There has been violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the signing of a peace agreement in 2002 and establishment of a transitional government brought to an end the Second Congo War in 2003. Generally this has been a pattern of repeated occurrences of small scale violence, which collectively have the impact of a major armed conflict. The root causes of the violence, which is mostly directed at civilians, but also involves the targeting of rival groups, government forces and the UN, are the same as those that drove the two major wars of 1996-1997 and 1998-2003, namely: ethnic differences, the wealth to be exploited from mineral resources, and a continuing political crisis at the national level. Foreign actors, whether neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda, or the armed groups that operate from within them, have a major influence on the violence within the DRC and suffer from the consequences in turn. This is frequently the case in regional conflict complexes, where ethnic groups straddle borders, refugees move back and forth, and conflict in one country can easily cross borders. One example of this is the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, which reached its peak in the 1994 genocide, and has been a major contributor to political violence in the DRC. Both Rwanda and Uganda were heavily involved in the DRC’s two wars, with Rwanda seeking to counter cross border incursions by Hutu groups, wipe out the genocidaires and support Tutsi rebels in a region that all seek to exploit for its rich mineral resources.
The east of the DRC is the locus of ethnic conflict in the DRC and is a dangerous place for all. In 2005 the UN responded in force when nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were killed by a militia group. In 2008 the Congolese Army clashed with Hutu rebels, causing thousands to flee and in 2009 a joint Congolese-Rwandan operation targeted Tutsi rebels for five weeks. These are few of many instances where militias have fought either government forces or the UN and where alliances shift, armed groups splinter, and new ones emerge. A snapshot of the rebel groups in North and South Kivu alone was provided by the BBC in 2012 and cited the existence of 25 rebel factions, noting that it would have been out of date when it was published. The groups vary in size and capability, but even the smaller ones are capable of giving the Congolese Army or the UN a hard time and they are certainly capable of destroying a village or holding sway over mineral resources. They vary from Hutu Rwandan rebels of the FDLR, the Rai Mutomboki, which are ostensibly an anti-FDLR group, the Tutsi M23, to the numerous Mai Mai groups, which claim to be self-defence groups and the ADF-NALU, whom are Ugandan led Islamists. The M23 emerged in 2012 and are mutineers from the Congolese Army, at one point numbering between 1500 and 2000 fighters, while the allied Rai Mutomboki emerged in 2005 in response to massacres committed by the Hutu FDLP, which itself has splintered in factions. The rebel groups and militias, and the Congolese Army also, are responsible for human rights violations that increased dramatically in 2015, with reports of sexual violence, massacres and ethnic cleansing. The situation in North and South Kivu is hideously complex with shifting alliances and agendas, and with warlords exploiting the situation for both political and economic gain. Removing one group or militia from the picture through defeat or negotiation barely changes the situation at all in regions where the rewards of possessing or controlling access to natural resources can be gained at the point of a gun.
Yet, it is the recent turmoil emerging from the Kasai province that has brought the potential for a further spread of violence to light. The Kawawina Nsapu rebellion began for political reasons, yet quickly degenerated to ethnic cleansing in what is considered an opposition stronghold. It is in Kasai Central that two UN investigators and their interpreter were murdered in March and while the government has pointed the finger of blame in the direction of a militia, there is doubt as to who actually carried out the killings. The UN claims to have found eighty mass grave sites in the region and since August 2014 1.4 million people have fled the region. War crimes have been attributed to the militias, the Kawawina Nsapu, and an overwhelmingly brutal response by government forces, the last of which has been denied by the government. While the ethnic violence and banditry in the east has been an ongoing source of violence Kasai Central had been stable. It is here that regional politics has twinned with a national political crisis, which has then transitioned quickly to one involving severe inter-ethnic violence but with the underlying political dispute the driving force behind the escalation. The focus of the violence is one that is all too familiar: the government forces, their rivals, and the militias incur casualties, yet the majority of the victims are civilians who are targeted due to their political or ethnic identification with the warring parties. They are left with little choice but to either flee or be brutalised and killed.
The crisis in Kasai Central has sparked fears of a return to a wider civil war while the question of democratic succession remains unresolved. The Global and All-Inclusive Agreement that ended the Second Congo War was based on the idea of effective political representation but the incumbent President is reluctant to give up power. There is a potential for even wider escalation into a countrywide civil war, which in turn may draw in neighbouring countries. As it stands there is the all too familiar pattern of localised conflicts in which villages and towns are decimated or wiped out and the forces of the government are unable to contain the violence and are accused of being heavily involved in it. This leaves the population dependent on a UN force that is, unsurprisingly, of insufficient size.
Next week: Peacekeeping and peacemaking in the DRC.
For more information regarding this week’s blog see:
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator