Congo: war-torn heart of Africa

Despite the presence of 17,000 UN peacekeepers, the threat of all-out war looms again in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

LAST UPDATED AT 09:26 ON Mon 1 Dec 2008

How is the DRC governed?

Badly, if at all. Two years ago, at a cost of $450m in foreign aid, Congo had its first presidential elections (largely peaceful) for 46 years. The winner was Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent Kabila, a rebel-turned-president who was shot by his own bodyguards in 2001. But Kabila Jr’s government, unwieldy from the start – he has no less than four prime ministers and 50 cabinet ministers – has been enfeebled by the squabbling endemic in a vast country of more than 200 ethnic groups.

And is his country dirt poor?

Potentially it’s one of the wealthiest in Africa, rich in timber (it contains half of Central Africa’s forests) and in virtually every mineral known to man – gold, copper, tin, diamonds, not to mention coltan, the “black gold” which, once refined, is a key ingredient in mobile phones and laptops. The DRC is also thought to hold huge reserves of oil and gas. But ever since 1885, when the Belgian king Leopold II made Congo his personal property and exploited it mercilessly for its rubber and ivory, the allure of those resources has proved a curse, provoking and intensifying conflict. Partly as a result of such conflict, the DRC is now one of Africa’s poorest countries: real GDP per head fell from $380 in 1960 to $115 in 2004.

Did Congo prosper at any time after independence?

No. In 1965, once freed from Belgian control, the country was run into the ground by army colonel Mobutu Sese Seko, a brutal kleptocrat who renamed it Zaire and hoarded its wealth for himself. Yet when, in 1997, he fled a rebel uprising spearheaded by an army from neighbouring Rwanda, Congo descended into a many-sided war, at one point involving the armies of six African nations. Between 1996 and 2002, more than four million people died (more than 90% from disease), making it the worst conflict since the Second World War. Since then the country has become a huge challenge for the UN (whose peacekeeping mission there costs $2bn a year) and a test of the very idea of government.

Has Kabila Jr been any help?

No. Driven by malnutrition and infectious diseases that proliferated after years of war, the Congolese mortality rate remains 57% higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa, making the whole country, in effect, a humanitarian disaster area. Yet Kabila’s government has not been able (or even appeared willing) to follow an internationally agreed peace plan for the five eastern provinces – North Kivu in particular – which are at the heart of the present fighting and which are the repository of much of Congo’s mineral wealth.

So is this a war over minerals?

In part, undoubtedly, even if its ethnic dimension is more often emphasised. Thus the main rebel leader – Laurent Nkunda (see box), an ethnic Tutsi – is bent on seizing the mineral deposits in the Hutu-held regions of North Kivu. The Hutu rebels for their part, though claiming to be seeking refuge in Congo from a vengeful Tutsi-led regime in Rwanda, have built up their militia by controlling the trade in tin, tungsten and coltan. The minerals are also a magnet for foreign armies – Portuguese-speaking troops, believed to be from Angola, have been seen in the conflict zone. In addition, there are dozens of other small ethnic militias (eg the Mai Mai, famous for their belief that they can ward off bullets by sprinkling themselves with “magic water”) all vying for a piece of the action. As a Congolese official noted this month: “The rebels aren’t in any areas that don’t have minerals.”

Can’t the DRC’s army stop them?

No. For a start its chronically underpaid soldiers are themselves deeply implicated in the illegal minerals business, extorting their own “tax” from those involved in the trade. (The tax levied by armed groups on charcoal alone is an estimated $30m a year.) Besides, the army seems to be in cahoots with the Hutu militias, just as Rwanda is almost certainly providing the Tutsi warlord Nkunda with key resources. His small but well organised army (some 5,000) has already driven government forces away from the strategic city of Goma, displacing 250,000 people in the process. Nkunda has threatened to overthrow Kabila’s government unless it takes part in power-sharing talks.

What is the ethnic dimension behind all this? One of the DRC’s big problems is that its “tribes” overflow the frontiers of the nine countries that surround it, so conflicts quickly become international. Take North Kivu: its problems stem from the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when Hutu extremists, having slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis over the border, fled to the jungles of eastern Congo to avoid reprisals. But the same ethnic tensions exist there as well. Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, wants to drive the Hutus out of North Kivu; and that suits the Tustsi-led regime in Rwanda, which also gains by having a proxy in the DRC to guarantee them access to its minerals. (Rwanda has no coltan of its own, though has been a major exporter of it.)

What can outsiders do to help?

The EU and the Southern African Development Community are exerting diplomatic pressure on Congo and Rwanda to keep to the peace plan they are supposed to be observing in North Kivu. Last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summoned Kabila and Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, to Nairobi for talks. There have also been calls to strengthen the UN mandate and send yet more peacekeepers. But French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner says there’s no time to lose and that the EU should send a small, rapidreaction force to back up the UN and neutralise Nkunda, much as British special forces shored up the failing UN mission to Sierra Leone in 2000. Wary of intervening on the wrong side, the UK has so far refused to recommend force. Meanwhile Nkunda, ignoring his promise of a ceasefire, is pressing on to Goma.

Nkunda: butcher and cheesemaker

The tall, slender general at the heart of the current conflict has two nicknames, says The Daily Telegraph: “The Cheesemaker” and “The Butcher of Kisangani”. The first comes from his dairy herds, which roam the hills of North Kivu, and the second from his brutal execution of 160 people in the town of Kisangani in 2002, one of many acts for which the Congolese government has demanded his prosecution as a war criminal. These are the two sides of the charismatic, 41-year-old warlord who claims to be the protector of eastern DRC’s minority Tutsi people. In 1994, Nkunda, a psychology graduate, fought in Rwanda against the Hutu militias that were killing Tutsis there, and has maintained a strong relationship with the country ever since. During Congo’s civil war, he fought with Rwanda against the Hutus that escaped after the genocide and now claims that he’s still trying to protect his people, who make up about 3% of the DRC’s population. The government in Kinshasa wants to arrest him, but so far remains powerless to do so. “We are ready to talk,” says Nkunda. “But we are also ready to fight.” · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.