Intricate challenges and pervasive violence in Eastern Congo, where ethnic conflicts, armed militias, and regional influences converge, create a volatile environment. As the government and international organisations grapple with restoring peace, civilians bear the brunt of the suffering. Will coordinated efforts involving regional players pave the way for a lasting solution, or is the region destined to endure the tragic cycle of conflict?
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the most populous Francophone country in the world with a population of nearly 112 million, has been witnessing massive violence in its eastern parts for months now. The country was known as Zaire from 1971 to 1997. As the general election in the country is approaching next month, the violence and torture by both rebels and government forces are rapidly increasing. Since coming to power in January 2019, just a year before the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic, President Felix Tshisekedi has not brought much improvement to the DRC. Now, global monitoring agencies have already raised an alarm about the prevailing corrupt practices of the country’s Electoral Commission and the potential for serious political violence in and around the country. This could directly compound the current conflicts in Eastern Congo and lead to more displacement once foreign forces leave these regions. So far, the Congolese Army has miserably failed to wrest control of these provinces from the armed militias’ violence.”
There is not a single cause solely responsible for the mindless violence plaguing Eastern Congo. Its central root lies in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. This genocide resulted in a mass exodus and refugee crisis in the African Great Lakes Region, comprising ten riparian countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. This crisis led to the migration of nearly 1.5 million ethnic Tutsis and over 1 million ethnic Hutus fleeing to eastern Zaire (now DRC). Subsequently, these refugees formed opposing armed gangs in the Eastern Congo provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu.
Another significant aspect of the conflict is the fierce competition among ethnic groups inhabiting these areas for the control and exploitation of vast resources, accompanied by inter-state regional rivalries. Additionally, the three neighbouring nations - Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi - maintain influence in the bordering regions of Eastern Congo. Consequently, the first and second Congo Wars took place among them, driven by conflicting interests in the border areas.
What continually encourages terror groups to carry out violent campaigns is the weakness of the central government based in Kinshasa. Furthermore, the region’s instability directly contributes to the regrouping of armed militias, even if UN Peacekeeping Forces are stationed in some of the most volatile pockets of Ituri, South Kivu, and North Kivu.
It is estimated that around 120 armed groups are active in the Eastern Congo provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu, and Tanganyika. Many of these armed militias are alleged to receive support from neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. These groups and their commanders have been implicated in war crimes, including the recruitment of child soldiers, massacres, sexual violence, pillaging, and, most prominently, attacks on schools and hospitals. Among them, the deadliest is the M23 Group, formed in 2012, approximately 11 years ago. It was the latest in a series of ethnic Tutsi-led insurgencies that emerged to combat the Congolese Army in the East.
The name ‘M23’ is derived from a historic accord signed on March 23, 2009, which marked the conclusion of the Tutsi revolution in Eastern Congo. The primary contention of the M23 is that the Congolese Government in Kinshasa has not fulfilled the promises outlined in the agreement. According to them, the government has completely failed to integrate Tutsis into the Army and provide them with government jobs since the deal was signed.
The M23 and other Tutsi groups assert that they have been fighting for the genuine interests of their community. Their struggle is directed against Hutu militias, particularly the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR was established by Hutus who fled Rwanda after the infamous 1994 genocide, which claimed the lives of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The emergence of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) poses a serious threat to the government forces of both the DRC and Uganda. In recent years, this group has wreaked havoc in many important cities and towns, including the capital cities of Kinshasa and Kampala, through deadly suicide bombings. Previously, the Ugandan military and the Congolese Army conducted joint operations against the ADF in the border areas of both nations, where the dreaded rebels operate. However, they were unable to completely root them out.
The U.S. also designates the ADF as a terrorist group, currently considering it the deadliest among dozens of militias operating in the mineral-rich Eastern Congo. Formed in 1995 by a coalition of rebel forces, including the Uganda Muslim Liberation Army and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), the ADF was established to fight against the Yoweri Museveni regime in Uganda. Its leader, Jamil Mukulu, was initially born Christian but later converted to Islam and embraced ‘Salafism’ while studying in Saudi Arabia. Although the ADF initially operated in western Uganda, it later shifted its bases to Eastern Congo.
It is noteworthy that initially, the Congolese Government offered full support to the ADF to counter the influence of Rwanda and Uganda in its eastern provinces. However, when the ADF began targeting the Congolese Army, Kinshasa had to retaliate against these rebels. Since the formation of the Islamic State in 2014, the ADF has declared its allegiance to it.
Today, the DRC is home to 7 million people who have been internally displaced due to extreme violence, threat perception, mine expansion, and poverty. These displaced people urgently need medical aid, food, and shelter around the clock.
How is the UN responding to the current chaos in Eastern Congo? For the locals, both the UN Peacekeeping Mission and the Congolese government forces have completely failed to protect them and restore peace to the restive region. In 2013, the UN Security Council authorised a rare offensive force under the mandate of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to support the Congolese Army in the fight against the M23 Group. Initially successful in halting M23 violence, the alleged support of the Rwandan Government to the group has once again strained the relationship between Kigali and Kinshasa in recent years.
With Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, announcing the withdrawal of MONUSCO next month, a pressing question looms over the region: Does Tshisekedi have the power to secure the borders of his country?
The unrest in Eastern Congo is longstanding, with the added factor of Islamic militias claiming support from an already disintegrated Islamic State (ISIS). The conflict primarily revolves around land, survival, and ethnic dominance, particularly between the Tutsis and the Hutus, along with other smaller ethnic rebel groups. The response from the Congolese Government has been abysmal, and the role of the UN Peacekeeping Forces has not effectively addressed the root causes of the conflict. The civilian population bears the brunt of the suffering in any war or conflict, as is tragically evident in Eastern Congo.
While the world focuses on peace initiatives for conflicts like the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip and the tensions between Ukraine and Russia, prolonged and almost unending wars persist in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and various other parts of the globe. It seems that lessons from past wars, skirmishes, and civil unrest have yet to be learned, reflecting an ongoing struggle with greed and expansion.
Hence, finding a lasting solution to the crisis in Eastern Congo is not a primary concern for superpowers like the US. President Joe Biden and his team are working around the clock to ensure that Israel does not lose and has all the necessary weapons to defend itself, while also trying to reassure Washington’s Arab allies that it is all in pursuit of a two-state solution. Consequently, Kinshasa needs to develop its own solution to put an end to the current bloodbath in its eastern borders. The UN, while responding to the immense tragedy in the Gaza Strip, must work towards a permanent solution to the chaos in Eastern Congo by engaging all the regional players, mainly Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda.
It is time to save the innocent civilians who are suffering for no reason. The rebels are simply killing and marauding the same civilians for whom they claim to be fighting, all in the name of rooting out their enemies. Perhaps, George Orwell was right when he said: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” However, war is not synonymous with peace, and not all wars lead to a state of peace. Be aware that wars linger behind the vagaries of rivalry, hatred, and animosity, often paving the way for another conflict in the future. Therefore, Tshisekedi, before planning to secure another presidential term, your responsibility is to first restore peace and order in the eastern provinces and address the humanitarian needs of the people there. It is time for Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala to act in unison to combat all rebels along their common borders.
(The writer is currently president of the Global Research Foundation)