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The many sides of the deadly conflict in DR Congo

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People carry their belongings as they flee from their villages around Sake in Masisi territory, following clashes between M23 rebels and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); towards Goma, North Kivu Province, DRC on February 7, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS

Photo credit: Reuters

The Democratic Republic of Congo once looked headed for peace and stability, with dialogue processes pushed by leaders from the neighbouring countries going on and ceasefires holding. Then the war resumed, leading to blame games.

Experts blame the elusiveness of peace on the mineral wealth, whose illegal extraction thrives in chaos and lawlessness.

This week, two South African soldiers serving in the SADC mission (SAMIDRC) died and three others were wounded after a mortar was fired at their position.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) confirmed that a bomb landed inside one of their bases on February 14, causing casualties and injuries in a contingent is part of the SAMIDRC deployed to support Kishasa to bring peace, security and stability in the eastern region. Its deployment, like all other missions before it, has raised concerns, with opposition from some quarters.

For the DRC, its mineral wealth has often been seen as a curse. In eastern DRC, the epicentre of decades-old war, some 120-armed groups roam and massacre people. Most of them are remnants of old wars in neighbouring countries. But some are bankrolled by mineral merchants, a previous investigation by the watchdog Sentry showed.

This week, an old video re-emerged in which Rwandan President Paul Kagame lamented how mineral merchants in the West look away as smugglers loot the DRC and sell them stolen minerals. He argued the Western countries have ignored the fact that their market for these minerals is partly fuelling the conflict and that often the Western merchants come hard on any neighbouring country that tries to curtail the business.

On Friday, a US State Department spokesperson told The EastAfrican that Washington is working constantly with Kinshasa to weed out conflict minerals.

The US is one of the biggest market for minerals found in the DRC, especially because they are useful in the tech industry for the manufacture of electronics. Washington has made it clear that it wants a share of the minerals but from “clean” sources.

But the new conflict in the Congo suggests these filters haven’t totally weeded out the bad guys. And that is because Washington is not the only one seeking these minerals. This week, John Prendergast, Co-Founder of The Sentry, which watches over corrupt dealings in area such access to minerals, said the new war reflects competition for who takes control of the minerals.

“A hidden, deadly battle is now taking place in eastern DRC over who will control the lucrative conflict gold trade between Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo -- which is an important driver of conflict,” he told The EastAfrican.

A UN Panel of experts, for example, previously accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 armed rebellion and claimed Kigali is a hub for smuggled gold from war-torn eastern DRC.

“Uganda is exporting gold in record numbers, according to the Bank of Uganda, yet produces very little domestically, and a Uganda-based company (African Gold Refinery) was sanctioned by the United States and European Union for trading in conflict gold,” Prendergast said.
Both Kampala and Kigali reject accusations they have a hand in DRC conflict.

The DRC itself made a deal last year with a UAE gold company, ostensibly to re-channel exports and cut out smuggling. Smuggling did not stop, however.

“All the while, armed groups continue to control and profit from goldmines. The United States and United Nations should urgently ratchet up sanctions against all entities in Rwanda, Uganda, DRC, and the UAE dealing in deadly conflict gold from eastern DRC, and the US should significantly ramp up support for conflict-free certification,” Mr Prendergast told The EastAfrican on Thursday.

“The US government works with the government of the DRC to support the efforts to formalise traceability to eradicate human rights abuses in the mining sector,” a spokesperson said.

Those efforts, she said, include the creation of a commission against child labour with the support of the International Labour Organisation and the US Department of Labour (DOL).

This week, there have been no signs of de-escalation between Rwanda and the DRC, the main players in war, even though not in a direct combat. President Kagame, although committed to the Luanda Process for peace in the DRC, believes that the issue should be settled between the authorities in Kinshasa and the M23 rebels — something the DRC doesn’t want to hear about.

Vincent Biruta, Foreign Affairs Minister of Rwanda, this week wrote to the UN Security Council warning that a planned logistical support to the SADC Mission in the DRC by the UN peacekeepers (Monusco) would balloon the conflict as it will strengthen partisan players.

“SAMIDRC has been conducting joint operations with these negative groups against M23, in support of the government of DRC’s resolve to pursue a military solution, in violation of the recommendations of both EAC-led Nairobi Process and Angola-led Luanda initiative,” he wrote on February 13.

Rwanda argues that while there are more than 260 armed groups in the eastern DRC, the SADC Force has sided with the DRC, the Burundian army, European mercenaries and remnants of Rwandan genocidal forces, FDLR, and splinter groups as well as local militia to target the M23.

“The government of Rwanda is concerned that instead of condemning the ethnic killings in eastern DRC and belligerent declarations of the presidents of DRC and Burundi, the UN intends to support that coalition behind this escalation,” Mr Biruta said.

Burundi and the DRC have recently warned of possible war against Rwanda if the M23 support doesn’t stop. Now, Kigali says SAMIDRC shouldn’t be receiving support from Monusco, arguing that it violates the principle of inviting everyone to the table for dialogue.

As for the Congolese authorities, they remain categorical: There will only be dialogue under certain conditions. Speaking to the Western diplomats who fell victim to the public attacks this week, Christophe Lutundula, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of foreign affairs, stressed the need for everyone to “make a sincere diagnosis” in order to restore peace and stability in the east of the country, by putting an end to the massacres.

“The solutions exist, and the DRC is open to dialogue, but we need to create the conditions for dialogue,” said Mr Lutundula, referring to the Nairobi process and the Luanda roadmap, initiatives sponsored by the African Union, the UN and the East African Community.

“If a dialogue with Rwanda is desired, it must be clear that Rwanda must leave Congolese territory, put an end to its aggression and stop supporting the M23 terrorists.”

SAMIDRC itself is facing opposition at home. The South African political leaders, on hearing of the two casualties, said the government had deployed while unprepared.

“[President] Cyril Ramaphosa wants to kill our children in DRC,” said opposition leader Julius Malema on Thursday at a news conference.
“Those rebels are well equipped. They are sending them there to be killed. They must come back home. We must stop any military deployment until there is proper training.”

President Ramaphosa announced that he had deployed 2,900 troops to the DRC mission, which includes Tanzania and Malawi. He said the troops had always braved “great dangers to make Africa more peaceful and stable continent.”

Kobus Marais, South African legislator and democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, said Ramaphosa was to blame.

“Two days ago, we warned him against deploying more troops to the eastern DRC for the simple reason that the SANDF does not have the capacity to effectively pursue an anti-insurgency campaign against the M23 rebels and neither does it have the prime mission equipment to support the ground forces,” he said on Thursday in a statement.

“What Ramaphosa is doing is sending the SANDF members to their death and the only outcome from this reckless deployment will be more body bags coming back home.”

The South African troops, however, indicated on Thursday they had no information on the source of the mortar, making anyone a possible suspect. The two deaths already mean SAMIDRC has suffered a bigger loss in one month than the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), which reported one casualty in a year to December last year.

The EACRF refused to engage in combat, calling for talks and effectively annoying Kinshasa, even when it helped cushion Goma, the capital of North Kivu, from falling into rebel hands.

SAMIDRC now faces this threat, and there were reports that Congolese authorities may lock down Goma, in view of the very real M23 threat.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Defence Jean-Pierre Bemba assured the public that Goma would not fall. But continual fighting means that there is no guarantee.

Regional and international organisations have been urging the parties to the Congolese conflict to engage in dialogue to find peace.

According to Mr Lutundula, President Tshisekedi will not act in such a way as to hinder the fulfilment of his constitutional duties as guarantor of the nation.

“The Head of State once said to an envoy from another country: I am Head of State, I am elected, I have my compatriots, I have a constitutional duty to ensure them a bright future and to create conditions for a normal life. I would never accept any condition that hinders the fulfilment of my constitutional duties. That is why, at the UN, he declared that there was no room for dialogue with the M23 rebels. We do not reject dialogue, but it must be in accordance with the constitution and preserve the integrity of our territory and our independence. We are committed to the East African Community (EAC), the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (IC/GLR), the United Nations and the African Union. It is clear that we cannot accept a dialogue that violates the constitution and jeopardises the integrity of our territory and our independence," he said.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of February, medical facilities supported by the international medical organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in North Kivu have been receiving a massive influx of war-wounded over the past few days.

“Since January, around 10,000 people have fled their homes and taken refuge in the general referral hospital in Mweso, in Masisi territory, following a new outbreak of clashes between armed groups in the area," said to a statement from MSF.