Unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) eastern border region stems both from what the nation has and from what it lacks.
What it lacks is a strong central government, which could not only provide services to the region’s residents, but also supply enough military force to suppress the many armed groups operating there.
What it has is a wealth of minerals: diamonds, copper, tin, and tantalum, a substance used in making consumer electronics, such as cell phones and DVD players.
Observers of the violence that has plagued the region for over a decade say that the fighting stems more from economic concerns than from clashing belief systems.
“These conflicts are less ideological than they are about resources and power,” said Robert I. Rotberg, director of the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution and adjunct professor of public policy. “Without an effective central government, there are entrepreneurs in the eastern Congo that have sought to control resources, to control power.”
The Congo has long been a place of turmoil. During the colonial years, first under Belgian King Leopold II and later under the Belgian state, the local population was exploited to extract natural resources, specifically rubber, sometimes using tactics that included murder, mutilation, and hostage taking.
After independence in 1960, the nation experienced several years of unrest out of which emerged the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed the nation Zaire and enriched himself from the nation’s vast natural resources.
The current period of unrest began in 1996, when rebels allied with Rwanda and Uganda drove Mobutu from power, ending his reign and renaming the nation the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1998, rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda were again at war in the Congo, this time against the new government, headed by Laurent Kabila.
That war drew in several other African nations and eventually came to be known as “Africa’s World War.” Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and the war then wound somewhat to a close. By 2002, his son Joseph Kabila assumed power and a peace accord was signed, officially ending the fighting. The various conflicts resulted in an estimated 5.4 million people dead, largely from starvation and disease.
The conflict never ended in the DRC’s eastern region, however. With a government too weak to project power, numerous armed groups stepped into the vacuum. Though there are some 21 different groups operating there, there are just five or six major groups whose activities disrupt the region, Rotberg said.
The Congolese and Rwandan national armies have both been active in the area, with the Rwandan Army — the continent’s most powerful — the most effective military power there. In addition, ethnic Hutus — remnants of those who participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide — operate in the region, opposed by a force of Congolese Tutsis that until recently was led by Laurent Nkunda, a former general in the Congolese national army.
The other major force is the Mai Mai militia, ostensibly formed by local Congolese fighters to defend the region’s communities but which has been implicated in atrocities along with the other groups. The United Nations also has a sizeable force of 17,000 peacekeepers in the nation, though, covering territory as large as Western Europe, it is largely viewed as ineffective.
Most of these groups have been implicated in atrocities against Congolese civilians, including the rape and mutilation of the region’s women that is the focus of research by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). HHI Co-Director Jennifer Leaning said that though rape is a relatively common feature in war, the rape that is occurring in the Congo appears to be a deliberate strategy through which weak military forces can control territory.
“These rapes have a pattern of particular cruelty, brutality, and [they] often leave women with serious physical consequences as well as psychological ones,” said Leaning, who is a professor of the practice of global health at the Harvard School of Public Health. “What a lot of analysts of these wars … believe is that rape is serving a strategic function. These militaries don’t have the capacity to occupy a vast region full of people who don’t want them there. These militaries have small arms, poor transport, miserable communications systems. The have no good supply train and live off the countryside. The way they control territory is by terrorizing people, abusing them, and causing large numbers of them to flee … [and] inflicting enough fear that people don’t resist if they stay.”
In January 2009, there was a flash of hope for the region’s future. Though they were on opposite sides of the 1998 war, the Congolese and Rwandan governments cooperated militarily. Over several weeks, the two forces battled against Hutu fighters and arrested the leader of the Tutsi forces, Laurent Nkunda, who was held in Rwanda.
“We’re at early times, and the Congo has disappointed everyone, even Congolese, for many years,” Rotberg said, “[but] we may be at the cusp of major change.”