congo

Although, officially civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo ended 10 years ago, the country remains torn apart by conflict, poverty and corruption. Yet, despite being the deadliest conflict since the end of World War Two having claimed over 5.4million lives since 1998, little attention has been paid by the West to the horror that continues to unfold in the third largest country in Central Africa. As the death toll continues to rise, 47% of which are children, and the humanitarian crisis in DR Congo worsening day by day, it seems pass time that the world remembers the reasons that triggered the forgotten civil war whose consequences continues to run amok in the region today.

The first roots of the conflict in DR Congo can be traced back to colonialism, when in the early 1880’s King Leopold II of Belgium proposed the creation an international benevolent committee as a scientific and humanitarian front to establish influence and Belgium sovereignty in Congo. Under this guise, King Leopold II was able to exploit the region’s lucrative ivory market, as well as other Congo’s vast array of other minerals, throwing the entire country into enslavement in the process. Following international outcry, King Leopold II transferred his control of the Congo Free State to the Belgian government in 1908. Yet, it was not until 1960, when the country experienced a nationalist upsurge, that Congo finally gained independence from the Belgians; ending 75 years of colonial rule, but not western interference in the Congo region.

Following the independence from Belgian rule, Congo welcomed its first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Although Lumumba commanded widespread support, particularly amongst the poor, the dominance of cold war interests played an important role in his downfall. Shortly into the rule of the new government, Lumumba made the decision to raise all government employees salary minus the army’s – a decision that would help to seal his fate. Facing mutiny from the army, dissent and uproar spread throughout the country causing chaos and destruction in its wake. At the same time, the mineral-rich province of Katanga declared its own independence from the Congo state on the 11th of July 1960, under the rule of Tshombe, the region’s premier, with the support of the Belgian government and various mining companies. Lumumba stark opposition to this move, sought support from the Soviet Union.

The president of Congo, Joseph Kasa-Vubu in response dismissed Lumumba from government. A move which was then met with Lumumba’s own deposition of the president, after challenging the legality of his own dismissal. Kasa-Vubu failed to gain the parliament’s confidence, and lost the vote to Lumumba. As a result, the region was torn into two rivalling political factions, each vying for the legitimate rule of Congo. With the Cold War under sway, the Americans feared that Lumumba and his supporters would allow for the break-up of Congo and the dominance of Soviet power in the region. Following the dismissal of Lumumba, backed by the American’s and Belgians, Lumumba was arrested and handed over to his enemies. He was assassinated in 1961, although the exact circumstances of his death remain unknown to this day. Lumumba’s death marked a dark time for the Congo region; hope for democracy and the country’s revival died with him, leading many to regard the leader’s demise as the country’s original sin.

On 24th of November 1965, four years after Lumumba’s assassination, Mobutu Sese Seko became president of Congo (renamed Zaire in 1971), following a CIA sponsored coup which overthrew Kasa-Vubu from power. In exchange for the support provided by the USA to his rise to leadership, President Mobutu Sese Seko helped to promote US interests in the region during the Cold War. Perhaps, one of the biggests reasons for the USA’s interest in Congo was due to the fact that the region was rich in mineral resources. As the USA exploited this access into Congo’s vast array of minerals, Mobutu launched a regime based on authoritarian, violent repression and corruption. It is thought that Mobutu, at a conservative estimate, had stolen over $5bn dollars from his own country.

After years of abusing his position as president, by the early 1980s Congo was in serious debt, which stood at 30% of the country’s GDP. In 1982, following the advice of the USA, Mobutu accepted an IMF deal which liberalized Congo’s economy: whilst this move slowly paved way to reverse the effects of the Mobutu’s state-led economic planning of the past 15 years, it also meant that the USA no longer had any need of Mobutu. This was because following the liberalization of agricultural products and the sale of diamonds, such resources were no longer in the corrupt hands of the Congolese government workers. Multinational companies, therefore, had even easier access to these goods. As the end of the Cold War drew close to the end, Mobutu’s debilitating health, loss of international economic aid to Congo, global collapse of raw commodity prices, meant his hold on power was wavering.

The year 1994 was a turning point for the brewing crisis in the Congo. The 1994 Rwandan genocide saw 800,000 people from the minority Tutsi group killed at the hands of the Hutu’s majority. The genocide was eventually put a stop to by the rebel Tutsi group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). At the time of the genocide, the RPF were attempting to negotiate access into Rwandan politics after having been engaged in civil war with the Rwandan government since 1990. In return for their efforts, the RPF were threatened by the Rwandan political leaders and army generals, who played a role in instigating the genocide, to leave the country or face further conflict. As a result, over 1 million Hutu fled the country to Congo in search of safety. Following the Rwandan genocide, Mobutu made the fateful political move of providing aid and shelter not only to the refugees who fled, but also the Rwandan army and militia who directed the genocide. The humanitarian crisis and conflict in Rwanda is therefore closely linked with the First Congo War. Mobutu’s weakening hold on power throughout this time allowed for his leftist opponent, Laurent Kabila, leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), to mount a coup to overthrow the government in 1996. Between 1996-7, a war of liberation ravaged the country. Kabila received support from Rwanda and Uganda during the war, as the Rwandan government viewed Mobutu unwilling to disband and arrest the militias or secure the border between Rwanda and Congo. The AFDL successfully toppled Mobutu in 1997.

It was not long before war broke out once more in the Congo region. The Second Congo War began in 1998 after President Laurent Kabila attempted to curb the influence of Rwanda and Uganda. In response to this, both countries re-invaded Congo, with the Rwandans throwing their support behind the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy group, who were determined to overthrow Kabila’s government. Though initially interested only in the quest of hunting down the military and political leaders responsible for the genocide of 800,000 Tutsi, it was not long before Rwanda and Uganda became absorbed in exploiting Congo’s extensive array of mineral resources. This launched the war of occupation, which lasted from 1998-2003. In search of support, Kabila turned to Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, paving the way for the international press to christen the conflict as Africa’s First World War, due to the involvement of several African countries. Given the presence of so many military forces from across Africa, Congo’s humanitarian crisis further worsened as soldiers from all sides brutalized civilians and used their deployment as a pretext to loot vast natural resources. Margot Wallstrom, the former UN representative on sexual violence in conflict, named Congo the rape capital of the world.

In 1999 a ceasefire agreement was agreed to by both sides. Subsequently, UN Security Council created a peacekeeping force, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), to help oversee the implementation of the Lusaka Peace Accord. This agreement included ceasefire agreements, monitoring the adversaries disengagement from the frontlines, as well as supervise the process of disarmament, demobilization and resettlement. However, the UN failed in their mission to prevent further bloodshed and by 2002, Rwanda and its allies had occupied an area 27 times larger than Rwanda in the DR Congo region. As the conflict ravaged on, in 2001 Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguard, paving the way for his son, Joseph Kabila, to become president. Many believed that Joseph Kabila’s rise to power would mean improved chances for peace in the region.

Although, Rwanda officially withdrew from Congo in 2003, the Rwandan government continues to be accused of being significantly involved in the region. In 2003, the Sun City Peace agreement was signed in the hope that it would finally put an end to the violence in the war-torn region: yet, to no avail. The agreement established a transitional government, which was under the supervision of the International Committee in Support of the Transition (CIAT). The agreement allowed for Kabila to continue to be president throughout the two year transitional period. During which time, Kabila would have to share power with four vice-presidents – one from each of the armed opposition groups, one from the government and one from the unarmed opposition movement. The Sun City peace agreement was an attempt to steer the DR Congo back on track to becoming a fully functioning, democratic nation. Yet, this attempt was reduced to mere shambles. In 2003, violence erupted once more in the Ituri province following ethnic conflict between the Hema and Lendu.

The Congo crisis deepened even further when conflict in the North Kivu and South Kivu continued during the transitional period. The task of unifying the Congolese army proved to be largely, unsuccessful. In 2006, Laurent Nkunda, who had previously fought with the Rwandan backed AFDL and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), deserted the army after the DR Congo government attempted to move him away from his command in Eastern Congo. In response, Nkunda established the National Congress of the Defence of the People (CNDP) to challenge the government. His forces soon seized the region of North Kivu; as a Tutsi born in the North Kivu region, Nkunda defended the move to protect his fellow people from the FDLR. A rebel group known as the Democratic Forces of the Liberation of Rwanda, entirely composed of Rwandan ex-soldiers and Hutu militia. During the same year, the transitional period ended with Joseph Kabila winning the presidential election. In an attempt to end the conflict with Nkunda, the government agreed to allowed the integration of Nkunda’s troops in the Congolese army. This failed to end the violence. Hope for peace peaked again in January 2008, when rebel groups (excluding the FDLR) signed a peace agreement; but by August this too had collapsed. After capturing more territory to plunder and terrorize, Nkunda was ousted from power by General Bosco Ntaganda. In 2009, Nkunda was arrested in Rwanda on charges of war crimes, including the recruitment of child soldiers in 2002 and 2003.

Despite, Nkunda’s arrest, conflict continues in Congo. Following Ntaganda’s failed attempt to overthrow the Congolese government in April 2012, another Congolese army officer, Colonel Makenga, started a mutiny of his own. It is known as M23, a reference to the peace agreement between the CNDP and the Congo government, which was supposed to draw attention to the injustices faced by Tutsi ethnic group and the poor conditions of the army. Though intended to be seen as separate munities, the Human Rights Watch has reported that both Ntaganda and Makenga are operating together. On the 19th March 2013, Ntaganda, known by many as ‘The Terminator’, surrendered by walking into the US embassy in Kigali following clashes between factions of the M23. After being indicted by the ICC on 22nd August 2006, ‘The Terminator’ made his first appearance before the Hague on the 26th March 2013. Though Ntaganda denied the charges of recruitment of child soldiers, sexual violence, amongst other counts of human rights abuses; the move was seen as a small victory for justice.

Nevertheless, the crisis in Congo continues to this day, with the conflict having displaced half a million more people since February 2013 and with many civilians being killed or raped in the process; there remains a long journey ahead in the process of solving the crisis in Congo. Despite this minor achievement, since March 2013, Colonel Makenga (leader of the M23 rebel group) has managed to strengthen his hold on power and fortify his presence in the Goma region. The Human Rights Watch has reported that from March 2013 to July 2013, the M23 rebels have killed and raped more than 61 women and girls in the Eastern provinces of the Congo. Many more have been shot in the crossfire. The Human Rights Watch have also reported an increase abductions and forced recruitment of children and other civilians by the M23. No doubt an attempt by the rebel group to keep up the number of soldiers fighting for them following an intensification in violence.

More than 150,000 people have been displaced towards Goma region since 2012. However, despite the best efforts of the NGO groups to set up refugee camps and provide basic human necessities, such as clean water and sanitation, space is running out. According to reports by MONUSCO, over 1 million people live in the region, together with the rising influx of refugees to the region, decent living spaces are becoming harder to maintain. The ICC has reported that the majority of deaths in the Congo are preventable and treatable; with the social fabric of the Congo being torn apart by war, health services are disrupted, food security has become poor consequently leading to a rise in infectious diseases, malnutrition and pregnancy related conditions (some of which may be fatal).

Yet, regardless of the fact that the Congolese people have been ravaged by violence since the 1960s, Western governments stand idly by either unwilling or unable to do anything productive to help stop the humanitarian crisis or prevent further bloodshed. Unless precious mineral resources are at stake, there has been little definitive action taken by the West to do something about the situation in DR Congo. As a result, the United Nations have made the unprecedented move of passing Resolution 2098, in March 2013. A move which allow for the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo region, MONUSCO, to take military action against the rebels in the Eastern provinces of the DRC so to bring peace and prosperity back to the country after decades of despair. With the military heavyweights, such as the USA, UK and France either preoccupied with other conflicts, like Syria. And with Russia and China abiding strictly to the traditional notion of non-intervention, the international community has taken upon itself through the UN to mount an offensive strategy through the use of an intervention brigade. The Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) main objective is to neutralize armed rebel groups, like the FDLR and M23.

Although the Force Intervention Brigade may be exactly what is needed to relieve the situation in the Congo, it is not spared perils of its own. Former military adviser in the DRC, US Major General Patrick Cammaert and research assistant at the International Peace Institute, have both voiced their doubts of the ability of the FIB to fulfil their mandate. Given the size of the DRC and the guerrilla type warfare being conducted by the rebel groups, the 3,000 UN troops on the ground are faced with a huge, complex task before them. Not to mention, the fact that the FIB may be seen by some as an type of occupational force with interests of its own; this may cause more people to defect to the rebel groups in protest. Yet, perhaps, the biggest issue concerning the presence of the FIB in the Democratic Republic of Congo is that the UN is supposed to be an impartial, peacekeeping organization. By supplying military support to one side over the other, the UN risks damaging the credibility as a cosmopolitan organization. It may further add to its image as a tool of the West.

With the peace talks between the M23 rebels and the DRC government being resumed in Kampala, following violent clashes between the rebels and the army, backed by the UN special forces, are we finally catching a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel? Or simply a postponement of the inevitable?

BY: Wiktoria Schulz