Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Intensification of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with regional spillover
At least seventy armed groups are believed to be currently operating in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite the stabilizing presence of nineteen thousand UN peacekeepers, the stronger militant groups in the region, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), continue to terrorize communities and control weakly governed areas of the country, financing their activities by exploiting the country’s rich natural resources. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the fighting: the United Nations estimates that currently there are at least 2.7 million internally displaced persons in the DRC, and approximately 450,000 DRC refugees in other nations.
In addition to the violence caused by armed groups, President Joseph Kabila has caused further political instability by indicating a possible desire to delay the upcoming 2016 election and to stay in power after his term ends. In December 2015, Kabila called for “political dialogue” with opposition parties, but the police have violently cracked down on internal dissent. This includes the November 2015 use of tear gas against student protesters and the breakup of a January 2015 protest, in which police fired shots and killed over forty people.
Moise Katumbi, a popular opposition leader who was governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, declared his candidacy for the presidential election in early May 2015. Since his announcement, mass protests and clashes between the police and civilians have become increasingly tense and common.
The current violence in the DRC has its origins in the massive refugee crisis and spillover from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After Hutu génocidaires fled to eastern DRC and formed armed groups, opposing Tutsi and other opportunistic rebel groups arose. The Congolese government was unable to control and defeat the various armed groups, some of which directly threatened populations in neighboring countries. From 1998 to 2003, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe fought rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda, in what is now known as the Second Congo War. The death toll may have reached more than five million people (estimates vary greatly). Despite the signing of a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, weak governance and institutions, along with corruption and an absence of the rule of law, have contributed to ongoing violence perpetrated by armed groups against civilians in the eastern region.
One of the most prominent rebel groups to emerge in the aftermath was known as the March 23 Movement (M23), made up primarily of ethnic Tutsis allegedly supported by the Rwandan government. M23 rebelled against the Congolese government for supposedly reneging on a prior peace deal signed in 2009. It was defeated by the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers in 2013 after it gained control of Goma, a resource-rich provincial capital in eastern DRC on the border with Rwanda and home to more than one million people. The UN Security Council authorized an offensive brigade under the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC to support the DRC state army in its fight against M23. Since M23’s defeat, other armed groups have emerged due to general lawlessness, chaos, and weak governance in eastern DRC.
The country’s massive resource wealth—estimated to contain $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources—also fuels violence. The mineral trade provides financial means for groups to operate and buy arms. In an effort to prevent funding armed militias, the United States passed legislation in 2010 to reduce the purchase of “conflict minerals,” but due to the complex supply chains in the DRC mineral sale business, obtaining certification has proven difficult for companies that purchase resources from secondhand buyers. As a result, multinational companies stopped buying minerals from DRC, putting many miners out of work and even driving some to join armed groups to gain a source of livelihood.
Weak governance and the prevalence of many armed groups have subjected Congolese civilians to widespread rape and sexual violence, massive human rights violations, and extreme poverty. The United Nations, African Union, and neighboring countries have struggled to address threats posed by remaining rebel groups and promote sustainable development. The DRC’s continued violence has the potential to spill over into Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi—countries with longstanding ties with the United States.
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