Congo Conflicts: Beyond Minerals and Ethnicity

Jonathan Mizero

As the next round of east Congo conflict reaches its paroxysm, most grappled with how and when the conflict could be resolved permanently. Most tasked with finding a lasting solution and onlookers alike seem to have a cartoonish understanding of the conflict by solely laying the blame on either corporate interests in mining or on outside forces motivated by irredentism. Both of those views are very reductionist, on the premise of a lack of agency for local players. To change that, I am going to analyse the conflict from the point of view of local players.

First of all, we need to establish who those players are, their motivation and incentives and how they interact with great global economic and political networks. The precursor to the current upheaval in east congo started in the 1960s with a less known and researched conflict called Kanyarwanda War which was happening into a broader Simba rebellion conflict. The Kanyarwanda conflict was about land and the issue of citizenry being accentuated by a loose institutional reach of the central government nested 2000 km away from Kivu.

This inability by the central government to impose itself and provide legal and security authority in far away provinces such as Kivu and Katanga has facilitated the rise of local substitutes. Players may think that if one can’t rely on the government to provide security then it’s better to have a militia; if the government can’t physically guarantee impartial arbitration between two communities then maybe force of arms is the natural second choice…

The inexistence of government control traces its origin back to the first premier Lumumba death and subsequent rebellion between the pro west camp and Lumumba camp (Marxist) occupying most of the eastern part of the Congo. The reason why the east was a fertile ground for rebellion in the first place is the lingua dichotomy presiding over the DRC, the east part has always been influenced and affected by what was happening on the Indian coast, rather than the Atlantic coast.

The size of the country, the difference in historic culture and outside geopolitical players has made the Kinshasa-based central government unable to respond in due time to any evolving socio-political situation. Minerals havent been a motivator for most militias since the US-backed effort to establish a mineral tracing system made it difficult to resale stolen or illegally mined minerals, instead to subsist militias have taken to ransom, racketeering and most profitable to diversify into other venture such as charcoal and rare wood trafficking. This shows the cause is not minerals, when it ceased being a factor of destabilisation, the conflict financing moved to other ventures. So what remains as the cause of current insecurity without the financial motive? Although this self enrichment theory was never a credible factor to begin with, let’s take it at face value.

The current east Congo conflicts can be divided into three categories. The first is the indigenous irredentism most focused on land acquisition between different tribal militias. In this category we can class the current on and off Hema-lendu conflicts, which are essentially about land resources typical in areas with farmers-pastoralists coexistence. Another conflict to be classed into this is different tribal Mai Mai militias which crushes from time to time due to misunderstanding surrounding lands or water passes.

The second category can be simplified as the continuation of the Rwandan civil war (1990-1994) on Congolese soil. The remnants of the Genocidaire army fled into Congo after their defeat in 1994, there they found a Rwandophone community and soon afterward began to aggress and in some instances kills the Tutsis and actively participated in cross border raids into Rwanda, this lead to the Rwandan government stepping into Congo in 1997. The Congolese government reacted by supporting the genocidaire army which was renamed FDLR (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda) in early 2000s. The settlement by 2004 peace agreement never really achieved the disarmament of FDLR which continued to carry out raids into Congolese Tutsi settlements, and this prompted them to create their own self defence militia called CNDP, the mother of the current M23 rebellion. Again in this instance, there is no hint of minerals being the cause nor the sustaining factor of conflicts.

The third category is an Islamist insurgency emerging sometime in 2017 and pledged to the Islamic state in late 2019. ADF (Allied Democratic Forces), as it is called, was originally a Ugandan militia which operated on both fences of Uganda-DRC border, with the rise of Islamist insurgencies, ADF took in new recruits from Kenya, Tanzania and northern part of Mozambique and recently even veterans of Middle east and Horn of Africa conflicts. ADF is most active in Ituri, although this region and conflict is less covered than the M23 rebellion, ADF has been the most bloody militia in eastern Congo, by body count, since 2017. This conflict is also not sustained by any conflict, rather it is done via taxation of the populace in the area they occupy. The Ugandan military, after several terrorist incidents on its soil, occasinonally moved into Congo and conducted search and destroy raids with several instances of success.

So where does the ‘minerals cause wars in east Congo’ mantra come from? The answer is very simple yet not simplistic. The origin is the Second Congo War (1998-2003); during that conflict, armies involved were for most part national armies with competency and resources that come with it, so it made sense to establish a complex network of mineral mining and sales. Even with the state supplied labour force and supply chain to the international markets in India and Dubai, most of those enterprises established to take advantage of such trade made losses. For example, the total cost of the Rwanda war effort in Congo in 1999, amounted to almost 300 million USD, whereas the alleged war loot was estimated to be 20 millions per month .

The end of the conflict meant those state supplied capabilities which created such a smooth mining operations could not be available to local militias, and artisan mining is demanding in manpower with meagre revenues, unable to sustain a standing militia of 500 men (the average of an east Congolese militia), so the informal military forces had to find means elsewhere, that’s when they introduced tax collection, forest poaching, forced labour and racketeering. However the myth of blood coltan persisted and even revived especially by blood diamond awareness becoming mainstream in the west in the early 2000s.

The sterile focus on minerals and supposed roles of international corporations, although not entirely blameless, has helped other, more damning, causes of the conflict’s persistence, to go unchecked. Conflicts persist due to a lack of government monopoly with regard to either armed force or law. Steps like arbitration and proper marking of tribal land could resolve most of the small intensity conflicts.

The views expressed in this article is solely that of the author’s and does not represent that of and its entire staff.

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