth: who lives there?
With smoking volcanoes, crystal-clear lakes surrounded by rolling hills, and rainforests brimming with biodiversity, eastern Congo is known as one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The area is home to more than 16 million of the country’s estimated 90 million people. Most in eastern Congo are farmers who live in villages scattered across the countryside and grow their own food, when it is safe enough to do so. These are people ravaged by decades of war: millions have been killed, raped or driven from their homes to camps by violent attacks over the years. When these attacks occur, there is no reliable police force or functioning courts to hold the perpetrators to account.
People sometimes seek refuge in the few towns in the region, but these aren’t exactly safe either. Periodically, a volcano erupts over Goma, a shopping mall. The last time this happened, in June 2021, 5,000 homes were destroyed. And in 2012, the city was taken over by rebel fighters from the M23, the militia that is at the origin of the latest tension between Congo and Rwanda.
Around 120 armed groups roam the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri, according to a 2021 report by the Kivu Safety Tracker, which maps violence and abuse in eastern Congo. Many of these are militias that have been around, under one name or another, for years.
And then there is the March 23 Movement, or M23, which consists mainly of Tutsi, the same ethnic group as Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The group’s attacks on the Congolese government have increased since late last year, after it accused authorities of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal with the group and of discriminating against people who speak the Kinyarwanda language. In May, Congo designated the M23 as a terrorist group.
There are nearly 18,000 peacekeepers and other UN personnel in eastern Congo whose effectiveness is often questioned as the attacks continue and civilians flee.
Why has the violence persisted for so long?
It began with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when more than a million Hutu people fled from Rwanda to Congo, then called Zaire. Among the Hutus there were many genocides, those who had been responsible for killing millions of Tutsis.
In 1996, Rwanda invaded the Congo and backed the rebellion that eventually led to the capture of Kinshasa, the capital.
This led to the downfall of Congo’s long-time kleptocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been backed by the United States and was forced into exile.
Since then, eastern Congo has been a bloody playground for armed groups, who have maimed, killed and profited from billions of dollars in smuggled minerals.
“Certainly the genocide was a catalyst,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congo historian who was recently appointed its permanent representative to the United Nations. “If the genocide hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t have faced all these problems.”
But the roots of the crisis go beyond the genocide. Congo gained its independence in 1960 from Belgium, which had ruled the colony oppressively for decades. After the assassination of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, for which Belgium has since admitted “moral responsibility,” the African nation has been ruled by successive governments that have failed to bring peace and prosperity.
As a teenager, Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja danced to the infectious rumba of Grand Kalle’s hit. independence cha-cha, celebrating the independence of the Congo. But now, she said, she sees the way things have played out as “a big mistake.”
Belgium first denied Congo’s political leaders the two-year transition period they were asking for, then rushed to get rid of the Congolese unprepared to take over the reins of government. Meanwhile, Belgium has maneuvered to protect its own economic interests in the country, for example by backing secessionists in the mineral-rich Katanga region.
“They set it up to fail,” he said.
Who benefits from instability?
The mineral-rich soil of the Congo is a treasure for those with access.
“The Congo is fascinatingly rich,” said Vava Tampa, a community organizer and founder of the rights group Save the Congo.
There is gold. Coltan. tourmaline More gold. A fortune lies in the land of eastern Congo, and its neighbors know it. For them and some Congolese officials, the war is a useful cover for smuggling.
“A large part of the gold traded by Uganda and Rwanda is fraudulently sourced from neighboring countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he said. a 2018 report published by the UN Group of Experts on the Congo.
What are the prospects for peace?
Lately, Kenya has been leading efforts to broker peace, bringing together leaders from the East African Community, a seven-nation regional bloc that includes both Congo and Rwanda, to try to resolve the crisis. The bloc announced a new regional force, but it was unclear when it would be deployed or whose troops would be, although Congo insisted that should not include Rwandans.
The M23 seems undaunted. Their plan is to take the city of Goma and force the Congolese government to accept their demands, according to a recent UN report. report. But one of those demands is that his fighters be integrated into the Congolese army, to which former Congolese President Joseph Kabila agreed, and which Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja said President Tshisekedi would not accept.
Even as accusations fly that Rwanda is behind the M23, the country has faced little international pushback. Rwanda hosted the prestigious Commonwealth meetings in June and is preparing to take in asylum seekers deported from Britain. According to many Congolese, these efforts reduce the incentive for Western countries to look too closely at their actions.
And as long as the violence is profitable and there is little international pressure to stop it, it will continue, several analysts said.
“M23 is making a comeback because there is a gap,” Tampa said. “The attention of the international community is now focused on what is happening in Ukraine.”
Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar, Senegal, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Kigali, Rwanda. Susan Beachy contributed research.