The Democratic Republic of Congo

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Saturday, August 21, 2010

Described by some as Africa’s first World War, the conflict in the DRC (formerly known as Zaire) has involved seven nations.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is an enormous country in the center of the African continentThe central African country is bordered by numerous nations with whom it has had conflicts

There have been a number of complex reasons, including conflicts over basic resources such as water, access and control over rich minerals and other resources as well as various political agendas.

This has been fueled and supported by various national and international corporations and other regimes which have an interest in the outcome of the conflict.

Since the outbreak of fighting in August 1998,

  • Some 5.4 million people have died
  • It has been the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II
  • The vast majority have actually died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition—all typically preventable in normal circumstances, but have come about because of the conflict
  • Although 19% of the population, children account for 47% of the deaths
  • Although many have returned home as violence has slightly decreased, there are still some 1.5 million internally displaced or refugees
  • Some 45,000 continue to die each month

These shocking figures would usually be more than enough to get media attention the world over, especially if it were to threaten influential nations in some way. Yet, perhaps as a cruel irony, influential nations in the world benefit from the vast resources coming from the DRC for which people are dying over.

Brief Background

As with most conflicts in Africa, the current situation has much to do with the legacy of colonialism. From the violent 1885 Belgian imposition of colonial rule by King Leopold II who regarded it as his personal fiefdom and called it the Congo Free State (but apparently never once went there himself), millions have been killed. The murders have been grotesque, with chopped limbs and more, similar to what has been seen in Sierra Leone recently.

After 75 years of colonial rule, the Belgians left very abruptly, relinquishing the political rights to the people of Congo in 1960. However, economic rights were not there for the country to flourish.

This brief video summarizes the initial challenges the DRC faced after independence:

Patrice Lumumba, January 11, 2007

As well as Belgium’s historical interests, the changing world after World War II meant Cold War interests also played its part.

More evidence has emerged that when United States president Dwight Eisenhower met his national security advisers to talk about the situation in Congo two months after the June 1961 independence he said Lumumba, the country’s first prime minister, should be eliminated.

Derek Ingram, 40 years on—Lumumba still haunts the West, Gemini News Service, 1 September 2000

Just a few months after Lumumba became head of state, he was overthrown with US and European support for a Cold War ally, Mobutu Sese Soko, (and for the rich resources that would then be available cheaply, rather than used for Congo’s own people and development.)

U.S. policy toward Mobutu was rationalized on the grounds of fighting “communism” and Soviet influence in Africa, but the U.S. was clearly more concerned with securing its own interests in the region than helping foster a stable, secure, and peaceful future for the people of Central Africa. Lying at the center of the continent, Zaire could provide the U.S. with access to important resources, transportation routes, and political favors. Over the years, U.S. rhetoric changed slightly, placing greater emphasis on democratic reform of the regime and increased attention to human rights, but in reality policy continued to focus on promoting narrowly defined U.S. economic and strategic interests.

… The U.S. prolonged the rule of Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Soko by providing more than $300 million in weapons and $100 million in military training. Mobutu used his U.S.-supplied arsenal to repress his own people and plunder his nation’s economy for three decades, until his brutal regime was overthrown by Laurent Kabila’s forces in 1997. When Kabila took power, the Clinton administration quickly offered military support by developing a plan for new training operations with the armed forces.

William D. Hartung and Bridget Moix, Deadly Legacy: U.S. Arms to Africa and the Congo War, Arms Trade Resource Center, World Policy Institute, January 2000

As Stephen Weissman summarizes, in 2002, following an extensive parliamentary inquiry, the Belgian government assumed a portion of responsibility for Lumumba’s murder. But the US continued to deny allegations of its involvement. But a new analysis of declassified documents shows the US certainly played a role in Lumumba’s death.

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Struggle for Political Power

The US backed the dictator Mobutu in the overthrow of the previous leader, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1960. (Lumumba was also non-aligned in geopolitical/cold-war sense, so not seen favorably by the US.) Corruption, siphoning off massive personal wealth, a plunge in copper prices, and mounting debt led to enormous economic downturns:

From the time of Belgian colonial rule, the inhabitants of the region have derived little if any benefit from its natural wealth. Instead, they have suffered an unbroken succession of abusive political administrations, military authorities and armed political groups that have looted the region and committed human rights abuses with impunity. King Leopold II accrued vast personal wealth without ever setting foot on Congolese soil. The Belgian rulers of the then Belgian Congo, from 1905 to 1960 used slave labour to plunder its rubber, ivory and timber.

After independence in 1960, the long presidency of Mobutu Sese Seko made the newly named Zaire notorious for cronyism and corruption. When President Mobutu came into office in 1965, a sustained period of institutionalised corruption and misappropriation of state resources began. Large proportions of the revenues from state-owned companies, such as the copper and cobalt company Gécamines, went not to the state treasury but straight into the pockets of President Mobutu and his closest allies.

“Our brothers who help kill us”—economic exploitation and human rights abuses in the east, Amnesty International Report, AFR 62/010/2003, April 1, 2003.

The impact of this corruption is felt on the citizens:

Today, Mobutu is deposed and dead, but his legacies live on. His family holds his fortune, and his country holds his $12 billion debt. In a nation with an annual income of $110 per capita, each resident theoretically owes foreign creditors $236.

David Malin Roodman, Still Waiting for the Jubilee, World Watch Institute, 26 April 2001.

Since then, there have been many internal conflicts where all sides have been supported from various neighbors. The conflict has also been fueled by weapons sales and by military training. The weapons have come from the former Soviet bloc countries as well as the United States, who have also provided military training.

The United States military has been covertly involved in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a US parliamentary subcommittee has been told. Intelligence specialist Wayne Madsen, appearing before the US House subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, also said American companies, including one linked to former President George Bush Snr, the father of the current US President, are stoking the Congo conflict for monetary gains.

John Kakande, US Army Operated Secretly in Congo, allAfrica.com, June 17, 2001

When Congolese President Laurent Kabila came to power in May 1997, toppling Marshall Mobutu, with the aid of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea, it was hoped that a revival would be seen in the region. Instead, the situation deteriorated. Kabila, also backed by the US, had been accused by rebels (made up of Congolese soldiers, Congolese Tutsi Banyamulenge, Rwandan, Ugandan and some Burundian government troops) of turning into a dictator, of mismanagement, corruption and supporting various paramilitary groups who oppose his former allies. As the conflict had raged on, rebels controlled about a third of the entire country (the eastern parts). Laurent Kabila had received support from Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops.

Up to the assasination of Laurent Kabila in January 2001, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia supported the Congolese government, while the rebels were backed by the governments of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The reasons for different regions getting involved are all murky. Rwanda is one example, summarizing a Daily Telegraph news report (31 August 2002): The role of Rwanda, though small, has had a number of forces in large areas of the country. This has been in the backdrop of the genocide when more than 800,000 mainly Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered. Hutu interahamwe militia carried out most of the massacres and fled to neighboring Congo in the eastern region of the DRC after the genocide. From there, they often launched attacks into their home country, prompting a Rwandan invasion. As a result, Rwanda has justified its role in the four-year war by saying it wanted to secure its border, while critics accused it of using the interahamwe attacks as an excuse to deploy 20,000 troops to take control of Congolese diamond mines and other mineral resources.

And as Amnesty International adds, “the UN Panel of Experts indicated, in its first report [Report of the UN Panel of Experts, April 2001] that, unlike Rwanda, the Ugandan government does not benefit directly as a government from the resources exploitation in Congo. Only individuals were gaining from it. But the Ugandan government has remained silent and has taken no disciplinary action against those individuals.”

The effects and tactics seen from the conflict have been many, according to the same Amnesty report, including:

  • Shifting alliances as needed to achieve the economic exploitation;
  • Repeated military operations and violence, including rape and other forms of attacks on civilians, in areas rich in mineral resources;
  • Disrupting humanitarian assistance;
  • Pillage as a strategy of war;
    • Looting often accompanied by torture, killings, rape
    • Targeting harvests
    • Stealing from medical centers
    • Planned and coordinated attacks and robbing of villages
    • Systematically pillaging food aid
  • Killing people for resisting extortion;
  • Corruption and 'taxation' where the taxes are not used for the stated purposes or are extortionate, while exempting elites in various ways;
  • Public services have predictably collapsed;
  • Ethnic rivalries have been fueled by economic interests;
  • Forced labor and displacement;
  • Sexual exploitation;
  • and many more.

Despite the Lusaka peace agreement signed in 1999, there was still fighting going on and the peace was fragile. There were various political problems in trying to get a UN peacekeeping force in there to help out, while killings continued. Due to conflicts of interests, there were fears that the UN peacekeeping mission would even be aborted before it got started. (The UN deployed team is known as MONUC. It was a small cease-fire monitoring body whose mandate was strengthened in July 2003 to “protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.” Amnesty International for example, has noted that “MONUC has been a hostage to its weak mandate and has lacked the necessary equipment, personnel and international political backing.”)

On January 16, 2001 Laurent Kabila himself was assassinated and his son Joseph Kabila was sworn in as the new President of the DRC. He said that he would further the need for cooperation with the United Nations in deployment of troops, further dialog of national reconciliation and help revive the stalled Lusaka peace agreements (also with France’s request). However, the alignments of power have been in flux with many parties involved.

In a dialog that was supposed to comprise five components, two rebel movements, an opposition group (the MLC) as well as the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy, non-armed opposition groups, political parties, civil society organizations and the government, only the government and one opposition group did the main talks on the power sharing question. The Lusaka agreements were declared dead, though it was said that attempts would be made to continue dialog. Various other groups have had disagreements on a variety of issues, and as the International crisis group concludes (14 May 2002), “the future for the Democratic Republic of Congo remains uncertain.”

For more on the issue of power sharing and the political realignments in the conflict see for example:

Nonetheless, at the end of August 2002, a peace agreement had been signed to supposedly end the civil war, though only Jospeh Kabila, president of DRC, and Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda were party to this agreement.

However, the United Nations reported in October 2002 that the plunder of gems and minerals continued, with elite networks running a self-financing war economy centered on pillage.

The main fighting has been on the eastern side of DRC. It is mostly under foreign control, and over three quarters of the estimated number of killings have taken place there, with approximately 90 per cent of the DRC’s internally displaced population having fled violence from that region.

Under a growing escalation of violence, in June 2003 a small “rapid reaction force” led by the French (Interim Emergency Multinational Force—IEMF) was also deployed to the town of Bunia in eastern DRC. However, its mandate was very limited and was withdrawn on 1 September 2003 to be replaced by a larger contingent of MONUC. Amnesty International noted that IEMF had been almost universally welcomed by the civilian population of Bunia, having contributed greatly to improving the security situation in Bunia itself. With the replacement by MONUC, Amnesty International has continued raising concerns at the limited mandate, resources, international political backing and resolve of MONUC.

In 2006, Joseph Kabila was elected as president in what was deemed a credible electoral process where around two thirds of voters actually voted, just under 60% of whom voted for Kabila. Around 40% voted for Jean-Pierre Bemba who was more popular along the eastern part of the country.

Kabila was voted in on a strong platform of prices to stamp out corruption and promote health, education, housing, employment and infrastructure. However, some four years on the International Crisis Group describes his record as “abysmal” because his presidency is “seeking to impose its power on all branches of the state and maintain parallel networks of decision-making.” In addition,

The regime has undermined the independence of the judicial branch by running an anti-corruption campaign that is politically biased. It has used money and coercion to eliminate challenges to its authority and to fight against the local rebellions that have happened since 2006. Kabila is contemplating amending the constitution on the pretext of addressing difficulties in implementing decentralisation. Any constitutional amendment aiming at concentrating more power at the level of the presidency or controlling dissenting voices, however, would pose a threat to already weakened mechanisms of checks and balances. It is unlikely local elections will be held before the end of parliament’s first term, putting the prospect of general elections in 2011 at risk.

… Given its size and its tense internal politics, the DRC is prone to local rebellions fuelled by domestic discontent that can easily get out of control. In this context, a new international strategy is needed to support democratic consolidation and to prevent new risks of destabilisation.

Congo: A Stalled Democratic Agenda, Africa Briefing 73, International Crisis Group, April 8, 2010

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An International Battle Over Resources

Due to the immense natural resources in this nation, various foreign powers, as well as internal, have sought to gain an advantage.

Laurent Kabila had accused some of his former allies, such as Rwanda and Uganda as having ulterior motives, especially in terms of resources, such as water, diamonds, and other vast, rich resources and minerals. In fact, all sides have been accused of having commercial interests in this war due to the vast resources involved.

The DRC’s rich resources provide easy ways to finance the conflict and the rebels had long been successful in setting up financial administrative bodies in their controlled areas, especially with regards to trading with Rwanda and Uganda, while Kabila had also been able to finance his side of the conflict.

There are many resources and minerals etc being exploited, including (but not limited to):

  • Water
  • Diamonds
  • Coltan
  • Cassiterite
  • Tin
  • Copper
  • Timber

A number of major human rights groups have charged that some multinational corporations from rich nations have been profiting from the war and have developed “elite networks” of key political, military, and business elites to plunder the Congo’s natural resources.

Yet, a number of companies and western governments pressured a United Nations panel to omit details of shady business dealings in a report out in October 2003. As reported by the British newspaper, The Independent:

Last October [2002], the panel accused 85 companies of breaching OECD standards through their business activities. Rape, murder, torture and other human rights abuses followed the scramble to exploit Congo’s wealth after war exploded in 1998.

For example the trade in coltan, a rare mineral used in computers and mobile phones, had social effects “akin to slavery”, the panel said. But no Western government had investigated the companies alleged to have links with such abuses. Some, including ones from the UK, US, Belgium and Germany, had lobbied to have their companies’ names cleared from the “list of shame”.

“Many governments overtly or covertly exerted pressure on the panel and the Security Council to exonerate their companies,” Ms Feeney said. Some companies gave legitimate explanations for their business in Congo, or pulled out. But lawyers for others challenge the panel’s findings, often capitalising on errors in earlier reports as proof of unreliability.

In the report this week, the cases against 48 companies are “resolved” and requiring “no further action”.

Declan Walsh, UN cuts details of Western profiteers from Congo report, The Independent, October 27, 2003

When the UN finally released the report at the end of October 2003, they listed approximately 125 companies and individuals listed that had been named in a previous report by the panel for having contributed directly or indirectly to the conflict in the DRC.

Other companies, the report noted, may not have been directly linked to conflict, but had more indirect ties to the main protagonists. Such companies benefited from the chaotic environment in the DRC. For example, they would obtain concessions or contracts from the DRC on terms that were more favorable than they might receive in countries where there was peace and stability. (See for example, page 6, par 12 of the report.)

The above-mentioned coltan has been the source of much controversy lately:

Hidden cost of mobile phones, computers, stereos and VCRs?

The ore, Columbite-tantalite, or coltan for short, isn’t perhaps as well known as some of the other resources and minerals. However, the demand for the highly prized tantalum that comes from the refined coltan has enormous impacts, as highlighted by a recent U.N. Security Council report where an expert panel was established on the illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

Given the substantial increase in the price of coltan between late 1999 and late 2000, a period during which the world supply was decreasing while the demand was increasing, a kilo of coltan of average grade was estimated at $200. According to the estimates of professionals, the Rwandan army through Rwanda Metals was exporting at least 100 tons per month. The Panel estimates that the Rwandan army could have made $20 million per month, simply by selling the coltan that, on average, intermediaries buy from the small dealers at about $10 per kg. According to experts and dealers, at the highest estimates of all related costs (purchase and transport of the minerals), RPA must have made at least $250 million over a period of 18 months. This is substantial enough to finance the war. Here lies the vicious circle of the war. Coltan has permitted the Rwandan army to sustain its presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The army has provided protection and security to the individuals and companies extracting the mineral. These have made money which is shared with the army, which in turn continues to provide the enabling environment to continue the exploitation.

Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations Security Council, April 12, 2001.

The report also mentions Ugandan and Burundian rebels being involved in looting and smuggling of coltan, using illegal monopolies, forced labor, prisoners and even murder. According to the Industry Standard, “[t]hese accusations have not been taken lightly; several members of the U.N. panel that prepared the report have since received death threats. Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have issued protests to the United Nations over the report, claiming it to be inaccurate and unfounded.”

A follow up report in October 2003 also noted that:

In 1999 and 2000 a sharp increase in the world prices of tantalum occurred, leading to a large increase in coltan production in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of that new production involved rebel groups and unscrupulous business people forcing farmers and their families to leave their land, or chasing people off land where coltan was found and forcing them to work in artisanal mines. As a result, the widespread destruction of agriculture and devastating social effects occurred, which in a number of instances where akin to slavery.

Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations Security Council, S/2003/1027, October 28, 2003

What drives the demand for this mineral? Most of modern computer-based technology:

It [Tantalum, which is refined coltan] sells for $100 a pound, and it’s becoming increasingly vital to modern life. For the high-tech industry, tantalum is magic dust, a key component in everything from mobile phones made by Nokia and Ericsson and computer chips from Intel to Sony stereos and VCRs.

Kristi Essick, Guns, Money and Cell Phones, The Industry Standard, Jun 11 2001

For more information on the resources and minerals and other backgrounders, you can start off at the following links:

Amnesty International details that there have been many human rights violations reported due to the economic exploitation. For example:

  • Thousands of Congolese civilians have been tortured and killed during military operations to secure mineral-rich lands.
  • Foreign forces from Rwanda and Uganda have promoted interethnic conflicts and mass killings as a means to secure mining zones.
  • Combatants of the various forces in the region have killed or tortured independent miners and traders for their minerals or money.
  • Many of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, driven from their homes into neighboring countries or other parts of the DRC, have died from malnutrition and lack of access to humanitarian assistance.
  • Children as young as 12 have been among those forced into hard labor in the mines.
  • Human rights defenders who have reported or criticized such abuses have been beaten, detained, forced to flee, or killed.

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Death Toll and the Effect on Civilians

As with most conflicts, civilians have suffered immensely.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has attempted a few surveys during the conflict. As of writing, their latest survey was up to April 2007, released in early 2008.

The IRC found that since the war started in 1998,

  • Some 5.4 million people have died in this conflict
  • It has been the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II
  • The vast majority have actually died from non-violent causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition—all typically preventable in normal circumstances, but have come about because of the conflict
  • Although 19% of the population, children account for 47% of the deaths
  • Some 45,000 continue to die each month

Although many have returned home as violence has slightly decreased, Refugees International says there are still some 1.5 million internally displaced or refugees

Unfortunately, the scale of death and destruction revealed is not new. While mainstream media reporting has been sparse and many are unaware of the sheer enormity of this conflict various organizations have been reporting about this problem since the very beginnings of the conflict.

Human Rights Watch raised concerns in a report in May 2000.

In December 2000, Oxfam highlighted that over a million people have been killed due to the conflict in the initial two years.

By mid-2001, one of IRC’s earlier surveys estimated that there had already been around 2.5 million deaths since the outbreak of the fighting in August 1998, with the majority dying of malnutrition and disease that has resulted from the war.

By mid-2003, Amnesty International was reporting on the humantarian disaster of millions displaced and killed.

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Effects on the Environment and Wildlife

The coltan trade and battle over the other minerals and resources has also affected DRC’s wildlife and environment. National Parks that house endangered gorillas and other animals are often overrun to exploit minerals and resources. Increasing poverty and hunger from the war, as well as more people moving into these areas to exploit the minerals results in hunting more wildlife, such as apes, for bush meat. Gorillas, for example are already endangered species. Wars over resources like this makes the situation even worse.

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Does the World Care?

I am convinced now … that the lives of Congolese people no longer mean anything to anybody. Not to those who kill us like flies, our brothers who help kill us or those you call the international community.… Even God does not listen to our prayers any more and abandons us.

Salvatore Bulamuzi, a member of the Lendu community whose parents, two wives and five children were all killed in recent attacks on the town of Bunia, north-eastern DRC. (Quoted from “Our brothers who help kill us”—economic exploitation and human rights abuses in the east, a report from Amnesty International, AFR 62/010/2003, April 1, 2003.)

Oxfam, mentioned above, criticized the international community in their 2000 report for still ignoring the DRC. When comparing with the response in Kosovo, they pointed out that “[i]n 1999, donor governments gave just $8 per person in the DRC, while providing $207 per person in response to the UN appeal for the former Yugoslavia. While it is clear that both regions have significant needs, there is little commitment to universal entitlement to humanitarian assistance.” (Emphasis added)

Oxfam also noted that “[t]he international community is essentially ignoring what has been deemed ‘Africa’s first world war.’ The DRC remains a forgotten emergency. Falling outside of the media spotlight, and experiencing persistent shortfalls in pledged humanitarian aid, the population of the DRC has been largely abandoned to struggle for their own survival.”

Slowly though, in some mainstream media, there have been questions of why international efforts are not seen here, especially when compared to that given to Kosovo.

An updated Oxfam report, while written back in 2001, also noted the following facts (some numbers may be out of date and have gotten worse, but the sheer scale of these numbers alone are shocking):

  • More than two million people are internally displaced; of these, over 50 per cent are in eastern DRC. More than one million of the displaced have received absolutely no outside assistance.
  • It is estimated that up to 2.5 million people in DRC have died since the outbreak of the war, many from preventable diseases.
  • At least 37 per cent of the population, approximately 18.5 million people, have no access to any kind of formal health care.
  • 16 million people have critical food needs.
  • There are 2,056 doctors for a population of 50 million; of these, 930 are in Kinshasa.
  • Infant mortality rates in the east of the country have in places reached 41 per cent per year.
  • Severe malnutrition rates among children under five have reached 30 per cent in some areas.
  • National maternal mortality is 1837 per 100,000 live births, one of the worst in the world. Rates as high as 3,000/100,000 live births have been recorded in eastern DRC.
  • DRC is ranked 152nd on the UNDP Human Development index of 174 countries: a fall of 12 places since 1992.
  • 2.5 million people in Kinshasa live on less than US$1 per day. In some parts of eastern DRC, people are living on US$0.18 per day.
  • 80 per cent of families in rural areas of the two Kivu Provinces have been displaced at least once in the past five years.
  • There are more than 10,000 child soldiers. Over 15 per cent of newly recruited combatants are children under the age of 18. A substantial number are under the age of 12.
  • Officially, between 800,000 and 900,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS.
  • 40 per cent of health infrastructure has been destroyed in Masisi, North Kivu.
  • Only 45 per cent of people have access to safe drinking water. In some rural areas, this is as low as three per cent.
  • Four out of ten children are not in school. 400,000 displaced children have no access to education.
  • Of 145,000 km of roads, no more than 2,500km are asphalt.

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More Information

For more on the conflict in this “Great Lakes” region, visit the following:

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 05, 1999
  • Last Updated: Saturday, August 21, 2010

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Document Revision History

DateReason
August 21, 2010Small update on new info about US role in Lumumba’s death and on the democratic balance with the current government.
March 27, 2008Updated figures related to the death toll. The remainder remains unchanged since October 31, 2003—for now.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.