Root Causes of the Deadly Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Presentation for the 2nd Annual Global Convening of Organizations and Individuals Dedicated to Preventing and Ending Atrocities and Deadly Violence Against Civilians.

Root Causes of the Deadly Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo is the very heart of the African continent. The country has been dubbed “the rape capital of the world” and has suffered the deadliest war since the Second World War. The country is the second largest in Africa by area, and the eleventh largest in the world with 2,345,410 km2. With more than 75 million people[1], the country is home to:

  • “145 million hectares of rain forests,”[2] or the second largest rain forest in the world;
  • With the Congo River, its tributaries, rivers, streams,  natural springs, and lakes, the DRC alone is home to 53 percent of African freshwater, thus earning the country the name the “Castle of African Waters”[3];
  • And while the country is known as a geological scandal, it is an agricultural scandal as well. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated in 2007 that with its nearly “80 million hectares of arable land and 4 million acres of irrigable land, a pasture that can support 40 million cattle […], DRC could feed over 2 billion individuals, or one third of this planet population, twice the current African people” [4];
  • In terms of forthcoming energy shortages, DRC is home to a hydropower potential of 100.000MW[5], or 13 percent of the world’s hydroelectric potential.
  • In terms of oil energy, latest statistics estimate that DRC has 137 million barrels of offshore and onshore petrol with an associate estimate 30 billion m3 of gas. Its Kivu Lake alone has an estimate 250 billion Nm3 a year worth 65 billion US$”[6];
    • Moreover and most dazzling, “DRC is home to more than 1,100 different minerals of which the main ones include copper, cobalt, silver, uranium, lead, zinc, cadmium, diamonds, gold, tin, tungsten, manganese and rare metals such as coltan.”[7] The latter is one of the so called 3Ts, or Tantalum, Tungsten, and Tin, and together with gold they have been instrumental in driving deadly atrocities in the eastern DR Congo for nearly two decades now.

The country is the world’s second largest reserve of copper. It holds ¼ of the world’s gold, 30 percent of the world’s diamonds, and 80 percent of the world’s coltan. Coltan is a mineral that consists of two distinct bodies, columbite and tantalite. From tantalite is drawn tantalum, which is an excellent conductor of electricity, handy and highly corrosion-resistant, and essential for the making of electronic components, capacitors in particular. Tantalite is a requisite for cell phones, cameras, computers, play stations, and highly specialized equipment such as missiles, aircraft engines, and satellites.

Root Cause of Congo Crisis

“The curse of coltan”, a report on DRC minerals potential published in the New African magazine in April 2010, reports that “DRC untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of USD 24 trillion.” This is a potential worth the combined gross domestic product of Europe and the US, and even surpasses the total value of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves.[8]

With so much natural wealth, one might think that DRC is a prosperous and successful country.  But yet, the country has been suffering a non-state ruling system that has turned DRC into a true jungle where people with the biggest guns share in the pies of natural resources.

That has resulted in the sheer complexity of the war in eastern Congo with an enmeshed web of interlocutors with often seemingly contradictory agendas that can be overwhelming and confusing. Once known as “Africa’s World War”[9], the conflict in the Congo has embroiled nine countries, including   Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Burundi, and notably Rwanda and Uganda who didn’t quibble about confronting each other violently for three times on the Congo soil. The third Rwanda/Uganda confrontation known to the Congo history as “the Kisangani 6-day battle” from 5-10 June, 2000, exposed the true stakes in the crisis that has been ripping up eastern Congo for about two decades now.

While in late 2002, foreign forces including 30,000 Rwandan troops[10] withdrew officially from the DRC, neighboring countries, notably Rwanda and Uganda maintained their grips on Congo natural resources through proxy rebel movements.[11]  Over the last 17 years, alliances have shifted. Friends have become foes, foes have become friends, and political landscapes have changed, altering the fragile balance of power in the Great Lakes Region.

To this day, eastern DR Congo remains beset by instability as various ethnic-based militias continue to wreak havoc on civilians. The Rwanda-spearheaded M23 rebel group is just the latest outgrowth of the rampant insecurity and government’s failure which describes the state of affairs in a country that ought to be the economic powerhouse of the entire African continent.

The abysmal corollary of the government’s failure has been a depravity of the justice and security systems, the demolition of basic social and economic infrastructures to an extent that DRC ranks the second-last country on the Human Development Index with the second-lowest nominal GDP per capita. It is this state of affairs that lays parts of eastern DRC open to ethnic tensions, and cyclical wars that have claimed over six million Congolese lives with 2.6 million displaced people as a result of the latest conflict outbreak alone.

A Legacy of Bloody Shambles  

Congo’s history has been intertwined with the Western need for strategic materials, i.e. rubber, ivory, uranium, coltan, gold, etc. and which, as shown above, exist profusely in a country in the heart Africa, the ironically called Democratic Republic of the Congo. And while Congo’s contribution to the Western technology boom, it has received in return incomprehensibly vicious brutality.

There had been a man in the Western civilization campaign for Africa, King Leopold II. Without him, I doubt Belgium would have ever rated to be the Capital of the Europe Union.[12] Belgium King Leopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country’s greatness, and thus worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. But while history teaches us that “neither the Belgian people nor the Belgian government were interested in the King’s quest for colony, I wonder why no single Belgian government has ever reproved to date King Leopold’s vile scramble for Congo’s natural resources and its ensuing genocide of “about ten million Congolese lives”.[13]

After a number of unsuccessful schemes for colonies in Africa and Asia, in 1876 King Leopold II organized a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, which he called the International African Society.[14] Following the closing of a three-month discussion on 5 February 1885 at the Berlin Conference between several European countries and the United States, King Leopold II secured recognition of sovereignty over a country 76 times larger than size of Belgium.[15]

With that international blessing, King Leopold set up a private army, the infamous “Force Publique”, that he used to exploit rubber, ivory, gold, etc. for over 23 years.[16]  “Congo’s rubber boom”[17]” was vital to the nascent Western automobile industry. As demand increased, mass murders, rapes, forced labor, etc. quickly became King Leopold army’s golden rule to boost the production. World renown Congo colonial history bestseller, “King Leopold’s Ghost”, pp.4-5, describes Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo as “the vilest scramble for loot”, “the first major international atrocity scandal”, “the worst of the bloodshed in the Congo”, etc.

As an illustration, “Red Rubber: Atrocities in the Congo Free State in the Confidential Print: Africa” published on December 16, 2010, reports,

[e]nforcement of the quotas was through violence, and failure to achieve them punishable by death. With the aim of preventing their soldiers from wasting ammunition the officers of Leopold’s Force Publique police ordered that they provide one of the victim’s hands for every bullet spent; since the quotas, inflated by the demands of the 1890s rubber boom, […], the basket of human hands was to become a symbol of the nightmare the Congo had become for its people.[18]

However, over half a century now, King Leopold’s legacy is not solely responsible for the deadliest war in the Congo after World War II. However, while there are certainly so many good-hearted Belgians who find their country’s colonial history appalling, seeing the longtime and absolute silence of Belgium governments to King Leopold’s horrors against millions of Congolese people, the blind-eye-mode and complacent foreign policies by the U.S., U.K., Germany, etc. in supporting authoritarian and despotic strongmen in the Congo and the region, it is hard not to make that connection.

Has the Scramble for Congo’s Minerals been Buying International Consensus for Silence?

Just as Germany, Great Britain, USA, France, etc. consented[19] to the continued brutal exploitation of the Congo by Belgium, the abundance of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by individuals in the Africa’s Great Lakes Region has always come up against a fierce lobby of powerful men from Western governments who quickly mobilize to prevent any justice efforts trying to bring key perpetrators to account.

Rwanda’s and Uganda’s record of plundering and fueling atrocities in eastern Congo for example, is one of the most exhaustively detailed human rights crime of our age.[20] In its report on the DR Congo published on 15 July 2004, the UN Group of experts reports, “the sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to be challenged not only by the intervention and military support provided by Rwanda and Uganda to its allies or proxy forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo….[21] See also Enough’s report, “Rwanda’s Long Shadow, U.S.-Rwanda Relations and a Path Forward in Eastern Congo” of June 2012 for more documentation on Rwandan and Ugandan sustained role in fanning instability in the eastern Congo while reaping up profits off the conflict-minerals business.

But if high-ranking officials within the 3Ks–Kigali, Kampala and Kinshasa are at the center of the curse of the conflict-minerals in eastern Congo, the U.S. share goes back a long way. “During World War II, the United States purchased from Belgium about 30 thousand tons of uranium ore mined in the Congo for close to 100 million dollars”.[22] According to The Mainichi Newspaper report of 5 August 2004, “at least 75 percent of that uranium [ore] was used in [the making of the USA atomic bomb used against] the Hiroshima and Nagasaki […]. [USA] continued to purchase uranium… after World War II during the Cold War.”[23] But if, on one hand, US continued to source uranium during Cold War, and is today the biggest consumer of eastern Congo conflict-minerals, Belgium modern infrastructures rest, on the other hand, on the blood of millions of Congolese lives.

The Laeken Royal Glasshouses in Brussels, the Japanese Tower, the Chinese Pavilion, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, the surrounding park in Tervuren, the Cinquantenaire Arch in Brussels, the Antwerp-Central railway station, the botanical garden, the Villa des Cèdres, etc. are just a few of King Leopold’s properties he built thanks to his Congo loot, but today’s Belgium greatness symbols.

With the above, one understands how wide and deep the mafia network for the Congo’s loot is. One understands why there is a general belief, including among Congo experts, that the crisis in the Congo is a riddle—so complex. One understands why UN and U.S. prescriptions to the Congo crisis have been of a moderate effectiveness as they avoid shaking up international, regional and local structures of the mafia.

As you can see, the increasing Western demand for strategic raw materials and the Congo crisis have been intimately connected. Masterminds and key stakeholders at any level of the mafia are sheltered far from local and international justice. Cynically in the Congo, perpetrators of mass atrocities and conflict-minerals orchestrators are rewarded with high-ranking official positions in the army and the government. Such a situation only promotes impunity and keeps up the status quo in eastern Congo that needs you to take action and join a few but devoted Congolese and international civil society groups to breaking the silence.

Without shaking up this top-down impunity tradition in the Great Lake Region, the 14 years old UN peacekeeping force in the Congo will remain forever a bunch of tourists at the expense of European and U.S. taxpayers. Without shaking up this international mafia network for Congo’s loot, the UN spearheaded Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for DR Congo and the region singed on 24 February 2013 in Addis-Ababa will only be an obsolete piece of paper like former agreements.  Without bringing to account masterminds of atrocities in the Great Lakes Region, the recently appointed UN Secretary General Special Envoy, and the newly and first ever UN mandated offensive international brigade to neutralize armed groups in the eastern Congo will turn out to be futile exercises.

All that said, one of the goals of this Convening is “to facilitate relationship-building among participants to create a more vibrant, coalesced movement, to break down silos, and to create opportunities for coordination that could lead to any number of positive outcomes for our field”. I am therefore calling for “Justice for the Congo Campaign” to break the silence and call on:

–          the European Union, the United States of America, the United Nations, and the African Union to recognize King Leopold’s genocide of the Congolese people;

–          the Belgium Kingdom to apologize for King Leopold’s genocide and to agree to paying a compensation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo;

–          the ICC to take upon immediately evidence contained in the UN Mapping Report and ensuing UN Group of Experts’ Reports incriminating high-ranking officials of the governments of Kigali, Kampala and Kinshasa for war crimes and crimes against humanity and plundering of natural resources in the eastern DR Congo;

–          the UN and US to put those incriminated on sanction list for travel ban and bank accounts freeze.

June, 2013, by Fidel Bafilemba,

For Congolese Activists

T: +243-993-100-908/+250-784-070-409
Skype: fidel.bafilemba
Twitter: @fidelbaf

[1] Central Intelligence Agency (2013). “Congo, Democratic Republic of the”. The World Fact book. Langley, Virginia: Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 5 October 2011. UPDATE DATE OF RETRIEVING.

[3] The Foundations of the DRC Transatlantic Policy, p. 185.

[4], the integration of farming and rural statistics in the study of main food-producing industries en the DR Congo, twentieth session of the farming statistics commission for Africa held in Alger 10-13 Dec. 2007.

[5] The Foundations of the DRC Transatlantic Policy, p. 125.

[6] Ibid. p. 123, 125-126.

[7] World Bank, RD Congo. Good governance in the mining sector as growth factor, October 2007, p. 20.