What’s the Deal With Losing Ground in the DRC?

Hello All!

Trouble in the Land o’ Lakes

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that also has trouble getting its resources under control.

In this week’s blog post, we’ll discuss the long on-going conflict in Eastern Africa in a region known as the Kivu; a region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that borders Rwanda and Burundi to the East and Uganda to the Northeast.

The region has had a very troubled and conflict ridden past with ethnic violence and battles for resources continuing to be the issue of today’s conflict.  Several different rebel groups with different affiliations have been fighting for sovereignty in the Kivu province, and both national forces from Rwanda and DRC along with a UN peace-keeping force have failed to control the region or protect civilians.

The Current: Wait, it’s not Zaire anymore?

Quite a perch over the town he’s got

A rebel group that broke off from the Congolese army in 2009 has made significant inroads in North and South Kivu, controlling a good portion of the rural areas, and threatening to take over the Kivu provincial capital of Goma.

In July of this year, the rebel group, called the M23, had beaten back the unmotivated and under-supplied Congolese army despite being outnumbered 10 to 1 and has captured strategic towns such as Bunagana (near Uganda), Rutshuru, Kiwanja, and the army base of Kibumba, which is half-hour drive away from Kivu’s capitol of Goma. The group calls itself the M23, using the date of a failed military integration agreement (signed on March 23, 2009) as a catalyst for their cause for sovereignty.

The M23 was previously affiliated with a long-time Congolese rebel group called the National Congress of the People (CNDP) and their rebel commander, Laurent Nkunda (an ICC shoe-in).  The 2009 agreement was supposed to integrate the armed rebel group into the army, but after asserting that terms of the deal had been flouted against their interests, they mutinied and broke off as the M23.  The M23 is made up of an almost exclusive Tutsi population, and a recent UN study showed that Rwandan President Paul Kagame (also a Tutsi) supports the M23, an assertion that Kagame denies vehemently.

By allegedly supporting the M23, Kagame has thrown the DRC for a Tutsi-roll

In addition to the Tutsi ethnic connection for Rwandan leaders, if the M23 were to wrest control of Goma away from the Congolese government, Rwanda could stand to benefit as a recipient or controlling party in the vast resources and the wealth that comes with it.  The situation is even more complex given the presence of a Hutu rebel group (the military rebels that instigated the Rwandan genocide in 1993-4).

What is certain from this destabilized and resource rich region is that the civilian population will continue to suffer if no peace is at hand.  Indeed, ethnic struggles and a highly militarized environment has seen the deterioration in the humanitarian situation especially for women and girls who often are the targets of rape, and young boys, who are often kidnapped and coerced into joining insurgent groups as child soldiers.  As a result of the M23 rebellion, over 320,000 people have been displaced.

In the Kivu conflict, make-shift camps are becoming the norm

This situation and development of the rebel group CNDP and its successor, the M23 requires historical explanation.   Only with a solid grasp of the geo-political and historical background of the region can we begin to understand the current conflict and develop solutions that may improve the security and humanitarian crisis that continues to baffle the UN.

Stanley and Leopold: Inadequate Nation-building

Stanley encountered significant established communities

Following similar patterns across former colonial territories, ethnic conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo originate from the implementation of a political boundary around many, many different peoples.

And in the DRC, there are hundreds of different ethnic groups and tribes with a wide diversity of culture.  The largest tribes include the Azande, Kongo, Luba, Lunda, Mongo, Nandi, Babwa, Lega, Kuba, Bwaka, Pende, and Tetele, but these are subdivided into many different territorial and kinship groups often with their own distinct language, pattern of descent, land ownership, rituals, and so on.

Some of these groups had created extensive kingdoms and trade systems centuries well before the Portuguese explorer Diego Cao (the first European) arrived on the Atlantic shore in the 15th century. When Henry M. Stanley, a Dutch explorer, was able to finally traverse the Congo River inland beyond the coastal region in 1874-77, he did not find a great coalition of tribes involved a unified political state; he found many distinct groups that controlled different regions, were skilled artisans, and conducted widespread trade.   Some of these groups were very large and could be described as kingdoms, such as the Kongo (the namesake of the river), but most, especially in the tropical North, were small.

It’s quite a river basin

Prior to Stanley’s venture, no European knowledge of the interior of Central Africa existed, due to the presence of tropical diseases (of which Europeans are more susceptible), but also because of the difficult terrain and water passage (there were many waterfalls/cataracts to get over).

King Leopold II of Belgium (1865-1909) wanted to use his financial flexibility (read: he was rich) to establish a colony for Belgium in his legacy in which to reap resources and wealth, and establish free trade across the African continent similar to efforts of other Western European empires.  Leopold used Stanley as his chief agent and established the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC) as an organization to create a sovereign state under the King’s name around the areas that Stanley and his crew encountered.  The only real resistance was found in the East where Arab slave and ivory traders had established significant links for centuries, but most of the Arab chiefs were defeated in campaigns by Belgian soldiers in 1892-94.

King Leopold II got what he wanted in an economic colony; but left behind a disaster

This exercise of nominally establishing sovereignty in the name of the King was a precursor to Belgium taking over the “Congo Free State” as it was known, and establishing an official colony under the name of the Belgian Congo. The Congo Free State’s chief effort was to gain dominion over key resources such as rubber, ivory, and minerals (cobalt, copper, diamonds, and tin) which they developed extensively.  When the King’s own resources fell short in securing the borders around these regions, loans from the Belgian government were issued with the condition that Belgium could annex the state if it wished to do so in the first years of the 20th Century.

The Belgian government also gained greater control when, on condition of the loans to Leopold, they instituted regime dominial,  by which all vacant (uncolonized) land became property of the state, including the resources within that area; of course disregarding any non-European claim to the territory or resources.   Annexation is precisely what Belgium did in 1908 after much international appeal due to British reports of oppressive treatment of the indigenous populations during the compulsory collection of rubber, leading to an anti-Congolese movement and a reform campaign.

By taking a stab at colonial rule in the Congo, Belgium took part in the European tradition of resource exploitation and inciting ethnic conflicts

After official Belgian colonial control, regime dominial was abolished and free trade was reestablished; opening the doors for private corporate efforts to develop the land in the colony.  The government was thereafter more concerned with holding onto the land against other European colonial efforts. The colonial army, known as the Force Publique, was used to subdue and control the indigenous population so that labor was plentiful and resistance minimal for resource extraction.

The civilian leadership in the Belgian Congo was made up of military officers from many countries, but did not include many civilian administrators, instituting a troubling tradition of the military involved in political leadership.  Ethnic differences among Congolese in the rank and file army led aggression before and after independence to be directed towards fellow “Congolese”. While the Belgian Congo began to develop economically in significant bounds, especially in the Post-War period, it was accomplished using an administrative system that was exploitative and without major participation of indigenous people.  This made the process of decolonization all the more difficult when Brussels finally decided to transfer power.  The descent into political turmoil immediately after withdrawal by Belgium showed that:

  • The colony was developed not as a chance to develop a real state cohabiting both indigenous peoples and interested Europeans, but as an initiative to capitalize on the resource rich region before other European nations did.
  • This meant that when nationalism did materialize as a possibility, the widely varied complexion of peoples in the Belgian Congo were taking over an administrative system that was already set up for majority exploitation and corrupt governance that used an entrenched military system to secure it.
  • Little participation of tribal groups in Belgian administration meant, unlike in British colonies, that leadership vacuums and rivalries for power were inevitable.

Independence: Land of the UN troops

Independence meant something different for Tshombe and Katanga

The DRC was created as an independent country in 1960, breaking off from its Belgian colonial holders in a negotiated round-table conference in Brussels. Political instability quickly followed the creation of an independent government with elected officials, however, as one wealthy province, Katanga, led by provincial president Moise Tshombe, declared its own independence just months after the provincial constitution was signed.  This, along with a mutiny in the army, led to great confusion and uncertainty in the new republic.  Belgian forces arrived in the East to protect their mining interests, and the Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, asked the UN security council for help, which it did by approving a UN force.

By the fall of 1960, a UN backed takeover by the Congolese army’s Col. Mobutu resulted in squelching any working power the Congolese Legislature had remaining, and Prime Minister Lumumba was arrested (and later killed). By the end of 1960, the DRC was divided into various rival regions: in the capital, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) the original President and the UN backed army head Mobutu held moderate power, Antoine Gizenga, a proclaimed successor of Lumumba, held sway in Kivu and Orientale provinces, and Tshombe still held considerable power in Katanga province (with former Belgian soldiers, the wealth of the Belgian mining companies, and sympathy from France, Britain, and Belgium).

The immediate divisional strife following independence in the Congo

This position made Tshombe a veritable stick in the mud when after severe fighting with UN troops, he refused to cooperate on rejoining Katanga with the rest of the republic. The rebellion continued with renewed UN troop presence until 1964 (a financially strapping operation), but outside military mercenaries remained an import (with assistance from the U.S.) in regaining political stability and control until the late 1960s.

The U.S. became involved to protect mining interests for business, but also to counter the influence of the Soviet Union, who had supported Tshombe in his effort to create an independent Katanga. With the international backing, General Mobutu took formal control of the government and was able to retain relative peace for years.  He did this by partly by forming a strong patriarchal leadership with the Presidency, calling himself, the “father of the nation”; an ideological presence that was traditional for many leaders of indigenous tribes, but inevitably resulted in a self-serving strong armed central government.  Mobutu also changed the name of the Congo to Zaire in 1971 (also changing the name of the Congo River to the Zaire River).

Mobuto also attempted to wrest control of Congolese assets away from foreign ownership, nationalizing many industries in the late 1960s and 1970s. Taking control of industries (Zairianization) without having adequate personnel or training to do so, however, was very costly to the state (but benefited Mobutu personally), and proved an economic disaster when the 1973 global recession hit since the Congolese economy was tied directly to commodities prices, such as copper.

Mobutu’s human rights record was spotty

Along with the economic tailspin, Mobutu’s government also engaged in a great deal of humanitarian abuses as security forces engaged in repressive action that stifled, instead of protected the Congolese people; Examples abound of the state security forces use of violence against its own people, for example when up to 100 students at the University of Lubumbashi in 1990 were massacred.  This prompted a quick retraction of most non-humanitarian aid from the international community.  The U.S., however, continued to support the Mobutu government with arms and money to spurn the Soviet backed rebels.

The extent of armed opposition groups in the country showed the challenges of a successful  state creation when the initial goal was economic exploitation and not democratic nation building.  Autonomous ethnic groups stemming from the hundreds of indigenous tribes and tongues were apt to fight for their own self-determination, or at least their own autonomous land.

Descending into chaos

This is exactly what confronted the Mobutu government for a great deal of his tenure, and much like the present, the national army failed to protect the borders and keep Congolese territory within their own control. In 1984-5, an opposition held the town of Moba, along the Eastern border at Lake Tanganyika, clashes with a different opposition group close to the Ugandan border in 1993 and the massive influx of refugees from Rwanda showed the border issues of the Congo.

Destabilization in Kivu

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, a massive influx of over 1.2 million Rwandan Hutu (including those who had taken part in the genocide) fled across the porous DRC border into the Kivu region which was inhabited by Tutsi and other ethnicities.   A Hutu rebellion first aimed at ethnic Tutsis in Kivu expanded in the region to a multi-party force led by rebel Commander Laurent Kabila against the national forces of President Mobutu in 1996.  Many opposition figures joined Kabila’s forces as they saw this as a chance to bring about the end of the Mobutu dictatorship.  Kabila’s forces were able to overwhelm the Zairian forces with help from the Rwandan and Ugandan armies and in 1997 overran Kinshasa and Kabila became President, renaming the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The return of the UN peacekeeping troops: MONUSCO

Rebel movements against Kabila in the Kivu were able to retain significant control, with backing from Uganda and Rwanda, and after significant military engagements, the UN Security Council emerged once again in the picture, calling for a ceasefire which was settled under the 5 country Lusaka Ceasefire agreement in 1999.  Out of this ceasefire, the UN Security Council also created the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to keep security, encourage fair elections, and deter ethnic violence.

The creation of this effort did not stop all the violence of course, and President Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, and succeeded by his son and current President Joseph Kabila.  Foreign armies (Angola, Uganda, Rwanda) retained their presence until 2003, as the resources of Kivu remained out of official control.  In addition, several rebel groups from different countries have retained a base and continual presence in the Kivu and Eastern DRC region.   This includes the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony, a 20 year old Ugandan rebel movement that infamously abducts children for its fight.

The Congres National pour la Defense du Peuple, led by Nkunda (see, I told you the CNDP acronym works in French)

In the midst of this struggle for the DRC to retain its own borders and towns against armed rebel groups, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP – it’s French, don’t worry the acronym works) formed when a former commander of a rebel group, Laurent Nkunda, decided against joining the transitional government in 2003, for fear of being captured and held in court by the International Criminal Court (ICC) which had Nkunda indicted for crimes against humanity.

In 2006, the DRC was able to hold successful elections, that were relatively free and fair (the country’s first) and after a complex run-off vote, Kabila remained the leader of the country.  After these elections, Nkunda organized the CNDP around rhetoric for Tutsi autonomy in the Eastern Congo, attracting many former Rwandan soldiers.  Nkunda and his CNDP soldiers were able to control wide swaths of the Eastern Congo a midst fighting against Congolese armed forces, MONUSCO peacekeeping forces,  and the Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The CNDP saw a major split in 2009 when Cmdr. Bosco Ntaganda declared himself the leader of the CNDP and sought to join the national forces in the fight against the FDLR.  Nkunda was arrested when he crossed the Rwandan border in a deal between DRC President Kabila and Rwandan President Kagame – a deal that offered Rwandan military assistance to fight the FDLR along with the integration of the CNDP.

That integration into the Congolese national forces did not sit well with the remaining rebel soldiers striving for autonomous control, and so a faction of the CNDP split off from Ntaganda after that March 23, 2009 agreement, and renamed themselves the M23.

Conclusion: Few Things Certain in the Kivu

Even with the deal proctored between Presidents Kabila and Kagame, it’s clear that  control in the Kivu remains far out of reach of the Congolese national government.

How did this region become a constant war zone?

Here are a few historical notes to keep in mind:

  • The Eastern Congo and Kivu region has never been fully under the control of a state
  • The region has always been a region of many peoples and ethnicities
  • King Leopold II’s initiation of resource extraction and militarized administration started an alarming tradition that foretold of insecurity.
  • Independence from Belgium in 1960 brought out the divisions that colonialism had masked with an artificial border.
  • A military dictator in Gen. Mobutu fit the pattern of their Belgian Congo forbears by using strong arm tactics and exploiting natural resources for personal, instead of national gain.
  • The UN has been a frequent enforcer of peace, with little success in the region
  • Rebellion groups against the Congolese government like the M23 have persisted and have been successful since independence because of a lack of national military strength and outside support.

So, at this moment, resolution is a distant dream for the UN Security Council and President Kabila.  Until some semblance of a formal ceasefire can be held, the people of Kivu will continue to be at the mercy of the war zone, and the Congo’s valuable resources will never be used towards nationwide economic gain.

The geopolitical landscape remains tense, as Rwandan armed support against the M23 is offset by their alleged support of the Tutsi group.  The DRC’s situation is so vital to African stability and peaceful economic rise, however, that it is in the best interest of the African and international community to bring about peace.

Until conflict resolution, Kivu will be a region of people on the move

Unlike the disaster areas of Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, this region is less influenced by radical religious motivation and more about ethnic autonomy and control of resources.  Safe to say, the African Union and the MONUSCO task force will have their hands full for some time.

Even with few things certain in the Kivu except instability, the unfolding of events in this region will be of the utmost importance to track.

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:



Library of Congress: Country Studies: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/zrtoc.html

Statement of the UN Security Council President, 10/19/2012, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/PRST/2012/22

Zubaida Rasul-Ronning, Conflicted Power: Obama’s Foreign and Strategic Policy in a Shifting World Order




Britannica Encyclopedia: Belgian Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zaire



About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Africa, American Intervention, colonialism, International Affairs, Radical Movements and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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