Crisis in Eastern Congo: A Five-Minute Primer


The Democratic Republic of the Congo is once again making the news. And once again, it is about a conflict in its east that seems to have no end. “Complex” and “intractable” are the words often associated with the crisis, which stems largely from the past sixteen years of chronic instability in the country’s east. Those two descriptors, sadly, have been an excuse for people to mischaracterize the situation and grossly oversimplify the solutions (see here and here) but also to turn their gaze to other crises (see here). 

To cut through some of the debates and confusion, here are a few points of explanation.

What is the situation today in eastern Congo?

Rebels who had threatened to take over the country have pulled out of the strategic trading town of Goma in eastern Congo as of December 1st. As agreed to in a declaration signed by Congo and eight neighboring countries, the rebels are supposed to withdraw from Goma and “stop all war activities.” In return, the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, has agreed to listen to and resolve the rebels’ “legitimate grievances” and African countries are to set up a neutral force to help bring peace to the east.

Since the start of the rebel movement earlier this year, over 700,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, hundreds (at least) have been killed, and the annual appeal for humanitarian funding has reached only 60 percent of its needs. The specter of a regional war also looms although many hope that the temporary pullout of rebel forces from Goma and other commitments will pave the way for a more lasting peace.

How did this crisis happen?

The crisis is best understood within the context of the many grievances of both local populations and business and political elites in the African Great Lakes region. It has roots in ethnic violence in 1993 in eastern Congo, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and three major the rebellions in eastern Congo led by the AFDL in 1996-97, the RCD in 1998-02, and in 2006-2009 the CNDP, whose former members control the military leadership of the current rebel movement.

The current violence, though, started in late March 2012 when over 300 soldiers ostensibly part of the Congolese army broke away in North and South Kivuprovinces in eastern Congo. By June 2012, the mutineers had grown to over 1,500, called themselves the M23, and had battled the Congolese army over towns in North Kivu province. By August, the national army and M23 agreed to an informal ceasefire and an uneasy peace ensued during which M23 trained more troops and received more supplies and the Congolese army deployed more soldiers to the area.

Since at least March 2012, the M23 slowly amassed troops and received outside support, especially from the governments of Rwanda and to a lesser extentUganda. Both governments vigorously deny involvement in M23, despite damning evidence that has led to cuts and suspensions in aid to Rwanda from the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, among others.

The lull in fighting ended on November 15th when fighting erupted between the M23 and the Congolese army. Despite air support to Congo’s army from the UN peacekeepers (who have had a UN mission in Congo since 1999), the M23 beat back the undisciplined and corrupt Congolese troops and expanded its control southward to include the strategic city of Goma by November 20th.

What do the rebels want?

The rebels initially demanded that the Congolese government honor its commitments to a peace agreement signed on March 23, 2009 — from which the name “M23.” These include giving its rebel officers adequate military rank and pay, providing its leaders with good positions in the Congolese government, and doing more to repatriate some 55,000 Congolese refugees in Rwanda. Many of these demands were disingenuous given that those M23 rebels had previously profited handsomely from their deployments in eastern Congo and had a disproportionate number of high-ranking positions in the Congolese military, among other things.

Since November, however, the M23 has expanded these demands to include a more inclusive national government, action on past widely suspected crimes and abuses of the Congolese state, and electoral reform, even though some M23 members directed violent episodes of election rigging in the 2011 Congolese elections. These demands have tapped into widely shared grievances against the government in Kinshasa, which is deeply unpopular among Congolese. Still, the M23 movement remains more unpopular than past rebel movements largely because it is seen as an instrument for foreign domination and has gained a reputation for abusing the population in rural areas.

Why should we care about this crisis?

There is the humanitarian imperative to act in a larger crisis that has led to over 5 million deaths since 1998 and continues to wreak havoc in the east. While the country has seen some progress since the worst of the fighting, many of the same grievances that sparked earlier regional wars have been left to fester. Averting another regional war leading to an untold number of civilian deaths, given the decrepit infrastructure and nonexistent social services in the country, should be high on the list of reasons for engagement.

There is also the strategic interest. Since Congo is at the crossroads of three major regional zones in Africa, its stability could improve neighboring economies and lessen the legitimate security threats that such a dysfunctional state poses to its neighbors, especially Rwanda. Congo is like the town square of the African continent. If Congo, which is in the middle of the continent, goes completely to rot, it can infect other neighborhoods and impede the progress in nearby countries.

Third, there is the economic interest for Africans and international companies. Often referred to as a geological scandal, Congo contains 40 percent of the world’s cobalt, 20 percent of the world’s tantalum (an important element in today’s electronics), and some of the largest copper deposits in the world. The Congo River also has enough energy to bring electricity to much of sub-Saharan Africa’s population. Despite this fantastic potential and an incredibly resilient and entrepreneurial population, Congo consistently scores at the bottom of the annual Doing Business index and has received some of the lowest credit ratings possible. The current conflict further impedes any nascent economic development and scares off additional foreign direct investment.

 What Happens Next?

What happens next is unclear. The current crisis is far from over even if the recent declaration and pullout from Goma are positive signs. Negotiations could quickly break down and fighting could resume.

Even so, the current crisis actually provides an opportunity to address some of Congo’s deep-seated problems. The abysmal performance of the Congolese army puts further pressure on the government to undertake genuine security sector reform, which has long been a top priority for the country to develop. The current demands for government reform are also valid and popular criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis might provide enough impetus to jumpstart reforms that have stalled in Congolese parliament and in the president’s office.

No such reforms will happen overnight and the current pullout of troops in Goma does not mark the end of the current crisis. Still, with the recent violence starkly exposing the fundamental problems plaguing the Congolese state, this current crisis might push the government and outside actors toward a more durable solution.

Joshua Marks is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project blog.