DR Congo: Conflict Profile

The origins of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – formerly Zaire – are rooted both in the 32 years of Mobutu rule and in the lack of national cohesion since independence from Belgium in 1960. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Zaire splintered into various city states which became increasingly isolated from each other as roadways were eroded by neglect and communication systems collapsed. In many parts, conventional administration and the formal justice system disappeared, with several border towns, such as Goma, essentially becoming economic appendages of neighbouring countries.

DR Congo is often referred to as the worst and most neglected humanitarian crisis on Earth.
In addition to this decline of the nation state, the current conflict is also intimately connected to the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, where some 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered at the instigation of the extremist Hutu government. In 1996 Rwanda’s post-war Tutsi government invaded the DR Congo in pursuit of extremist Hutu militias that had fled across the border to the Eastern provinces. Acting on the back of the troubles in the East, Rwandan-backed Congolese rebels in Kinshasa brought to an end Mobutu’s 32-year rule, and helped install Laurent Kabila as President.

In 1997, a rift between newly instated President Kabila and his former allies Rwanda, preceded to cause a new rebellion. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe sided with Kabila against Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels as the country was turned into a vast battleground. In 2000 the United Nations Mission for Congo (MONUC) began, but the mission had a weak mandate and only 5,500 troops. The conflict continued to rage until 2003.

FARDC soldier at a parade.

FARDC soldier at a parade. Photo credit: Spyros Demetriou.

Whilst the majority of Kabila’s Southern African allies withdrew, rebel groups remained active in the four Eastern provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu, Ituri, and Maniema. In 2004 Rebel fighting in the region intensified and widespread riots began in protest in response to the UN’s failure to act. In the same year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into the War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in DR Congo.

In 2006, the first free elections in 40 years saw Joseph Kabila become President, but failed to deliver international expectations of peace. Sporadic violence has continued into 2009 with Rwandan Hutu militias clashing with government forces in April. Fragile peace deals between rebel militias and the government have recently been signed, but clashes broke out again in August 2009.

The World’s Deadliest War

A major driver of the continued violence is minerals, namely coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. Indeed, the cycle of violence that has enveloped the DR Congo since 1997 has presented opportunities for various armed groups, both state and non-state, to engage in the plunder of natural resources by creating and maintaining an environment of exploitation, instability and appalling inequality.

In Eastern DR Congo, militia groups and the state fight for control and access to mines, flourishing in the instability it creates. Demilitarisation means an end to the vast profits of the mines and this is an unattractive prospect. This violence and the turmoil it creates severely affects the agricultural livelihoods of the poor; reducing their capacity to produce and trade.

During the 1997 – 2003 conflict and in the continued violence, the human cost has been unprecedented. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates that some 5.4 million people have been killed and some 3.4 million forced to flee their homes. This equates to some 45,000 deaths a month.

Equally as shocking is the unparalleled surge in rape cases by militias and soldiers against the local populations. Such sexual violence traumatises women and girls, humiliates their husbands and often leads to the break up of families. For these reasons, DR Congo is often referred to as the worst and most neglected humanitarian crisis on Earth.

Last updated: August 2011