The unanswered questions about the war in DR Congo

M23 rebels in Kibumba, eastern DR Congo

M23 rebels in Kibumba, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Photo credit: File

It's one of the worst wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For 30 years, armed groups have freely ruled over part of eastern Congo. But as widespread as the war is, the voices of those who denounce it haven't been stronger.

On March 8, as the world celebrates International Women's Day in the DRC, the Minister of Gender and Family has ordered that women's loincloths be dark in colour to symbolise mourning.

he country of 100 million is said to have lost nearly 10 million of its children in nearly 30 years of war. But there are still unanswered questions about the conflict.

Who is fighting who?

A difficult question. But some trace it back to the end of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. The remnants of that horrific massacre were defeated and fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It then took its own turn after the chaos that accompanied the end of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko's rule in Zaire, as the DRC was then known. In Ituri, North and South Kivu, the multiple disturbances have provided an easy breeding ground for armed groups. According to the former governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku, there are now almost 200 of them.

The UN counts more than a hundred, some more vicious than others, some from neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. The proliferation of armed groups from different backgrounds has given rise to other community self-defence groups to defend the communities that are often the victims of unknown, almost mysterious killers.

The region's leaders say they want peace, but everyone seems to be preparing for a deadly escalation. Some 25 years ago, between 1998 and 1999, the armies of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola were involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo in support of the Congolese armed forces, which were trying to rebuild themselves from the ashes of the Zairian army, which had almost disappeared with the fall of Mobutu in 1997. A UN peacekeeping mission, Monusco, with more than 15,000 troops, had been deployed to try to impose its voice in a conflict whose complexity was beyond even some Congolese.

Facing these armies, including those from southern Africa, were two major rebellions, with political demands mixed with communal overtones, supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Since then, war has become routine in the region, with occasional respites or semblances of peace. In the early years between 2001 and 2003, negotiations raised hopes of peace.

The rebel groups MLC, led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and RCD, led by Azarias Ruberwa, transformed their groups into political parties. Behind the façade of peace, some cadres of the former RCD took up arms again and created another rebel group, the CNDP. This rebellion, the successor to the RCD, was led mainly by Congolese Tutsis who claimed Congolese citizenship and denounced the "discrimination" to which they were subjected.

Meanwhile, Ituri and North Kivu became the hideouts of ruthless warlords.

Some of them ended up before the International Criminal Court. The formula of negotiation and repression had been found. Negotiations under President Joseph Kabila had succeeded in integrating CNDP cadres and fighters into the Congolese army, but from one demand to the next, those dissatisfied with the CNDP agreements created a splinter group and founded the March 23 Movement (M23).

This group even managed to take Goma before being driven out through a combination of negotiations, international pressure and fighting. In February 2013, eleven countries signed the Framework Agreement on Peace, Security and Cooperation for the DRC and the region, which includes specific commitments to promote peace.

Despite the commitments made by all parties, insecurity has persisted, firstly with local militias, but also with the resurgence of the M23. Today, the M23 is the group most feared by the government in Kinshasa, more than any other armed group. This rebel group, which is backed by Rwanda and the Rwandan army, according to several United Nations reports and according to Kinshasa and several Western countries, including the United States and France, is fighting the Congolese army, which is supported by volunteer groups (the Wazalendo) made up of civilians and former militiamen.

The Congolese army is supported by the Burundian army, but also by the SADC mission, made up of Tanzanian and South African troops. While the Congolese army and Wazalendo are on the offensive, the SADC mission and Monusco are tasked with defending Goma and Sake, less than 20 kilometres from Goma.

Fighting is intensifying, and the aerial bombardment is decisive in North Kivu. Félix Tshisekedi, who has just begun his second term in office, is already facing a war that threatens the city of Goma and its two million inhabitants. Several bombs fell in different places in the largest city in North Kivu, proving that the war is getting closer. On 17 February, the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo blamed "Rwandan army attack drones" for dropping bombs on Goma airport, "targeting military aircraft of the Congolese army".

Bintou Keita, the UN Secretary-General's Representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the Security Council on Tuesday (20 February) of a "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in Goma, where sites for displaced people have been targeted. More than 400,000 people have now taken refuge in the city, including 65,000 in the last two weeks, leading to a "spectacular increase in cholera cases" due to a lack of drinking water, hygiene and adequate sanitation, Bintou Keita said.

The head of the peacekeeping mission, Bintou Keita, went on to say that "the number of human rights violations committed by the M23 continues to rise, with at least 150 civilians killed since the resumption of hostilities in November 2023, including 77 in January 2024".

Where do the warring factions get their weapons?

During the recent debate at the UN Security Council, France argued that "a threshold has been crossed with the deployment and use on Congolese soil of anti-aircraft systems that do not correspond to the capabilities of a simple armed group".

"Rwandan forces must withdraw from Congolese territory," the United States said, describing it as paradoxical that Rwanda, which contributes troops to UN peacekeeping operations, could take action against a mission.

The DRC has repeatedly claimed that it is Rwanda that is supplying arms and fighters to the M23. "The truth is that the M23 is now a modern army, with heavy equipment that is more sophisticated than Monusco's equipment," admitted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, angering the Congolese authorities. Guterres added that these weapons "came from somewhere". "They were not born in the forest," said Antonio Guterres in September 2022.

Why is dialogue so difficult?

At the start of the Nairobi process, all armed groups, including the M23, were invited to talk to the Kinshasa government. However, the coincidence of the start of the talks in Nairobi, Kenya, with the resumption of fighting by the M23 on the ground in North Kivu, led to a rift.

Since then, President Félix Tshisekedi has sworn and openly declared that he will "never hold talks with the M23". The Congolese president has already said that the DRC does not want to negotiate with these rebels because, in reality, "if there is dialogue, another group of dissidents will rise up to create another rebellion with many other demands". Just this week, the spokeswoman for the Congolese head of state, Tina Salama, said that Félix Tshisekedi "only wants dialogue with Rwanda, but not at any price". The Congolese president has already made it clear that for the DRC, talks with Rwanda are only possible "if Kigali withdraws its troops from Congolese soil".

According to several observers, the M23 never intended to take power in Kinshasa. Only Corneille Nangaa, who has allied himself with this rebel movement, says that he wants to come to Kinshasa to overthrow the current regime. For the M23, however, the aim is to force the government in Kinshasa to enter into dialogue and meet their demands. The battle for Goma is part of this strategy: to force Kinshasa to talk.

The rebels have always demanded, among other things, to be integrated into the security services and the army. But the National Assembly in Kinshasa has passed a law making it illegal to integrate rebels into the army. For Kinshasa, the only way out is for the M23 and other armed groups to accept social reintegration into civilian life. The Kinshasa authorities and the head of Monusco have always maintained that it is "important to defeat the M23 militarily".

The DRC authorities also deny accusations that the Congolese are spreading "hate speech" against Congolese Tutsis. This is one of the M23's claims, and one that Rwanda often makes. As recently as 20 February, the issue of "hate speech" was discussed at length by the UN Security Council.

"Rwanda is afraid of genocide. That's normal. We too are afraid of genocide. But the genocide (of 1994) was committed in Rwanda, by Rwandans. I would like to remind you that in Rwanda there are only two tribes, if not three," said Georges Nzongola, the DRC's permanent representative to the UN, during the Security Council debate.

"In the Congo, we have 450 and we live together. Rwanda cannot pretend to come to Congo and solve ethnic problems in Rwanda. The Tutsis in Congo are Congolese. They are not Rwandans. Rwanda has no right to pretend to come and solve tribal problems in Congo by crossing borders. We will never allow it. Stay at home, the problems of the Congolese Tutsis will be solved in the Congo by the Congolese".

Why are foreign missions unable to help?

The war in North Kivu and Ituri has many faces. Among the many armed groups, there are some that cannot be identified by their uniforms. They disguise themselves as civilians and blend in after attacks or killings. This is what the authorities in Kinshasa call "asymmetric warfare". There are also highly mobile armed groups that operate in small groups that are difficult to track. Some groups also dress exactly like the Congolese army, sowing confusion.

This general cacophony makes it difficult for foreign missions to be effective, especially in an environment where roads are not necessarily in good condition. As a result, in certain parts of Ituri and North Kivu, there are few opportunities to effectively pursue the armed groups.

 As far as the M23 is concerned, virtually all the foreign groups that have intervened in the DRC fear an all-out war, with consequences for civilian lives, but above all for fear of igniting a conflagration in an already fragile region of the Great Lakes and East Africa. General Jeff Nyagah, the first commander of the East African Regional Force, summed it up well: "sometimes war does not always guarantee peace".

A wider confrontation in North Kivu could destabilise Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Even today, many fear that the whole region could be destabilised. "It is crucial to stress the risk of the conflict spreading to the whole region if the ongoing diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions and find lasting political solutions to the current conflict fail," warned Bintou Keita.

That is why virtually all regional and international organisations are urging the parties to seek political and diplomatic solutions first, rather than war.

What is the value of the DR Congo?

Beyond the ideology that some propagate, the war in the east of the DRC is also an economic one, linked to the illegal exploitation of minerals in Kivu and Ituri. A business has developed in the wake of the sound of gunfire. In a Congo rich in minerals, it is not uncommon for high-ranking individuals, hidden away in Kinshasa or other cities, to employ young people to loot and make a fortune from these illegal operations.

Several reports to the UN Security Council have drawn a link between the continuation of the war and the flourishing of "blood minerals". "It is clear that the looting of the Democratic Republic of Congo has become the driving force behind the conflict," said a French representative on the Security Council. All these years, observers have agreed that there is "a close link between the continuation of the war and the illegal exploitation of Congolese natural resources".

The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in valuable minerals such as cobalt and coltan, which are prized by the world's technology giants. Silver, copper, cobalt, gold, coltan and diamonds are just some of the dozens of precious metals mined in the country, whose intact underground reserves are worth around $24,000 billion, according to the UN. The DRC is considered the world leader in production and reserves of minerals needed for the energy transition, used in electronic equipment and batteries for electric vehicles, as well as 5G technology.

The DRC alone contains more than 70% of the world's coltan and more than 60% of the world's cobalt. According to the US Geological Survey, Congo-Kinshasa alone will account for 120,000 tonnes of the 170,000 tonnes of cobalt produced globally in 2021, followed by Russia (7,600 tonnes) and Australia (5,600 tonnes). The Democratic Republic of Congo is set to dethrone Peru as the world's second largest copper producer by 2026-2027, just behind Chile, the world leader (with production of 5.36 million tonnes in 2022).

This is the forecast made by consultancy Wood Mackenzie in a report dedicated to the mineral. The country is also rich in lithium, germanium, cassiterite, tungsten, zinc and rare earths, hence the nickname "geological scandal" given to the DRC by the Belgians.

A former Congolese mining minister, Martin Kabwelulu, claimed that only 20 per cent of the Congolese subsoil had been explored during the Belgian colonial period.

To explain the sudden radicalisation of former electoral commission president Corneille Nangaa and the creation of his armed group, Augustin Kabuya, secretary-general of Félix Tshisekedi's UDPS party, said that Nangaa was "a businessman frustrated by the loss of his mining concessions in Haut-Uele (northeast Congo) who is trying to settle scores with Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi for reasons he cannot admit".