The Democratic Republic of Congo
Author and Page information
- This page: https://www.globalissues.org/article/87/the-democratic-republic-of-congo.
- To print all information (e.g. expanded side notes, shows alternative links), use the print version:
Described by some as Africa’s first World War, the conflict in the DRC (formerly known as Zaire) has involved seven nations.
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.
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.
On this page:
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:
As well as Belgium’s historical interests, the changing world after World War II meant Cold War interests also played its part.
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.)
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:
The impact of this corruption is felt on the citizens:
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.
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:
- Storm Clouds over Sun City; The Urgent Need To Recast The Congolese Peace Process, from the International Crisis Group, 14 May 2002.
- Congo’s Situation is As Grave As Palestine’s, Daily Trust (Nigeria) 14 May, 2002, reposted at AllAfrica.com. This is an interview with Professor Ntalaja from the DRC and until recently UNDP Senior Special Adviser for Governance in Abuja, Nigeria. It provides a look at the ongoing situation in the DRC as well as questions about Joseph Kabila’s commitment to democracy.
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.
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):
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:
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:
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:
What drives the demand for this mineral? Most of modern computer-based technology:
For more information on the resources and minerals and other backgrounders, you can start off at the following links:
- Africa’s Seven-Nation War report from the International Crisis Group.
- 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, from United Nations Security Council, 12 April, 2001, which reveals a a massive level of illegal exploitation by corporations and countries alike.
- A summary of the lengthy UN report can also be seen here, from the Environment News Service.
- Guns, Money and Cell Phones, from the Industry Standard, Jun 11 2001, describes in detail the issues around coltan exploitation.
- A Black Mud From Africa Helps Power the New Economy by Blain Harden, New York Times, August 12, 2001
- What is Coltan? The Link Between your Cell Phone and Congo, by Imtiyaz Delawala, ABCNews.com, September 7, 2001.
- Conflict Cell Phones, by Anthony Lappé, Guerilla News Network, June 8, 2001
- Mineral for Cell Phones Aggravates Congo War from Drillbits and Tailings, a publication from Project Underground, Volume 6, Number 3, March 31, 2003
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.
Death Toll and the Effect on Civilians
As with most conflicts, civilians have suffered immensely.
Human Rights Watch raised concerns in a report in May 2000.
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.
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.
Does the World Care?
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.
For more on the conflict in this
Great Lakes region, visit the following:
- Reports from the International Crisis Group:
- From OneWorld On-line:
- From Le Monde Diplomatique:
- From Amnesty International:
Our brothers who help kill us—economic exploitation and human rights abuses in the east, A report from March 31, 2003. This report looks into human rights abuses and the linkage to economic exploitation taking place in areas under the control of the armed opposition groups and foreign forces, setting out the economic context in which violations are taking place. It looks at the major actors, and at the economic forces and mineral resources fueling the war. It documents human rights abuses and the failure to bring those suspected to be responsible to justice. It shows how the search for economic gain is still costing civilian lives.
- Democratic Republic of Congo: The Continuing Catastrophe from Amnesty International UK provides background and campaign information.
- All Amnesty reports and news articles
- From Human Rights Watch:
- Uganda in Eastern DRC: Fueling Political and Ethnic Strife is the 2001 Human Rights Watch report for the DRC.
- Eastern Congo Ravaged from Human Rights Watch’s 2000 report details some of the human rights violations and actions of various parties including the responses from the international community, including the UN, USA and European Union.
- Congo campaign page looks at the human rights situation in and around the DRC with links to many other reports etc.
- Reluctant Recruits: Children and adults forcibly recruited for military service in North Kivu reports on how child soldiers have been conscripted into service by rebel forces.
- From Oxfam:
- A Forgotten War—A Forgotten Emergency: The Democratic Republic of Congo, a Policy Paper, December 2000, provides many details and statistics, as well as criticism of the lack of international support.
- No End in Sight; The human tragedy of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo another Policy Paper, August 2001, provides updates to their previous report on the various issues such as the political, humanitarian and socioeconomic situations as well as a renewal of the criticisms.
- 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 is a report (in PDF format) from the United Nations Security Council, detailing the illegal exploitation by countries and corporations. (12 April, 2001)
- Democracy Now! radio show from July 3, 2001, looking back at some aspects of the recent history of the DRC from its independence.
- The Geopolitical Stakes of the International Mining Companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, by Pierre Baracyetse, a Mining Civil Engineer, December 1999.
Back to top