Conflict in the Eastern DRC
In early November 2021, gunmen seized two villages overnight within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), specifically along the bordering nations of Rwanda and Uganda. It was later confirmed that the gunmen responsible for the takeover were members of the largely defunct militant group — the March 23 Movement (also known as M23). Years prior to the 2021 attacks, the group has taken large swaths of land in 2012 and 2014, including the two villages mentioned previously. As the M23 attacks become more aggressive, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and aiding military from surrounding nations have joined forces to counter the influence of the rebel group.
- Civilians displaced due to clashes between military and M23 armed militias
- Risk of greater conflict if tensions continue to escalate
As the conflict ensues, thousands of inhabitants of the eastern region of the DRC, which is where M23 is most active, have been injured or forced to flee their homes due to the hostile environment. This is combined with the fragile state of the country overall, compounding the issues faced by internally displaced people (IDPs) in the region. Furthermore, while peace talks and negotiations have been underway for the past couple of months, attempts at mitigating the conflict have failed. As M23 members continue to push further into the DRC, the possibility of greater militarization only increases. The relationship between the DRC and militant groups like M23 goes back decades, originating from long-lasting political and ethnic conflicts within the region.
In the 1960s, the DRC, known as Zaire at the time, had various leaders of the Congo attempting to consolidate power, leading to political battles and, consequently, the rise of opposition parties. Amidst these tensions, Congolese political leader Mobutu Sese Seko led a coup and swiftly seated himself as the president of the country in 1965. As president, Mobutu tried to improve the Zairian economy through radical measures. However, he failed to uphold his campaign promises due to his financial mismanagement of government funds and rising social unrest. His removal of multi-party elections in the country only exacerbated the situation. Internal resistance quickly formed into rebel groups, and, given the weak central state, these rebel groups found refuge in Zaire's eastern provinces. Despite the opposition, Mobutu regained the support of international aid organizations when he allowed more than one million refugees who fled from Rwandan warfare to settle in eastern Zaire. However, this course of action would become the prelude to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, in which extremists of the Rwandan ethnic majority Hutu targeted and killed people of the Tutsi minority.
Post-Rwanda's 1994 ethnic genocide, nearly one million Hutu refugees settled in the neighboring DRC, along with hundreds of armed genocidaires plotting against Rwanda's post-genocide government. Among many figures, Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, accused Mobutu of accepting members of the former Hutu government, who were responsible for sponsoring the genocide. These armed genocidaires conducted regular raids and attacks, both within Zaire and across the border into Rwanda. Unfortunately, the international community and Zaire did nothing to stop refugee forces. By 1996, recognizing the UN and Zairian authority's apathy in disarming genocide perpetrators, Rwanda, with help from Uganda, responded by supporting an uprising in Eastern Zaire led by a Tutsi rebel group ADFL, backing Laurent Kabila as the leader of the insurgent movement. In 1997, Kabila overthrew Mobutu and announced the creation of the DRC. Despite the change, Kabila's rule proved to be similar to Mobutu and the economy remained unfavorable and deteriorated further under Kabila's rule.
Shortly after his installment, Laurent Kabila made the fatal mistake of breaking ties with Rwanda and Uganda, the countries that initially put him in power. The neighboring countries retaliated by invading the Democratic Republic of the Congo, starting the Second Congo War. The war was primarily aimed to oust Kabila. However, with the aid of Angola and Zimbabwe, a stalemate was drawn. In 2001, President Kabila was killed, leading to the appointment of Joseph Kabila as the next president. The Second Congo War eventually came to an end with the April 2002 Sun City Agreement, the July 2002 Pretoria Accord between Rwanda and Congo, and the Luanda agreement between Uganda and Congo, putting an end to the transitional government that initially took power in 2003.
Nevertheless, tensions between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo remained present even after the conclusion of the Second Congo War. Following the end of the war, another transitional government was formed and led by the five main armed groups of the conflict, Forces Armées Congolaises (FAC), the MLC, the RCD-Goma (RCD-G), the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Mouvement de Libération (RCD-ML), and Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-National (RCD-N). Mai-Mai militias also had an active stake in the power-sharing agreement. The goal was that the fighting groups would transform into political parties, and establish a functioning constitutional democracy with competitive elections. A constitution was established in 2005.
However, as the Congo attempted to move toward democracy, allegations against Rwandan interference continued. The CNDP, an Eastern Congo Tutsi rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, was regarded as responsible for the Kivu Conflict. The CNDP is viewed as a proxy for the Rwandan government, along with another group called the M23. According to the U.N., the M23 rebel group is also backed by Rwanda. The CNDP was created when General Nkunda refused to join the integrated rebel forces, the “Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo.” Many ex-RCD-G soldiers joined him, and in 2006 Nkunda launched a rebellion. Nkunda’s forces would advance on the Kivu capital of Goma. However, in 2009, Nkunda was arrested after crossing into Rwanda, showing a collaborative attempt between the Rwandan and Congolese governments to install peace in the war-torn region. While CNDP fell apart after the arrest of Nkunda, M23 is still active. In 2012, former members of CNDP defected, and formed M23, named after the March 23rd agreement, which the soldiers alleged had been broken by the government of Kinshasa. By November 2012, M23 took control of Goma, leading to the displacement of 200,000 people. But in the following year, efforts by surrounding countries and the UN worked to end the insurgency, and M23 surrendered.
Although the group surrendered in 2013, 2021 reports in early November confirmed that the group had reemerged along the eastern border of the DRC after nearly 10 years of silence. Shortly after initial reports in November 2021, M23 launched attacks on military positions of the FARDC in the villages of Chanzu and Runyonyi in the North Kivu Province. Throughout early 2022, the M23 continued to seize key parts of DRC territory, specifically regions boarding Rwanda and Uganda, as well as military facilities, such as the Rumangabo military base, the FARDC's largest military installation in North Kivu. In response, the FARDC engaged in heavy artillery combat, which forced civilians to flee west into the DRC or migrate to surrounding nations. In late April 2022, the DRC government and various rebel groups held peace talks in Nairobi, which were ultimately unsuccessful at the time. As such, in the following months, the M23 launched another offensive in the northern region of the DRC, eventually overrunning the border city of Bunagana and forcing Congolese soldiers to flee to Uganda. Since then, peace talks and negotiations between the groups have been planned numerous times, but with no substantial results. However, in late November 2022, leaders of the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, and Angola met in Luanda and agreed to a conditional ceasefire. The agreement was made with no representative from M23 present, but M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa released in a statement that he respected the ceasefire and appreciates the effort made to come to a peaceful solution. Yet, despite Bisimwa’s statements, the conflict between the rebel group and the FARDC only intensified, with the M23 “waging its most serious offensive in eastern DRC since 2012.”
The DRC has blamed Rwanda for the latest insurgency, claiming that Rwanda has militarized the insurgency in order to “gain greater control over the mineral and resource-rich areas of the eastern DRC''. Although Rwanda has denied any involvement in the recent rise in M23 activity, the U.N. Security Council’s Group of Experts on the DRC has previously implicated Rwanda in backing M23. After pointing the finger at Rwanda, the DRC expelled Rwanda's ambassador from the DRC. As a result, tensions between the two countries have escalated, especially as Rwanda accused the DRC of supporting the FDLR (The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), a post-genocide rebel group against the Rwandan government. Multiple mediated talks have taken place in an effort to resolve the conflict, but, as M23 continues to make advancements in the DRC, mistrust between the two nations continues to grow.
Amid brewing conflict with the M23 in eastern DRC, the East African Community (EAC) has announced its commitment to pacify the region while also blaming Rwanda for the resurgence of the rebel group. Kenya has deployed military forces to the DRC in cooperation with Uganda, South Sudan, and Burundi. EAC action comes at the failure of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Despite more than 15,000 peacekeepers deployed to the largest U.N. mission in the world, the U.N. has failed to bring stability or curb the threat of armed groups in the Great Lakes. On the other hand, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), “the EAC force’s robust and offensive mandate means it can engage armed groups”, overcoming a limitation that MONUSCO faced. Furthermore, ISS research reports that East African leaders better understand the crisis, indicating that the cooperation of the bordering African countries (Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi) and their intertwining interests lead to a greater chance of peacemaking success. Nevertheless, EAC involvement may come at a price, as member states have an economic incentive for profit in the DRC, eyeing its mineral and resource wealth. In fact, all three bordering African states have sponsored proxies within the region who are vying for state interests. Hence, Professor Morris Ogenga Latigo, the former Agago County legislator and Leader of Opposition in Parliament asserts that the EAC “are part of the problem with too much self-interest from those ruling some of the countries. With conflict of interest, they cannot pacify themselves.”
Not only are neighboring nations keen on extracting resources from DRC, but nations such as China and Russia are also becoming increasingly invested in the region. For instance, Chinese companies own billions of dollars worth of copper and cobalt mines, controlling about 70 percent of the DRC's mining sector. With a growing business in the Congo for China, Chinese people have also been targets of rebel groups in Congo. Hence, to protect its economic interests, China has contributed heavily to peacekeeping operations, sending more money than any other permanent member of the Security Council. Likewise, Russian proxies are also embedding themselves in the DRC to combat US influence, specifically regarding Wagner — a private military company founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Putin. The U.S. treasury department has labeled Wagner a “front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa”, sponsoring shadowy monitoring missions in DRC. Some western observers see Wagner as an extension of the Russian military, despite being a self-proclaimed private group.
As M23 advances through eastern DRC, hundreds have died, and thousands of reported instances of rape, kidnapping, and brutal killings. Meanwhile, thousands have been displaced from the Rutshuru territory in North Kivu province, mainly to Kanyaruchinya and Kibati. Those displaced are joining 20,000 internally displaced people who were forced to flee since late March when the surge in violence began. Around 100,000 displaced people have fled to desperately overcrowded makeshift camps in the towns of Goma and Lubero, while another 60,000 refugees are entering the country Malawi, which is struggling to accommodate the influx. As of November 2022, the conflict has resulted in nearly 5.2 million displaced people. In crowded and unsanitary camps, refugees must endure rainstorms and a shortage of clean water amid the threat of cholera epidemics. According to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the world's most neglected displacement crisis. Already struggling with poor governance and exploitation before the outbreak of violence, Congo’s food insecurity and humanitarian crisis have ultimately been exacerbated by M23’s resurgence.
The United States has a variety of, mostly economic, interests in the Eastern DRC, but any attempts to involve itself in the conflict must first prioritize establishing peace and stability-inducing unified political control. That being said, the policy maneuverability of the U.S. in the DRC is rather limited, and Washington, D.C. should be realistic about its goals in the region in order to avoid a sustained intervention.
Work to Facilitate Negotiations and Establish Formal Economic and Political Control
The ultimate goal of Washington’s policy directives for the DRC should be to help craft a lasting peace. This starts with the Biden administration standing strong in support of its pro-democracy declarations, leaning on its diplomatic and economic leverage to promote free and fair elections in the Congo. It also means using public-private relationships to craft policies that promote human rights, workers' rights, and the expansion of good governance.
But Washington, and the rest of the world, should be pragmatic about the prospects for a top-down peace. Despite the deployment of “the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world,” one of the deadliest post-WW2 conflicts continues to claim lives. Ultimately, the only way to create lasting peace is for there to be a culture of peace among the Congolese — similar to the cultural identity of Idjwi, an island in Lake Kivu that has remained conflict-free despite sharing the characteristics of the DRC that have made it prone to conflict.
Support Humanitarian Efforts and Aid the Refugee Crisis
To date, the U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the DRC and has earmarked an additional $42M for FY 2023. Given high levels of sustained aid to Ukraine, the political prospects for substantial increases in aid to the DRC seem slim. Instead, the Biden administration should work to rally its supposed coalition of democratic allies to enhance their support for the 27M Congolese in need of assistance. This goes beyond cash payments and food transfers. The U.S. should work with its African partners, namely South Africa, to increase their receptiveness toward the outpouring of refugees within the region. Here, the U.S. could provide limited funding or logistical and administrative support in order to ease the burden of refugee-receiving countries.
Involve Russia and China in the Peace Process
The Eastern DRC’s mineral resources present a strategic value to the U.S., and thus the possibility for the growth of the Russian and Chinese footprint in the region poses a strategic threat. But more importantly, the abundance of resources is the incentive for Russia and China to remain present in the region, and, depending on how this presence manifests itself, risks perpetuating instability and conflict. On the Chinese side, escalating confrontations risk Beijing hiring private security contractors to protect interests in the region, disrupting any potential peace efforts by another regional broker by creating spoilers. For the Russians, Moscow-based PMCs “prefer to trade mineral concessions for security work,” and insecure actors could present challenges to a potential peace if security guarantees from Russian PMCs embolden them to take positive action.
Fortunately, mutual interests beget mutual vulnerabilities. Washington should seek to include Moscow and Beijing in the process of peace negotiations under the warrant that the conflagration of current low-level confrontations would pose serious threats to their mineral and security interests in the DRC.
There is no simple solution for the ongoing conflict in the DRC, and the ability to craft peace lies not with Washington and Western multilateral organizations, but with local actors and citizens of the Congo. Washington should do what it can to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and prevent destabilizing expansionism from Russia and China, but ultimately, an overly heavy-handed approach risks doing more harm than good.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Lucas Yang, Elizabeth Miller, Nolan Ezzet and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.
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