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Congo in Crisis

24th of February 2024

 

In the vast expanse of Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) finds itself once again at the crossroads of a devastating conflict. The situation has rapidly deteriorated, particularly in North Kivu province, where Goma serves as a stark reminder of the region’s volatility. Amidst this backdrop, the resurgence of the M23 rebel group, supported by external forces, has plunged the area into renewed violence, disrupting lives and deepening the humanitarian crisis.

 

 

The Historical context

The catastrophic events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide had a profound and destabilising impact on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), setting off a chain reaction of violence and conflict that has resulted in the deaths of approximately six million people since 1996 and left over six million internally displaced. The DRC’s descent into chaos can be traced back to its post-colonial struggles for power, but the influx of over two million Rwandan Hutus, including genocidaires fleeing the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) takeover in the aftermath of the genocide, significantly exacerbated existing tensions within the DRC. This mass migration inflamed local ethnic conflicts and led to the First Congo War in 1996-1997, as Rwanda pursued Hutu militias into the DRC, ultimately leading to the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime. The presence of Rwandan forces and their involvement in the conflict and exploitation of the DRC’s resources further complicated the region’s political and ethnic landscape, laying the groundwork for the Second Congo War and the ongoing violence that continues to ravage the eastern provinces of the DRC. [1, 2]

The landscape of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is characterised by its complexity, with a multitude of armed groups and foreign interests entangled in a web of violence and exploitation, particularly in the resource-rich eastern regions. This complexity arises from historical grievances, ethnic tensions, and the scramble for the DRC’s vast mineral wealth. Since the late 1990s, over 120 to 140 different rebel groups, including the M23, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and various Mai-Mai militias, have been active, each with its own agendas ranging from ethnic defence to outright control of land and resources. The intricate involvement of neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda, either in support of or against certain groups, adds another layer of complexity. These external actors are often driven by strategic interests in the DRC’s minerals, which include coltan, gold, diamonds, and cobalt, essential for global electronics and automotive industries. Efforts to resolve the conflict, including numerous peace agreements and the deployment of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), have seen limited success due to the fragmented nature of the armed groups and the deep-rooted issues of governance, social inequality, and regional geopolitics. The result is a protracted conflict that has led to millions of deaths and displacement, as well as a humanitarian crisis that continues to unfold.

 

 

The Humanitarian Crisis

Humanitarian organisations are sounding the alarm over an impending crisis in the volatile eastern Congo region, where the notorious M23 rebel group is making significant advances. This development poses a severe threat to a major city, potentially leaving millions without sufficient access to food and healthcare. The eastern Congo has long been a hotspot of conflict, with M23 just one of over a hundred armed factions contesting control over this mineral-rich territory adjacent to Rwanda, some of which have been implicated in widespread atrocities. Recent weeks have seen a surge in clashes between M23 insurgents and Congolese military forces, coinciding with the United Nations plans to phase out peacekeeping operations in the area by year-end.

The situation is further complicated by escalating tensions between Congo and Rwanda, each accusing the other of supporting rival armed factions. Congo specifically alleges Rwandan support for the M23. This weekend, the U.S. State Department voiced its concerns over the escalating violence. According to a coalition of humanitarian groups, the conflict has displaced a million people in just the past three months.

 

 

Who are M23?

The March 23 Movement, known as M23, is a rebel faction predominantly consisting of ethnic Tutsis, which separated from the Congolese military over ten years ago. In 2012, M23 launched a significant offensive, capturing Goma, a provincial capital situated near the Rwanda border – the same city currently under threat from them again. [3]

The situation is further complicated by regional dynamics, with Rwanda facing accusations from the United States and United Nations experts of providing military support to M23, a claim Rwanda has denied. However, Rwanda has acknowledged the presence of its troops and missile systems in eastern Congo, stating this deployment aims to protect its national security against what it describes as a concentration of Congolese military forces near their shared border. Despite pressure from the U.S., Rwanda has refused to pull back its forces.

Additionally, the conflict is intertwined with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide that occurred three decades ago. Both M23 and Rwanda assert that their actions are in response to a threat posed by a Congolese rebel group linked to the Congolese army, which includes ethnic Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide.

Relations between Congo and Rwanda have been strained for many years. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees, including soldiers and militiamen responsible for the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, sought refuge in Congo, then known as Zaire. Following the genocide by two years, Rwanda and Uganda launched invasions into eastern Congo aiming to dismantle the remnants of the genocide perpetrators, an action that contributed to the overthrow of Congo’s then-president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

The tension between the two nations intensified in 2021 following a revival of M23 assaults on Congolese forces, marking a significant escalation after years of quiescence post a 2013 peace agreement. The proliferation of armed factions in the region is often linked to illicit mining activities, given eastern Congo’s abundant reserves of gold and other valuable minerals.

 

 

The current escalation

In recent weeks, the M23 group has intensified its offensive, having initiated new assaults towards the end of the previous year. Their current target is the strategic town of Sake, located approximately 27 kilometres (16 miles) west of Goma. The capture of Sake by M23 could severely disrupt the delivery of food and aid to Goma, a city whose population has surged to over 2 million people from around 600,000 a few years back, as reported by aid organizations. This population increase is largely due to the influx of individuals escaping violence in nearby towns and villages. [1, 2]

The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that the rebel advance on Sake represents a direct threat to the entire humanitarian aid framework in eastern Congo, highlighting that 135,000 individuals were displaced in a span of just five days in early February.

Moreover, the escalating violence has triggered protests, ranging from the capital, Kinshasa, to Goma. Protesters express their frustration over what they perceive as inadequate international efforts to counter M23’s advances and a lack of firm action against Rwanda.

The recent escalation in conflict risks heightening regional tensions and drawing in additional nations. With the United Nations phasing out its 25-year peacekeeping operation in eastern Congo, a multinational force from the southern African regional bloc is poised to take over. This contingent, comprising troops from regional heavyweights such as South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania, will support Congolese military efforts but could potentially lead to a confrontation with Rwanda.

Furthermore, the humanitarian implications are dire. The International NGO Forum in Congo, representing various non-governmental organizations active in the area, has reported that the intensification of conflict, marked by artillery bombardments on civilian areas, has exacted a severe toll. It has not only caused significant casualties but also compelled numerous health and aid personnel to evacuate.

Eastern Congo was already grappling with one of the globe’s most severe humanitarian crises, with the conflict displacing nearly 6 million people, as per the United Nations Refugee Agency. There’s a growing concern that this new wave of calamity might remain under the radar, overshadowed by global focus on the conflict in Gaza and Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

 

 

What does the future hold?

The situation in eastern Congo stands at a precarious juncture, with the resurgence of M23 rebel activities igniting fears of a deepening humanitarian crisis in a region already marred by decades of conflict. The advance of these rebels not only threatens the stability and safety of millions but also poses a significant challenge to the delivery of essential humanitarian aid. The escalation of hostilities comes at a critical moment, coinciding with the United Nations’ decision to draw down its peacekeeping mission, thereby adding layers of complexity to an already volatile situation.

The intricate web of regional politics, historical grievances, and the strategic importance of eastern Congo’s mineral wealth further complicates the crisis. As relations between Congo and Rwanda continue to strain under the weight of mutual accusations and the spectre of past genocides looms large, the international community finds itself at a crossroads. The potential for regional escalation and the involvement of multinational forces underscores the urgency of a coordinated and robust response to prevent further deterioration of the security situation.

Amidst this backdrop of escalating conflict and political tensions, the humanitarian toll is stark. The displacement of millions, the disruption of aid and healthcare delivery, and the widespread violence against civilians call for immediate and sustained attention. The plight of eastern Congo, while at risk of being overshadowed by other global crises such as the war in Gaza, demands a concerted effort from the international community to address the root causes of conflict, support peacebuilding initiatives, and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in dire need.

As the world’s gaze may be drawn elsewhere, the unfolding crisis in eastern Congo serves as a stark reminder of the enduring impact of conflict on human lives and the essential need for peace, stability, and justice in regions torn by violence. The path forward is fraught with challenges, but it is incumbent upon both regional actors and the international community to seek solutions that not only address immediate security and humanitarian concerns but also pave the way for lasting peace and reconciliation in eastern Congo and beyond.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2024/feb/19/i-feel-my-heart-breaking-into-a-thousand-pieces-goma-fills-with-refugees-trying-to-flee-fighting-in-drc

[2] https://apnews.com/article/congo-crisis-m23-kivu-2c1c7789e499622e377eefcacc833ec2

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0hd9c2f

 

 

Tariq Kurd was born and grew up in Hertfordshire. His family is originally from Halabja, Kurdistan but due to periodic migration currently reside across the Baluchistan region.
He has a BA Hons. in History from the Open University. Besides English, Tariq can speak Baluchi and Brahvi, he is also conversant in Persian and Pashto.
His has an eclectic range of interests including military and tribal history. Tariq lives in London and is currently studying Islamic apologetics through the Sapience Institute.