Why eastern Congo is home to a forever war

Congolese policemen and soldiers try to control a crowd of Goma residents gathering at the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo on after a shootout was reported between soldiers on the two sides of the border yesterday.  PHOTO / AFP

What you need to know:

  • In recent weeks the focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo has shifted decisively from its admission into the East African Community to its restive eastern region. Emmanuel Mutaizibwa and Robert Madoi explain why the flashpoint looks primed to play host to a forever war.

Why is North Kivu a tinderbox where conflict can explode at any moment?

In establishing their alien rule in the interlacustrine region, Belgians who settled in what would come to be known as Zaïre (present day Democratic Republic of Congo) were immediately consumed by the potential profits of the volcanic highlands in North Kivu. Farmers from tributary states such as Rwanda eventually found themselves doing the bidding of the Belgian settlers.

Some of the 25,000 Banyarwanda, Banyamulenge or Banyabwisha who took part in the first migratory movement between 1933 and 1945, also worked in the mines that dot the mineral-rich provinces of North and South Kivu, as well as Ituri. The jostle for the volcanic highlands’ natural resources (mines, as well as agricultural and pastoral land) continues to be the underlying theme that moulds power strategies pursued by different belligerents.

The other migratory movements between 1959 and 1994—which included, to mention but two, those triggered by the 1959 Rwandan Revolution and 1994 Rwandan genocide—directly or indirectly contributed to the genesis of violent conflict in eastern Congo. The hodgepodge of fleeing Tutsis and Hutus at varying turns created a recipe for disaster, whose after-effects are still felt to date.

So which belligerents are we talking about here?

The belligerents in the Kivu conflict cannot be counted off the fingers of one hand. The armed conflict—whose trilogy has occupied 2004 to 2009, 2012 to 2013 and 2015 to date—is essentially the unintended but inevitable product of the Second Congo War. The aforementioned war started in August of 1998 before ending in a military stalemate on July 18, 2003.

Uganda and Rwanda were some of the foreign state actors in the war, having ostensibly been drawn into the conflict by militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and the Interahamwe, among others.

Educated guesses put the number of belligerents (militias, really) involved in the ongoing Kivu conflict in their hundreds. Those who have contributed to the convoluted nature of the conflict include M23 (an offshoot from the military of the Democratic Republic of Congo or FARDC created in April of 2012 when hundreds of largely ethnic Tutsi soldiers mutinied) and the FDLR. The National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), which is now recognised as a political party after it signed a deal with Kinshasa in 2009, is also anything but a footnote, thanks to its umbilical link to M23.

Why does Kinshasa keep associating M23 with Kigali?

The M23 rebellion sprouted in April 2012 in Rutshuru, North Kivu, when hundreds of largely ethnic Tutsi soldiers of the FARDC mutinied over appalling living conditions and poor pay. Most of the mutineers had been members of the CNDP, another armed group that—as previously mentioned—morphed into a political party after signing a deal with Kinshasa in 2009.

When dissidents felt Kinshasa had not fully implemented the March 23, 2009 peace accords, they turned against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government. M23 is named after the date the agreement was signed.

In 2012, the UN Security Council’s Group of Experts said in a confidential report that Rwanda and Uganda—despite their denials—continued to support M23 rebels in their fight against the Congolese government troops in North Kivu province.

“Rwandan officials exercise overall command and strategic planning for M23,” the report said, adding, “Rwanda continues to violate the arms embargo through direct military support to M23 rebels, facilitation of recruitment, encouragement and facilitation of FARDC [Congolese army] desertions, as well as the provision of arms and ammunition, intelligence, and political advice.”

How does Kampala come into this complex puzzle?

The UN Security Council’s Group of Experts also fingered the Kampala government for its alleged support for the M23 rebellion.

“While Rwandan officials coordinated the creation of the rebel movement, as well as its major military operations, Uganda’s more subtle support to M23 allowed the rebel group’s political branch to operate from within Kampala and boost its external relations,” it said.

At the time, the Ugandan army was deployed in the eastern DRC. Kigali drew a line in the sand, warning that North Kivu should be a no-go area for the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) where the FDLR is hiding.

The FDLR is a rebel group composed of remnants of the former Rwandan army (ex-FAR) and Interahamwe militia responsible for the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and moderate Hutus. After the genocide, they fled into the eastern DRC, where they have since wreaked havoc by raping, killing and pillaging innocent civilians. They continue to pose a threat to the Kigali government.

Currently, Uganda troops’ deployment has extended to the troubled North Kivu province—a crowded war-theatre with roaming militias, including the ADF, the Nduma Defence of Congo-Renovated (NDC-R), whose offshoot factions control large swathes of territory.

Take the FPPH rebel group composed of the Congolese Hutu community; AFRC led by Charles Bakande, a former member of the Mai-Mai militia that has drawn support from the Nande community and runs extortion rackets along the southern shore of Lake Edward, taxing lucrative fishing camps; and Mazembe-Apasiko led by David Kiboko, the grandchild of Fabien Mudoghu—the former leader of the Front de Résistance Populaire de Lubwe-Rwenzori (FRPL-R), among other rebel groups. It is indeed a complex puzzle, and one that has Kampala in it.

What role is the abundance of minerals in eastern Congo playing in fuelling this conflict?

Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests a tremendously big role. The San-Francisco Bay area is the bastion of technological advancement and the imaginations propelled by artificial intelligence. The far-flung eastern DRC is home to the raw ‘fuel’ dug from the bowels of the earth that powers planes and electric cars.

The electronics industry largely depends on minerals such as coltan, cobalt, tungsten, wolfram, cassiterite, gold and diamonds, which lie in abundance in the restive eastern DRC. Research shows that the belligerents partly finance their activities from the sale of gold, wolframite, coltan and cassiterite.

Kinshasa is expected to be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution conversation headlined by artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. This owes to the fact that its expansive minerals portfolio will essentially fuel the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The cobalt that it produces at an unprecedented scale is used in the manufacture of batteries. Its copper reserves—eclipsed worldwide by only half a dozen countries—and a little over 130 million tonnes of Lithium deposits will doubtless be used to produce key components in electric cars, computers, and renewable energy sources.

Military intervention

Can the East African Regional Force help pacify eastern Congo?

The Eastern African Standby Force is largely a paper-tiger. Beyond its officialdom profile as one of the five regional multidimensional forces of the African Standby Force to provide capability for rapid deployment of forces to carry out preventive deployment, rapid intervention, peace support/stability operations and peace enforcement, little is known about its command structure and competence.

There are fears that the contradictions within member states, which are burbling below the radar, may come to surface and affect such deployments.


In 2012, the UN Security Council’s Group of Experts said in a confidential report that Rwanda and Uganda—despite their denials—continued to support M23 rebels in their fight against the Congolese government troops in North Kivu province.