Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC; the Congo) has been ongoing since the 1990s. The country has faced political repression and instability since it achieved independence in 1960. DRC is the fourth-largest African country by population and the most populous francophone country in the world, and is home to an abundance of vital natural resources. Despite its massive human capital and resource endowment, peace has eluded the Congo, and human security challenges have proliferated. Currently, eastern DRC is the site of ethnic conflict and violent resource competition involving ethnic militias, Congolese security forces, UN troops, and complex external interests.
Since 1996, conflict in eastern DRC has led to approximately six million deaths. The First Congo War (1996—1997), began in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, during which ethnic Hutu extremists killed an estimated one million minority ethnic Tutsis and non-extremist Hutus in Rwanda (DRC’s neighbor to the east). During and following the genocide, nearly two million Hutu refugees crossed the Congolese border, mostly settling in refugee camps in the North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. A small subset of those Rwandans who entered DRC were Hutu extremists who feared retribution or prosecution at home and began organizing militias within the Congo. Pressure intensified as Tutsi militias organized against the Hutu groups and as foreign powers began taking sides.
Following the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) victory against the genocidal Rwandan government, the new Tutsi government began its involvement in DRC (then known as The Republic of Zaire). Rwandan troops, under the leadership of Paul Kagame, and Congo-based Tutsi militias with Rwandan backing launched an invasion of Zaire, which was ruled at the time by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Kigali justified both efforts by arguing that Hutu groups in eastern DRC were still a threat to their own Tutsi population and that the Mobutu regime was harboring Hutu extremists who had fled across the countries’ shared border. Rwanda waged war against Zaire with the help of other African states (most significantly Uganda, but also Angola and Burundi) who had their own security concerns related to Kinshasa’s support of rebel groups across the continent. The invasion was coordinated by Zaire’s then-opposition leader Laurent Kabila. Thousands died; some casualties were former Hutu militants and members of armed groups, but many were refugees and non-combatant Congolese in the Kivu region. Methods of warfare were brutal, especially those employed by Rwandan soldiers and Tutsi groups. The Kabila-Kagame coalition won the First Congo War in 1997 when Mobutu fled Kinshasa. Kabila was installed as president of Zaire and changed the country’s name back to The Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 1998, the Second Congo War broke out following the deterioration of relations between Kigali and Kinshasa. In an attempt to diminish the impression that Rwanda held undue influence over the Congolese government, Kabila denied claims that Rwanda had been responsible for winning the war and placing him in power. Kabila also began removing ethnic Tutsis from his government and took measures to weaken Rwandan military hegemony in eastern DRC. By the late 1990s, it was becoming clear to the world that targeted campaigns against Hutu populations during the First Congo War (mostly led by Kagame’s army) amounted to war crimes, a growing international consensus that reflected poorly on the fledgling Kabila regime.
In a reversal of alliances, Kabila ordered all foreign troops out of the Congo and allowed Hutu armed groups to organize at the border once again. Rwanda responded by invading in 1998. Kigali’s stated aim was to create a zone in the DRC-Rwanda borderlands controlled by its own troops in order to create more distance from Hutu groups in eastern DRC. Congolese forces supported by Angola (which also reversed alliances following the ascent of Laurent Kabila), Namibia, and Zimbabwe fought the Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundi militaries, as well as various rebel groups supported by Kigali and Kampala. In 2001, the war raged on despite repeated promises of ceasefire and the presence of UN peacekeepers. Amidst the chaos, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in a coup attempt planned by his own aides and guards. Those involved were imprisoned and Kabila’s son, Joseph Kabila, took power. The Second Congo War was formally brought to a close under the junior Kabila in 2002, and while estimates vary greatly, the death toll of the Second Congo War and the associated humanitarian disaster may have reached over three million people by 2004.
Between 2002 and 2003, Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC began implementing a set of peace agreements that authorized a transitional government in Kinshasa led by Joseph Kabila. Despite these agreements, the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions, and the presence of a renewed UN peacekeeping force, unrest and clashes persisted in eastern DRC. Kabila was inaugurated following a long-awaited popular election in 2006.
One of the most prominent rebel groups to emerge in the early 2000s was known as the March 23 Movement (M23), made up primarily of ethnic Tutsis. Between 2012 and 2013, M23 became an undeniable force in eastern DRC, and Kinshasa accused Kigali of backing the group. In 2013, The UN Security Council authorized a rare offensive brigade under the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to support the Congolese army in its fight against M23. MONUSCO was effective in its support of the Congolese army and M23 called off its initial campaign in 2013. Evidence of Rwanda’s support for M23 caused lasting damage to the Kigali-Kinshasa relationship. The clash over M23 led to a frost in diplomatic relations that lasted until 2022.
Other flashpoints have arisen over the past two decades in states on the Congo-Rwanda border such as Ituri, most often involving ethnic and militant groups with contestations going back to the Congo Wars. The 21st century brought one more complication to peace efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the proliferation of mining operations. DRC is home to some of the world’s largest reserves of the metals and rare earth minerals that are used in the production of advanced electronics. As the world has become more reliant than ever on cobalt, copper, zinc, and other minerals, foreign actors, multi-national companies, and local armed groups have become more incentivized to get involved in the Congolese conflict.
Weak governance and the presence of various armed groups have subjected Congolese civilians to widespread rape and sexual violence, massive human rights violations, and extreme poverty. The African Union (AU), United Nations (UN), and neighboring countries have struggled to address threats posed by rebel groups, promote development, and improve humanitarian conditions. Violence in the DRC may eventually spill over into Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda—countries with longstanding ties to the United States.
The abundance of natural resources—especially precious minerals—found in Congolese soil has globalized the conflict in eastern DRC. While U.S. companies once owned vast cobalt mines in the Congo, most were sold to Chinese companies during the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations. Chinese companies connected to Beijing now control the majority of foreign-owned cobalt, uranium, and copper mines in DRC and the Congolese army has been repeatedly deployed to mining sites in eastern DRC to protect Chinese assets. The Joe Biden administration has acknowledged that China’s virtual monopoly in DRC’s mining industry plays a significant role in boosting China’s comparative advantage in the energy and technology arenas, and is a hindrance to U.S. clean energy aspirations.
China is involved in Congo’s internal conflict as well as its economy: the Congolese government is fighting M23 rebels with the help of Chinese drones and weaponry, and Uganda has purchased Chinese arms to carry out military operations within DRC’s borders. The deals China negotiated with Congolese leadership, especially during the Joseph Kabila regime, have helped Chinese firms secure unprecedented access to metals that allow them to mass produce electronics and clean energy technologies. The Beijing-Kinshasa relationship came under international scrutiny leading up to President Kabila’s resignation in 2019 when evidence emerged that Chinese capital—intended for infrastructure investment as repayment for mining rights—was being funneled to Joseph Kabila and his associates. China and DRC’s complex, multi-layered economic and military relationship has resulted in limited access to the Congo’s vital resources and profits for other countries and the Congolese people themselves. Additionally, a U.S. congressional human rights commission heard testimony in July 2022 regarding the use of child labor and other illegal practices in Congolese mines, allegedly including those owned and operated by Chinese companies.
Russia also maintains a relationship with DRC. Since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been courting various African states, including the Congo, for support. While DRC voted in favor of a February 2023 resolution to condemn the war and demand Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, other African countries with stronger ties to Moscow abstained or voted in opposition. The Western coalition strives for a globally united front to counter Russia, and the Kremlin’s growing ties to African states are a threat to that goal.
While the United States does maintain a trade relationship with DRC, it enforces strict reporting requirements on imports from conflict-affected states and bans on importing “Conflict Minerals,” which are resources such as tin and gold mined for the profit of armed groups in the Congo and neighboring countries. Between these restrictions and the recent Chinese dominance in the Congolese mining market, U.S. economic interests in the Congo are relatively minimal. The United States imports roughly 4 million dollars of precious metals and stones from DRC annually (compared to more than 7 billion in Congolese metals alone imported every year by China).
Opposition leader Félix Tshisekedi was declared the winner of DRC’s December 2018 elections and was inaugurated in January 2019. The transfer of power from former President Joseph Kabila, who ruled for eighteen years and delayed the elections multiple times, marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the DRC’s history. However, the election results have since been questioned. Technical issues and irregularities, including delays that affected over a million people, marred election day. Some polling data indicates that a different opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, may have actually won. Upon his inauguration, Tshisekedi inherited a number of crises, including outbreaks of Ebola and ongoing violence in eastern DRC.
In 2022, despite the formal normalization of relations, renewed tensions mounted between DRC and Rwanda. M23 rebels resurfaced after five years of inactivity and began escalating attacks against Congolese troops. The group secured significant territory along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. Kinshasa accused Kigali of funding and supporting M23’s resurgence (an accusation supported by the African Union and the United States). In return, Kigali accused Kinshasa of once again supporting Hutu extremist militias and increased its military presence inside the Congo. Rwanda and Uganda—and militias with their support—have financial stakes in Congolese mines (though they are not always legitimate), adding fuel to the fire. Rwanda and DRC have been on a war footing since the end of 2022.
President Tshisekedi engaged in diplomatic talks with Rwandan representatives in November, resulting in a delicate, and ultimately ineffective, cease-fire. As of spring 2023, indications have surfaced that M23 is drawing back some of its forces. However, the Congolese military and residents of eastern DRC continue to contend with increasing attacks by the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and other groups. DRC’s relations with its neighbors remain charged, including those with Burundi and Uganda in addition to Rwanda.
In 2023, DRC is home to an estimated 5.7 million internally displaced people in urgent need of more than 2 billion dollars in medical and other aid. Nearly a million Congolese nationals are seeking refuge in other African states. Exacerbating this need for assistance, the UN has had to suspend air deliveries of aid to certain eastern provinces in the face of attacks on its convoys. While in France to urge the European Union to support peace talks in DRC and sanction Rwanda for its support of M23, President Tshidekedi also raised the specter of delaying national elections.
M23 agreed to a cease-fire with the Congolese government in March 2023, violated it shortly after, and declared another one in April. Nonetheless, the fragile truce has done little to alleviate violence, which continues to come in waves. Casualties remain on the rise as armed groups attack displacement camps, civilians in the DRC and abroad, and self-defense groups. In May, the South African Development Community (SADC) agreed to deploy troops to eastern Congo to assist UN forces ahead of the December 2023 elections. However, a month later the UN announced a planned withdrawal of the largely unpopular [PDF] MOUSCO peacekeeping mission, a decision the United States called premature. UN officials have acknowledged that the drawdown poses the risk of a security vacuum amid a deteriorating security situation in Ituri and North Kivu.