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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Conflict profile

Since the 1885 establishment of the Congo Free State, the privately controlled property of the Belgian King Leopold II, the State in Congo has been weak and predatory in nature. During colonisation, the Belgian authorities made little investment in infrastructure, governance structures or education, focusing solely on extracting natural resources in a mostly brutal and repressive fashion. They were caught unprepared by the independence movement in the late 1950s. When the Republic of the Congo was declared on 30 June 1960, the country had little capacity for self-governance and almost immediately descended into civil war.

During President Mobutu’s 32 years of despotic rule from 1965 – during which the country was renamed Zaïre – the nature of the State did not change radically. The West, who viewed him as a major African ally in the context of the Cold War, generously subsidised his ‘kleptocratic’ regime. Mobutu entrenched corruption at all echelons of State, and built a system of patronage to enrich himself and buy the loyalty of key allies. Mobutu also reproduced the colonial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ to extend his power to restive provinces far away from the DRC capital, Kinshasa. By empowering certain groups in exchange for their loyalty, and manipulating key questions of identity and citizenship, he gave rise to a score of local grievances, particularly in the Kivu region.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Zaïre splintered into various ‘city-states’. These became increasingly isolated from each other as transport infrastructure was eroded by neglect and communication systems collapsed. In many parts, the conventional administration and the formal justice system disappeared, the security forces grew increasingly corrupt and inefficient, and several eastern border towns (such as Goma and Bukavu) essentially became economic appendages of neighbouring countries.

As the Cold War came to an end, and with the collapse of commodity prices in the late 1980s, Mobutu’s patronage system lost the external sources of funding necessary for its survival, and his grip on power rapidly loosened. In 1990, he was forced to abandon the one-party state and launched a national dialogue process (the Conférence nationale souveraine). However, Zaïre lacked the institutional framework to regulate the emerging multiparty competition, and the country’s democratic opening in the early 1990s brought increased turmoil.  In an attempt to shore up his legitimacy, Mobutu exploited ethnic sentiments and mobilised public opinion against immigrant populations. This struck a chord in the Kivu provinces, where thousands of immigrants of Rwandan descent (the so-called ‘Banyarwanda’) had settled since the middle of the century. Tensions between indigenous communities and these migrants degenerated into open confrontation, and the first violent clashes erupted in North Kivu in 1993.

The situation in eastern DRC further deteriorated after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Following the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsi at the instigation of the extremist Hutu government, hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed the border into Zaïre, together with a number of Hutu génocidaires, soldiers and militiamen responsible for the mass killings. Enjoying Mobutu’s sympathy, they found shelter in large refugee camps around Goma and Bukavu and immediately reorganised with a view to reclaim power in Rwanda by force. In 1996, Rwanda’s post-genocide Tutsi-dominated government decided to invade Zaïre in pursuit of the former génocidaires. Together with Uganda, Rwanda cobbled together a loose coalition of rebels, the Alliance des forces démocratiques de libération du Congo (AFDL) and provided them with ammunition, troops and support. Mobutu’s army was crumbling, and with Rwanda’s backing, it took little more than six months for the rebels to seize control of the country and put an end to Mobutu’s reign.

In May 1997, the AFDL leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was installed as the country’s new President. However, relations between Kabila and his former allies rapidly deteriorated to the point in which Rwanda and Uganda attempted to mount a new rebellion against the leader. The ‘Second Congolese War’ started in August 1998. The Rassemblement congolais démocratique (RCD) however failed to oust Kabila, who received support from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The country was turned into a vast battleground, with no less than eleven African countries involved. As the RCD split between the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma and the Uganda-backed RCD-K/ML, and a new rebel movement, the MLC, emerged in the North, the country was fragmented into four zones of control. Conflict was especially deadly in the east, where the government used a variety of militias as proxies to destabilise the rebels. Despite a ceasefire agreement signed in Lusaka in 1999 and the establishment of a UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC (albeit with a weak mandate), the war continued to rage until 2002.

FARDC soldier at a parade. FARDC soldier at a parade. Photo credit: Spyros Demetriou.

After months of negotiations involving the major Congolese stakeholders in an ‘Inter-Congolese Dialogue’, a peace accord was eventually signed in Pretoria in July 2002, and all foreign troops left the country in the following months. With heavy international support, DR Congo’s power-sharing government led the country towards a democratic transition, and following the adoption of a new Constitution, the first democratic elections were organised at the end of 2006. Joseph Kabila, who had assumed power after his father’s assassination in January 2001, was elected President.

Since then, however, eastern DR Congo has remained marred by conflicts, and the post-transition period has actually seen an increase in violence due to a mixture of regional and local dynamics, State weakness and elite interests. A variety of armed actors have been able to take root due to the lack of state authority:

  • Armed groups originating from neighbouring countries have used the DR Congo as a rear-base and have survived by preying on the local populations. These include the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Rwandan Forces démoratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) – whose leadership is largely made up of former génocidaires – and the Burundian Forces nationales de libération (FNL).
  • Tutsi-dominated movements claiming to protect their ethnic fellows have emerged with Rwanda’s backing. They have clashed repeatedly with the national army (FARDC), taking control of large swathes of territory in the Kivus, including Goma during the insurgency of the March 23 Movement (M23) in 2012-2013.
  • Self-proclaimed community militia (so-called ‘Mai Mai’) have also proliferated as a response to insecurity in rural areas. While providing a modicum of protection and regulation in the absence of the State, Mai Mai groups are also driven by a violent ethnic ideology, which has led in many cases to large-scale plunder and a deterioration of inter-community relations.

Years of continued warfare have led to the creation of a war economy. Many people at the elite level now have an entrenched interest in the continuation of conflict, and the extraction of lucrative natural resources (minerals, but also timber or charcoal) has been an important element in the strategy of several armed groups. Flawed peace agreements have enabled former rebels to integrate into the national army while maintaining their lucrative illegal networks. Parallel chains of command have multiplied, seriously damaging the military’s cohesion and effectiveness in combat.

After coming under heavy criticism for its passivity during the fall of Goma to the M23 rebels in November 2012, the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO was revamped and given a more robust mandate in March 2013. Its offensive component, the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), provided decisive support to the national army to rout the insurgents at the end of 2013. From the beginning of 2014, the FIB carried out offensive operations against other armed groups in North Kivu. While the situation in this province saw noticeable improvements, by mid-2014 more than 25 armed groups were still active across Eastern DR Congo, with major hotspots of conflict in northern Katanga, Ituri and South Kivu.

The world’s deadliest war

During the mid-2000s, Congo was often referred to as the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis. In 2007, a survey by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) put the death toll of the Congolese conflict at 5.4 million, making it the world’s deadliest war since World War II. This equates to approximately 45,000 deaths every month since 1998.

Repeated conflicts have profoundly disrupted local livelihoods. Millions of people have been forced into displacement. As of mid-2014, there were more than 2.8 million internally displaced persons and refugees.  This violence and turmoil it creates has severely affected the agricultural livelihoods of the poor, reducing their capacity to produce and trade. As of 2006, more than 70 percent of the Congolese population lived below the poverty threshold of $1.25 a day.

Equally as shocking is the unparalleled surge in human rights abuses by militias and soldiers against the local populations. In recent years, the plight of women and girls has been highlighted by a series of cases of mass rapes. Sexual violence has created high levels of trauma and led to the breakup of many families. In 2004, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the DRC. In 2012, former Ituri warlord Thomas Lubanga was found guilty of recruiting child soldiers and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. A second judgment was rendered in 2014, and three other warlords have been indicted.

Last updated: August 2009

Democratic Republic of the Congo: peacebuilding resources