Why is there so much turmoil in eastern Congo?

At its worst, it was called the World War in Africa, a transnational conflict that cost millions of lives. At best, there has been a fragile peace in recent decades. But there has never been a definitive end to the conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Now it is being revived. Rising tensions between Congo (formerly known as Zaire) and its neighbor Rwanda threaten to spark a war in Africa’s Great Lakes region. However, like other crises in Africa – such as hunger, drought, coups and ethnic violence — received little international attention as all eyes were on the war in Ukraine.

For weeks, Congo has accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group, which has killed civilians in a series of new attacks, seized a cross-border trading town, sparked more than 25,000 people to escape and may have shot down a UN 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 strained. Even a Congolese official declared that if Rwanda “wants war, it will have war”.

In mid-June, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi suspended bilateral agreements with Rwanda and accused the country of wanting to occupy Congolese lands to profit from its vast mineral wealth.

“Civilians in eastern Congo are innocent of brutal attacks by our neighbor,” he said.

Rwanda in turn accused Congo of an attack on its border. In May, Rwanda’s Ministry of Defense said two of its soldiers were on patrol kidnapped by rebels, and later announced their comeback after diplomatic intervention.

Each side has accused the other of firing missiles across the border. On June 17, Congo close your border after a Rwandan police officer killed a Congolese soldier who Rwanda said had shot and wounded its security forces on Rwandan territory.

Thousands of Congolese took to the streets to protest the aggression in Rwanda. Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned of escalating hate speech and discrimination in the region against speakers of Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.

That is why there was so much turmoil in eastern Congo.

With steaming volcanoes, glassy 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 approximately 90 million people. Most in eastern Congo are farmers, living in villages scattered across the countryside and growing their own food – when it’s safe enough to do so. These are people tortured by decades of war: Millions have been killed, raped or driven from their homes and into camps by violent attacks over the years. When these attacks happenthere are no credible police or functioning courts to hold perpetrators accountable.

People sometimes seek refuge in the region’s handful of towns, but they aren’t entirely safe either. A volcano periodically erupts over Goma, a commercial center. The last time this happened, in June 2021, 5,000 homes were destroyed. And in 2012, the city has been seized by M23 rebel fighters, the militia at the heart of the latest tensions between Congo and Rwanda.

About 120 armed groups roam North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces, according to a 2021 report. Kivu security tracking, which maps violence and abuse in eastern Congo. Many of them are militias that have existed under one name or another for years.

The most dominant groups these days include the allied democratic forces, the deadliest in the region, which was created in 1995 in opposition to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. There is also the Congo Development Cooperative, or CODECO, which has at least four branches and has carried out hundreds of attacks from 2018. The authorities struggle to distinguish them from civilians.

And then there’s the March 23 Movement, or M23, which is made up mostly of Tutsis, 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 discriminating against people who speak the Kinyarwanda language. Congo designated M23 as a terrorist group in May.

There are nearly 18,000 UN peacekeepers and other personnel in eastern Congo, whose effectiveness is often questioned as the attacks continue and civilians flee.

It began with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when over one million people of the Hutu ethnic group fled Rwanda for the Congo, then called Zaire. There were many genocides among the Hutus, those who were responsible for killing millions of Tutsis.

In 1996, Rwanda invaded Congo and supported the rebellion that eventually led to the capture of Kinshasa, capital.

This led to the downfall of Congo’s long-time kleptocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Sekowho was supported by the United States and was forced into exile.

Since then, eastern Congo has been a bloodbath for armed groups maiming, killing and profiting from billions of dollars worth of smuggled minerals.

“Certainly the genocide was a catalyst,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese historian who was recently appointed its permanent representative to the United Nations. “If the genocide hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t be facing all these problems.

But the roots of the crisis go further than genocide. The Congo gained its independence in 1960 from Belgium, which ruled the colony oppressively for decades. After Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated – 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.

Not even a teenager, Prof Nzongola-Ntalaja dances to the infectious rumba beat of the Grand Kalle hit Independence Cha-cha, celebrating Congo’s independence. But now, he said, he sees the way things turned out as “a big mistake.”

Belgium first denied Congolese political leaders the two-year transition period they requested, then rushed to dismiss the Congolese without any preparation to take over. Meanwhile, Belgium is maneuvering to protect its own economic interests in the country – for example by supporting separatists in the mineral-rich Katanga region.

“They have set him up to fail,” he said.

Congo’s mineral-rich land is a treasure trove for those with access.

“Congo is amazingly rich,” said Vava Tampa, a community organizer and founder of the rights group Save Congo.

There is gold. Coltan. Tourmaline. More gold. A wealth is hidden in the land of eastern Congo and its neighbors know it. For them and some Congolese officials, the war is a convenient cover for smuggling.

“Much of the gold traded by Uganda and Rwanda is fraudulently sourced from neighboring countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said 2018 report published by the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo.

Between 10 and 20 tons of gold are smuggled out of the Congo each year. Much of it is exported to Dubai before being made into jewelry sold worldwide.

Kenya has recently led peace efforts, 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 not clear when it would be deployed or whose troops it would include, although Congo insisted that should not include Rwandans.

The M23 seems unfazed. His plan is to seize the city of Goma and force the Congolese government to accept his demands, according to a recent UN announcement report. But one of those demands is that its fighters be integrated into the Congolese army, which former Congolese President Joseph Kabila agreed to – and which Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja said President Tshisekedi would not accept.

Although accusations fly that Rwanda is behind the M23, the country faces no small international blow. Rwanda hosted the prestigious Commonwealth Games in June and is gearing up for it accepts asylum seekers deported from the UK. According to many Congolese, these efforts reduce the incentive for Western countries to look too closely at his actions.

And as long as the violence is profitable and there is little international pressure to stop it, it will continue, several analysts said.

“The M23 is re-emerging because there is a gap,” Mr. Tampa said. “The attention of the international community is now focused on what is happening in Ukraine.

Ruth McLean reports from Dakar, Senegal, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Kigali, Rwanda. Susan Beachy contributed research.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.