Despite their nation’s vast natural resources, from diamonds, gold and rare minerals to coffee and oil, the majority of the 77 million people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) exist in poverty, their lives all too often cut short by disease or war. In 2013 the UN Development Programme ranked the DRC at the bottom of its Human Development Index; in 2014 it was beaten to that dubious distinction only by Niger. In decades of conflict, beginning in the late 1990s and involving outside forces from Rwanda and Uganda to Burundi and Angola, more than 5 million people have died – the worst death toll in conflict since the second world war.
Gaining its independence from Belgium in 1960, the Republic of Congo – as it was then termed – was immersed in conflict almost from the start, with the mineral-rich south-eastern province of Katanga, under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, seeking to secede. Early in 1961 Katangan troops, helped by Belgian forces and with CIA encouragement, kidnapped and later killed the founder of the Mouvement National Congolais, Patrice Lumumba, who had earlier been removed as the country’s first prime minister by President Joseph Kasavubu.
The Katangan war ended in 1963 with an accord in which Kasavubu appointed Tshombe as his prime minister. However, their rule was short-lived: in 1965 they were ousted by the chief of the army, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, backed by the US and Belgium. Mobutu then began a dictatorial reign of three decades marked by staggering corruption and an extraordinary personality cult. In 1971, for example, he renamed both the country, as Zaire, and himself as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (the warrior who knows no defeat because of his endurance and inflexible will and is all powerful, leaving fire in his wake as he goes from conquest to conquest).
The country now known as Zaire was hardly immune from strife. In 1977 and 1978 attacks by Katangan rebels based in Angola were repulsed by troops from France, Belgium and Morocco. In 1991 riots by unpaid soldiers in the capital, Kinshasa (Leopoldville before Mobutu’s renaming exercise), helped persuade Mobutu to form a coalition government with the opposition – though an equally persuasive factor was the need to appease the US now that, with the end of the cold war, his professed anti-communism was no longer such a valuable political asset.
The demise of the Mobutu regime came as a consequence of the civil war in neighbouring Rwanda and the victory there of a Tutsiled government. The defeated Hutus had sought refuge in eastern Zaire, and in 1996 Mobutu ordered Tutsi residents to leave. This then provoked Tutsi rebels (the Banyamulenge), aided by troops from Rwanda and Uganda, to seize the eastern part of the country in the first Congo war. With Mobutu abroad for medical treatment, the rebels went on to occupy Kinshasa in 1997, appoint Laurent-Désiré Kabila, from the Luba tribe (the country’s largest), as president and rename the country as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sadly, this did not mean stability. Kabila’s decision to expel the Rwandan and Ugandan forces led, within a year, to the second Congo war, involving directly or indirectly some nine African nations and at least 20 armed groups. In 1999 a ceasefire agreement was signed in the Zambian capital of Lusaka by six combatant nations (the DRC, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Uganda), but in practice, and despite the presence of a 5,500-strong UN monitoring force, the fighting continued. In 2001 Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard, perhaps at the behest of Rwanda, and was succeeded by his son, Joseph, who agreed to a peace accord signed in Pretoria in 2002 by all the warring parties, followed by a transitional government of national unity in July 2003 and elections in 2006.
Despite the elections, characterised by violence but with Joseph Kabila emerging as victor, coup attempts continued, as did conflict in the east, with government forces clashing with Rwandan Hutus, who ironically had once been their allies. In 2009, after yet more turmoil in the eastern part of the country, the government signed a peace deal with the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP, its French abbreviation), a mostly Tutsi rebel group. However, attempts to integrate CNDP troops into the government’s forces failed, provoking CNDP defectors in 2012 to set up the M23 armed movement, named after an abortive March 23rd 2009 peace accord.
The M23 movement signed a peace agreement with the government in December 2013, but it is hard to see this as a precursor to genuine stability in the DRC – despite the efforts of some 22,000 peacekeepers from more than 50 countries in a UN mission set up after the 1999 Lusaka accord. Meanwhile, there are community-based militias known as Mai-Mai; armed groups led by local warlords; and the Lord’s Resistance Army (in flight from neighbouring Uganda): all continue to terrorise the population, burning villages, raping women and forcibly recruiting children as soldiers.
There have been a few examples of the perpetrators being held to account. In the first Congo war Thomas Lubanga was a commander of the pro-Uganda Congolese Rally for Democracy–Liberation (RCD–ML, its French abbreviation). He then founded the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and led its military wing, the Patriotic Force for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC). But in 2006 he became the first person to be hauled off to the ICC in The Hague for war crimes (he was found guilty in 2012).
Another to appear in The Hague is Bosco Ntanganda, a Rwandan-born Tutsi who in 2009 was a general in President Kabila’s Congolese army, even though the ICC had already indicted him in 2006 on charges of conscripting child soldiers during his previous stints as a rebel commander. Ntanganda, nicknamed “the Terminator”, defected with 600 soldiers from the government’s side in 2012 and formed the M23 group; but it was a dispute with another M23 commander, Sultani Makenga, that led to his appearance in The Hague. Apparently fearing for his life, Ntanganda sought refuge in the US embassy in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, from where he was whisked away to face the court.
Whatever the occasional success of the ICC or of the UN peacekeepers, the underlying truth is that the DRC is close to being a failed state, prone to constant conflict, especially in the five eastern provinces of Orientale, North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema and Katanga. Insurgents from neighbouring countries, such as Uganda’s Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Rwanda’s Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and Burundi’s Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), use the DRC territory as a haven and prey on the local population. At the same time Rwanda aids Congolese Tutsi groups rebelling against Kinshasa and confronting the DRC army. Most depressing of all, perhaps, is the simple fact that so many warlords – Ntanganda was a good example – profit so handsomely from illegal logging, “conflict diamonds” and other aspects of the war economy. As Peace Direct, a non-governmental organisation, has pointed out, peace agreements in the DRC have often been flawed, allowing rebel commanders to join the national army and yet keep their illegal moneymaking networks intact.