The Main Engine of the Conflict

Much of the conflict in the DR Congo has been fueled by the desire to gain control over Congo’s vast resources. Congo, roughly the size of Western Europe, is per square mile, the most resource rich country in the world. It contains 2/3rds of the world’s remaining rainforests, and vast mineral wealth including cobalt, coltan (used in cell phones and other high tech equipment, Congo is home to 80% of the world’s coltan reserves) copper, cadmium, petroleum, diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron ore, and coal. In spite of Congo’s vast resources, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The resources of the Congo have often been called the curse of the Congo, as history tells the story of a series of foreign powers invading to exploit the country’s wealth, each time to the detriment of the Congolese people.

From King Leopold to Independence

First a personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, the country later became a colony of Belgium. The book King Leopold’s Ghost details the long and brutal history of colonization that took place in Congo. The story of the Belgians in Congo has earned King Leopold, and later Belgium, the title of the Worst of the Colonizers. During the 30 years of Leopold’s hold on Congo, roughly 10 million people (half the population at the time) died in forced labor camps (1877-1908)  After years of oppression, slave labor and the denial of basic rights, Congo was finally granted independence in 1960.

Print Resources: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild; William Sheppard: Congo’s African-American Livingstone, by William E. Phipps. Video Resources: Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, directed by Peter Bate

Independence, Lumumba and Mobutu

Fearing that he was moving dangerously close to the Soviet Union, the elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was removed from office just weeks after independence and assassinated by members of the Congolese military, directed by the Belgians and the CIA, just months after taking office. Just 5 years later, Mobutu Sese Seko seized power from the weakened government, kicking off a 30-year dictatorship. During Mobutu’s dictatorship the country was renamed “Zaire”. Mobutu quickly earned a reputation for using the country’s resources for his own personal gain, building lavish palaces for himself in every province. Mobutu died shortly after the 1997 overthrow of his government with vast wealth in Swiss bank accounts while the daily lives of his people never improved during his decades-long reign.

Print Resources: In the Footstpes of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong; Video Resources: Lumumba, directed by Raoul Peck

From the Rwandan Genocide to War in Congo

Today’s conflict finds its origins in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda and the ensuing 1997 coup in Congo (then Zaire) that overthrew Mobutu. Laurent Desire Kabila, a general who spent 20 years in exile in Rwanda and Tanzania, marched on the capital of Kinshasa and, in a bloodless coup, toppled Mobutu’s regime. Neighboring Rwanda harbored Kabila during his years in exile and the Rwandans were promised lucrative mining contracts in Congo in return for their help. In early 1998, Rwanda sent troops over the border to pursue Interhamwe soldiers, the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, who were hiding out in the eastern part of what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Laurent Kabila, enraged that Rwanda would send troops over the border to finish their own civil war, quickly sent his own troops to the region to repel the Rwandan forces entering the country. In addition, he reneged on his promises to Rwanda to provide them with profitable access to the country’s resources. These two factors quickly escalated to an all-out war between the two countries. The DR Congo borders nine other countries – Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Republic of the Congo. Seven of these countries immediately entered the war on the side of either Rwanda or Congo. In addition to the various countries involved, 28 rebel groups formed, representing various interests that spanned political, economic, nationalist etc.

Laurent Kabila refused to participate in peace talks, which slowed efforts to bring a halt to the war. In January 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in his office by one of his own bodyguards. His son, Joseph Kabila, 28 years old at the time, was named the new head of state. Within days he called for peace talks to resume and they did so in Sun City, South Africa. A peace agreement was signed that called for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops from the Congo, a transitional government to be put in place with four vice-presidents representing the different Congolese rebel groups involved in the war.  Elections were also to be held.

While the peace agreement brought stability to much of the country, foreign troops delayed their withdrawal from the east where they continued to plunder the region’s resources. Due to pressure from the international community and the UN peace-keeping mission in the Congo (MONUC, the largest UN peace keeping mission in the world now called MONUSCO as of 2010), most of the foreign troops withdrew by 2006 and the country was able to hold its first democratic election in over 40 years. Joseph Kabila was elected.

Print Resources: A Problem from Hell, by Samantha Power, The African Stakes of the Congo War, edited by John F. Clark, Shake Hands with the Devil, by Roméo Dallaire and Samantha Power; Video Resources: The Ghosts of Rwanda, PBS Frontline Video

Conflict, Mount Nyirogongo and Goma

The three eastern provinces of Orientale, North Kivu (of which Goma in the provincial capital) and South Kivu remain embattled.  A number of rebel groups still terrorize the area. The UN states that 45,000 people still die every month in Congo as a direct or indirect result of the war. In the last 12 years over 6 million people have died and a large percentage of them have been children under 5 years of age.  Over 1.2 million people have been displaced by the fighting and now live in internally displace persons’ camps around the city of Goma. While the city of Goma remains stable due to the large UN presence based there, the surrounding areas in North Kivu continue to experience armed conflict.  In 2002, Mount Nyirogongo, the volcano immediately north of Goma (about 5 km) erupted, destroying 40% of the city.

Video Resources: Volcano Under the City, produced by WGBH, Boston and Nova

2006 Elections to Today

Since the 2006 elections, the eastern provinces have continued to see ongoing cycles of violence and atrocities. In October, 2008, the city of Goma, long the undisturbed eye-of-the storm, was in danger of falling to Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP rebels. Nkunda had long been a source of major tension in the east, claiming to be protecting Congo’s persecuted Tutsi ethnic minority the Banyamulenge. Heavily supported by Rwanda, he was responsible for mass atrocities in eastern Congo. In the fall of 2008 he made a big push to take the North Kivu province which led to a joint military operation between Congo and Rwanda. Nkunda was arrested and has remained under house-arrest in Rwanda since that time. While there are still a number of rebel groups in eastern Congo, dealing with Nkunda’s CNDP has done much to reduce fighting and violence in the area.

In June of 2010, Congo celebrated 50 years of independence. Much remains to be seen as to how the next 50 years will unfold. Congo elections in November, 2011, with  Joseph Kabila again being elected.  In the fall of 2012 the M-23 rebels took over the city of Goma.  Their negotiated withdrawal brought some stability to the city.  However,  multiple armed groups, frequent fighting,  and accusations of outside intervention continue to vex the region.

To learn more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the back-drop in which HEAL Africa’s work takes place, see the information below.

Recommended Reading:

  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
    by Adam Hochschild
  • Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa
    by Jason K. Stearns

Online Resources: BBC Congo Timeline