A war without end

Mark Doyle

Since 1994, a conflict that has cost the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people and displaced millions more has been raging – on and off – in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Drawing in eight African nations and more than 20 armed militia groups at its height, it is the deadliest war in modern African history. Mark Doyle answers key questions about the origins and costs of what some commentators have called ‘Africa’s World War’.

What caused the current war and when did it begin?

A useful time to start is 1994, the year of the genocide of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighbouring Rwanda by an extremist Hutu regime. Tutsi-led rebels ended the genocide by seizing power and a Tutsi-led administration remains in place in the Rwandan capital Kigali today. After the Hutu extremists were ousted, some two million Hutus – including many of the génocidaires – fled into the forests of eastern Congo. This influx had a profound effect on the politics of the entire sub-region.

Where is the conflict centred?

Most of the fighting in Congo takes place in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu – or has its roots there.

The arrival in Congo in 1994 of so many Hutus confirmed the eastern region of the country as the key battleground of central Africa. Rwanda wants to protect itself from any lingering efforts by Hutus to exterminate Tutsis by creating a buffer in the Kivus. Congo, for nationalist reasons, needs to show it is resisting dominance by Rwanda, its embarrassingly smaller, though clearly more efficiently run, neighbour.

Another cause for the proliferation of armed groups in eastern Congo is the mineral wealth. Its rolling hills support agriculture but also yield precious metals and minerals, like tin, gold and coltan (used in mobile phone production).

Who is fighting?

Currently the main forces in the conflict are:

– Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC): The Congolese government army, under the long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (who ruled from 1965 until his death in 1997), was kept deliberately weak and divided to prevent military coups. Some brigades are still little more than collections of formerly bitter enemies. FARDC soldiers loot when necessary – because their officers often don’t feed or pay them.

– Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en République Démocratique du Congo (MONUSCO): The UN force, currently numbering 22,000, is the glue that has on many occasions held Congo together.

It backs FARDC with logistics – and sometimes firepower – but its relationship with the government army is tentative; the UN tries to keep its distance from undisciplined FARDC units.

MONUSCO has frequently stepped in to prevent Congo’s wars from escalating completely out of control, but for such a large country it is still under-resourced. Stronger and better national government is needed, not just backing from outside. The UN is necessary but not sufficient.

– Tutsi-led rebels: Since 1995, there has always been a Tutsi-dominated force in eastern Congo. It has usually been publically led by Congolese Tutsis (known as Banyamulenge) but supported by their ethnic cousins now in power in Rwanda. The right to citizenship of Congolese Tutsis has sometimes been questioned by Congolese ‘nationalists’ – hence the Tutsis’ perceived need to defend themselves.

The first Tutsi-backed rebels were led by the soon-to-be-president, Laurent Désiré Kabila (not himself a Tutsi).

Rwanda more or less openly backed Kabila and helped him to power in Kinshasa in what could be called the ‘First Congolese War’ (1995-97). But Kabila later resented Rwandan dominance and fell out with the Kigali government. So another Tutsi-dominated group, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), emerged to fight Kabila in the broader ‘Second Congolese War’ (1998-2003).

Today, the Tutsi-dominated rebel group in eastern Congo is called the M23, after a failed peace agreement signed on 23 March 2009. It’s led from the shadows by a Congolese Tutsi, General Bosco Ntaganda, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. The role of M23 is similar to its predecessors – protect Congolese Tutsis, plunder resources and serve as a buffer for Rwanda. It includes some of the same personnel as the RCD.

– Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR): The original core of this band of Hutu rebels was the remnants of the génocidaires, but many now in the FDLR were born in Congo.

– Mai Mai: Assorted militia groups named after local warlords or tribes – for example, Mai Mai Morgan or Mai Mai Gedeon. Some are effectively armies, with uniforms and ranks; others are just brigands.

There is often overlap between the above main groups. Money-making or logistical convenience can sometimes trump ethnic loyalty – for example, the Tutsi-dominated M23 employs Hutu foot soldiers.

Why are external actors involved?

Other African countries have become involved in the conflict because of the power vacuum caused by a weak Kinshasa government and Congo’s mineral riches. Rwanda – and its sometimes-ally Uganda – perceives a need for a buffer against the chaos of eastern Congo. Its business people also make money there. Both have backed rebel groups in the east, although Rwanda denies supporting the M23. In 1998, during the ‘Second Congolese War’, Zimbabwe sent troops to protect Laurent Kabila in exchange for mineral concessions.

Angola, Namibia and even faraway Chad took similar action. Most of these foreign soldiers have now left.

Has the International Criminal Court (ICC) helped resolve the conflict?

Not really. Making an example of Thomas Lubanga, a warlord from the north-eastern Ituri region (convicted in The Hague in March for using child soldiers) was a start. But Lubanga is relatively marginal to the main conflict, which is in the Kivus. Conversely, threatening to arrest Bosco Ntaganda may have been the catalyst for him to start the M23 rebellion to escape capture. But the failure of international justice in Congo is not the fault of the ICC. Congo’s wars have been so widespread and complex that it’s difficult to know where to start.

What has been the human cost?

The respected medical charity, International Rescue Committee (IRC), produced a detailed report that estimated the ‘excess mortality’ during the decade 1997 to 2007 (a period that included the ‘Second Congolese War’) was 5.4 million lives. ‘Excess mortality’ means how many more people have died in Congo compared with other countries with similar population and economic development but no war.

Most of these 5.4 million deaths would not have been by bullet or bomb. They were slow, lingering deaths caused by disease, displacement and poverty brought about directly by the armed conflict. In 2008, I spent ten days with IRC doctors travelling up and down the Congo River in western Congo, visiting randomly chosen villages and regional hospitals. Despite being far from the main conflict zone in the east, it was without doubt one of the most desperate places I have ever visited in over 25 years as a journalist in war zones and across the developing world. I saw abandoned farms, endless pockets of people made homeless by war or pillage, and almost no medical facilities.

From that snapshot, and detailed discussions with IRC doctors, I’d say their estimate of over 5 million ‘excess dead’ over the decade could well be correct.

What is happening now?

M23 controls significant parts of the east, including strategic border areas. The government army is in control of all major cities – but only thanks to UN help. Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent, took over in 2001. His arrival in power gave a boost to peace agreements. Joseph Kabila has won two UN-monitored elections. His opponents say he cheated.

There are at least 2 million people made homeless by conflicts across the country. Corruption is widespread. Things are only marginally better for most Congolese than at the height of the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Congolese wars.

About the author:

Mark Doyle is the BBC's International Development Correspondent


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