Why Is There So Much Turmoil in Eastern Congo?

At its worst point, it was labeled Africa’s World War, a transnational conflict that cost millions of people’s lives. At best over the past decades, there has been a fragile peace. But there has never been a definitive end to the conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now it’s resurging. Growing tension between Congo (formerly known as Zaire) and its neighbor Rwanda is threatening to spark a war in Africa’s Great Lakes region. However, like other crises in Africa — such as famine, drought, coups and ethnic violence — it has received little international attention with all eyes on the war in Ukraine.

For weeks, Congo has accused Rwanda of backing the rebel group M23, which has killed civilians in a spate of new attacks, captured a cross-border trading town, caused more than 25,000 people to flee and likely shot down a United Nations helicopter, killing eight peacekeepers on board, according to a recent UN report. Rwanda has denied supporting the rebels, but relations between the two countries have still been strained. One Congolese official even declared that if Rwanda “wants war, it will have war.”

In mid-June, President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo suspended bilateral agreements with Rwanda and accused the country of wanting to occupy Congo’s land to profit from its vast mineral wealth.

“Eastern Congolese civilians are innocents under brutal attack from our neighbor,” he said.

Rwanda, in turn, has accused Congo of attacking its border. In May, Rwanda’s Ministry of Defense said two of its soldiers on patrol were kidnapped by rebels, and later announced their return following a diplomatic intervention.

Each side has accused the other of firing rockets across the border. On June 17, Congo closed its border after a Rwandan police officer killed a Congolese soldier, who Rwanda said had shot and injured its security forces inside Rwandan territory.

Thousands of Congolese have taken to the streets to protest what they see as Rwandan aggression. Meanwhile, the United Nations has warned of an escalation in hate speech and discrimination in the region against speakers of Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s official language.

Here’s why there’s been so much turmoil in eastern Congo.

With smoking volcanoes, glassy lakes ringed by rippling hills and rainforests brimming with biodiversity, eastern Congo is known as one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The area is home to more than 16 million of the country’s estimated 90 million people. Most in eastern Congo are farmers, living in villages scattered across the countryside and growing their own food — when it’s safe enough to do so. These are people buffeted by decades of war: Millions have been killed, raped or driven from their homes and into camps by violent attacks over the years. When these attacks happen, there is no reliable police force or functioning courts to hold perpetrators to account.

People sometimes seek refuge in the region’s handful of cities, but these are also not exactly safe. Periodically, a volcano explodes over Goma, a commercial hub. The last time this happened, in June of 2021, 5,000 homes were destroyed. And in 2012, the city was seized by rebel fighters from the M23 — the militia at the root of the latest tension between Congo and Rwanda.

Around 120 armed groups roam the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri, according to a 2021 report by the Kivu Security Tracker, which maps violence and abuses in eastern Congo. Many of these are militias that have existed, under one name or another, for years.

The most dominant groups these days include the Allied Democratic Forces, the deadliest in the region, which was formed in 1995 in opposition to Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni. There is also the Cooperative for Development of Congo, or CODECO, which has at least four offshoots and has carried out hundreds of attacks since 2018. The authorities struggle to distinguish them from civilians.

And then there’s the March 23 Movement, or M23, which mostly consists of Tutsis, the same ethnic group as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. The group’s attacks on Congo’s government have surged since late last year, after it accused authorities of failing to observe a 2009 peace deal with the group and discriminating against people who speak the language Kinyarwanda. In May, Congo designated the M23 a terrorist group.

There are nearly 18,000 peacekeepers and other UN personnel in eastern Congo whose effectiveness is often called into question as attacks continue and civilians flee.

It began with the Rwandan genocide, in 1994, when over a million people of the Hutu ethnic group fled Rwanda for Congo, then called Zaire. Among the Hutus were many genocidaires, those who had been responsible for killing millions of Tutsis.

In 1996, Rwanda invaded Congo, and backed the rebellion that eventually led to the taking of Kinshasa, the capital.

This led to the downfall of Congo’s long-time kleptocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been backed by the United States and was forced into exile.

Ever since, eastern Congo has been a bloody playground for armed groups, who have killed, murdered and profited from the billions of dollars worth of minerals smuggled out.

“Certainly the genocide was a catalyst,” said Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a historian of Congo who was recently appointed its permanent representative to the United Nations. “Had the genocide not happened, probably we would not have faced all of these issues.”

But the roots of the crisis go back further than the genocide. Congo gained its independence in 1960 from Belgium, which had ruled the colony oppressively for decades. After Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated — for which Belgium has since admitted “moral responsibility” — the African nation has been ruled by successive governments that have failed to bring peace and prosperity.

As a teenager, Prof. Nzongola-Ntalaja danced to the infectious rumba beat of Grand Kalle’s hit Indépendance Cha-cha, celebrating Congo’s independence. But now, he said, he sees the way things unfolded as “a big mistake.”

Belgium first denied Congo’s political leaders the two-year transition period they asked for, then rushed to cast off the Congolese with no preparation to take over the reins of government. Belgium, meanwhile, maneuvered to protect its own economic interests in the country — for example, by backing secessionists in the mineral-rich region of Katanga.

“They set it up to fail,” he said.

Congo’s mineral-rich earth is a treasure trove for those who have access.

“Congo is fascinatingly rich,” said Vava Tampa, a community organizer and founder of the rights group Save the Congo.

There’s gold. Coltan. Tourmaline. More gold. A fortune lies in eastern Congo’s earth, and its neighbors know it. For them and for some Congolese officials, war is a handy cover for smuggling.

“A large part of the gold traded by Uganda and Rwanda is sourced fraudulently from neighboring countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said a 2018 report published by the UN Group of Experts on Congo.

Between 10 and 20 tons of gold are smuggled out of Congo every year. Much of it is exported to Dubai before being made into jewelry sold around the world.

Lately, Kenya has been leading efforts to broker peace, gathering leaders from the East African Community — a seven-nation regional bloc that includes both Congo and Rwanda — to try to resolve the crisis. The bloc announced a new regional force, but it was not clear when it would deploy or whose troops it would comprise, although Congo was insistent that it Shouldn’t include Rwandans.

The M23 seems undeterred. Its plan is to take the city of Goma and force Congo’s government to accept its demands, according to a recent UN report. But one of those demands is that its fighters be integrated into the Congolese military, which Congo’s former President Joseph Kabila agreed to — and which Professor Nzongola-Ntalaja said President Tshisekedi would not accept.

Even as accusations fly that Rwanda is behind the M23, the country has faced little international blowback. Rwanda hosted the prestigious Commonwealth meetings in June and is preparing to take in Britain’s deported asylum seekers. According to many Congolese, these efforts reduce the incentive for Western countries to look too closely at its actions.

And as long as violence is profitable and there is little international pressure to stop it, it will continue, several analysts said.

“M23 is resurfacing because there is a gap,” Mr. Tampa said. “The international community’s attention is now focused on what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar, Senegal, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Kigali, Rwanda. Susan Beachy contributed research.

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