Intractable Crisis

As the world is preoccupied with Gaza and Ukraine, the wars in the eastern DRC are entering their fourth and perhaps most dangerous decade, with a risk of major regional escalation. The conflict, which currently involves about a hundred different armed groups, has killed and displaced millions over the years. Since 2021 it has entered a new phase, marked by the reemergence of a rebel organization known as the March 23 movement. Private security companies and neighbouring states have joined the fray, and the diffuse range of belligerents has galvanized along two clear fronts: one aligned with the Congolese government, the other with the M23. The situation is now deteriorating by the day, and the prospects of peace are distant.

The violence began in earnest around 1993, when Zaire – the state that preceded the DRC – lost the capacity to contain the identity politics that it had cultivated over the previous three decades. Mobutu, a staunch ally of the West during his 32-year reign, had aimed to divide and rule by exploiting long-standing communal tensions. Forced migration, arbitrary border-lines and ethnic pogroms in the colonial era provided fertile ground for this strategy, which often targeted eastern DRC’s Kinyarwanda-speaking population. In 1994, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda caused millions of Hutu – both civilians and perpetrators – to cross into Zaire. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, the group that would soon capture the central government of Rwanda, pursued the genocidaires into DRC’s North Kivu province, and conflict spread rapidly across the country’s east.

Between 1996 and 2003, two devastating wars unfolded under the watch of an international community which had stood by during the Rwandan genocide and was now consumed by post-Cold War conflicts from Somalia to Yugoslavia. In the 1996-7 ‘Liberation War’, the veteran insurgent Laurent-Désiré Kabila toppled Mobutu and took power through a rebellion supported by Rwanda and Uganda. The ‘Second Congo War’ then erupted in 1998 after Kabila split with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies, who in turn supported another rebel campaign against his government. This time, the formerly genocidal Rwandan forces, which soon became known as the FDLR, lent armed support to Kabila. Numerous African countries threw their weight behind one or the other side.

Joseph Kabila became president after his father’s assassination in 2001, and three years later he officially ended the war, signing peace accords with domestic rebel forces and with the Rwandan government. Yet in 2005, the renegade army general Laurent Nkunda mounted a new rebellion against the Kinshasa administration. This concluded with another deal between DRC and Rwanda, who agreed to quash Nkunda and launch joint operations against the FDLR. The rebel leader was detained and his forces were integrated into the Congolese army along with various other armed groups. But the regional entente did not last long.

Following DRC’s 2011 elections, where the younger Kabila was re-elected in a contested poll, a group of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese officers and former partisans of the Rwanda-backed rebellion deserted the army and created the M23. Aided by Rwanda and Uganda, the group briefly conquered the city of Goma in late 2012. A year later, the Congolese army forced the M23 into exile with the help of the UN. But subsequent peace negotiations failed, and the remnants of the group returned to eastern DRC in early 2017, hiding out between volcanoes near the eastern border. During those years, other armed groups fragmented and multiplied. Though they proved deadly for the civilian population, they remained too scattered and peripheral to provoke much international concern.

Despite evidence of large-scale fraud, the December 2018 general elections effected the first peaceful transfer of power in Congolese post-independence history. Kabila, who was widely believed to be eyeing an unconstitutional third term before finally agreeing to hold the ballot, was succeeded by Felix Tshisekedi – the son of a historic opposition leader, and the first president since the 1960s without ties to the military or the rebellion. Diplomats and journalists predicted lasting political change. Yet over the past five years, most of the government’s democratic and economic reforms have stalled, and Tshisekedi’s pledge to ‘humanize’ the security forces remains unfulfilled, amid continuing abuses against human rights advocates and journalists.

Initially, Tshisekedi oversaw a period of détente with Rwanda, with highly symbolic moments such as a widely publicised handshake between Tshisekedi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame in December 2019, and a solemn meeting at the border after an eruption of Nyiragongo volcano in May 2021. Under Tshisekedi, the Congolese government began working on various political, economic and military deals with its eastern neighbours and joined the East African Community. The DRC established military deals with Bujumbura, formalising years of unofficial presence of Burundi’s army on its soil, and with Kampala, leading to the deployment of the Ugandan army in the Beni region – where the ADF, an ISIS-linked insurgent group of Ugandan origin, had been at the centre of large-scale violence since 2014.

The DRC also secured mutually promising agreements with Rwanda, but tense relations with Burundi and Uganda – whose military operations in DRC seemed to involve strategic and sensitive areas for Kigali – complicated the regional equation. An informal military alliance between Kigali and Kinshasa that had targeted FDLR hideouts between 2015 and 2020 was discontinued for reasons that remain opaque. At the same time, negotiations between Kinshasa and M23 broke down. The DRC established martial rule in North Kivu and Ituri, and announced a new demobilization programme targeting the rebels.

This, along with an abrupt end to the informal ties that had underpinned the brief honeymoon between Kigali and Kinshasa, helped patch up the relationship between Rwanda and the M23 (which had been uneasy since Nkunda’s arrest). In late 2021, Rwanda rebooted its support for the M23, which began attacking Congolese army positions. The DRC resorted to the tried-and-tested formula of sub-contracting other armed groups, notably the FDLR. Fighting escalated in early 2022 as the M23 landed a series of battlefield victories and expanded its territorial control in the areas north of the city of Goma.

Both the DRC and Rwanda decided to pursue military escalation rather than diplomacy. As Kigali sent troops to fight alongside the M23, Kinshasa rallied an array of armed groups known as wazalendo and contracted private military companies to fight the rebels. All sides of the conflict are now investing in sophisticated weaponry – including drones, Rwandan surface-to-air missiles fired from M23-controlled territory, and high-end assault rifles which the DRC delivers to its proxy forces. The Congolese army has begun to integrate Burundian soldiers into its ranks, while Uganda – despite conducting joint operations with the DRC against the ADF – has been accused of facilitating support for the M23 along the Congolese border.

For Kinshasa, the M23’s return was proof that Rwanda had never been serious about peace. The DRC frames the conflict as a result of Rwanda’s intervention, denouncing the M23 as a foreign puppet given its predominantly Kinyarwanda-speaking leadership. For Rwanda, however, the DRC’s renewed cooperation with the FDLR suggested that it was uninterested in improving regional security. Rwanda has denounced what it considers the ethnic cleansing of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese, presenting the violence as a result of the government’s discrimination against its Banyamulenge, Tutsi and Hema populations. Both sides thus buy into different hierarchies of suffering, privileging either the victims of M23 violence or the Kinyarwanda-speaking population.

This political polarization has created an increasingly hostile discursive environment, reflected in the war of words conducted across both traditional and new media. During the first M23 war, it was possible for humanitarians, journalists and researchers to cross the frontlines and work on different sides of the conflict. Since the 1990s, there have always been moderate voices among the DRC population, who feel that they suffer from Kinshasa’s poor governance and divisive ethnic politics and from Rwanda’s ambitions to claim North Kivu as its backyard. They have consistently tried to resist the ethnic polarisation of conflict (with varying degrees of success). Today, though, online spin doctors, trolls and agitators on both ends of the spectrum smear their critics as either allies of the FDLR genocidaires or puppets of Rwanda, reducing the space for non-partisan discussion. Attempts to maintain a modicum of social cohesion are under serious threat.

Meanwhile, the conflict’s underlying structures – including the legacies of racist colonial rule, the divide-and-rule politics of the post-colonial era, and the wounds of the 1990s wars – remain intact. Local conflicts over access to land and resources, as well as political power, are being complicated by the activities of foreign mining companies lusting after export minerals. Over the decades, mass displacement has not only devastated eastern DRC’s agriculture; it has also created a growing workforce for informal mining and recruitment into armed groups, which has altered the social and economic fabric of the region. The conflict has now acquired its own self-perpetuating logic, as militarization and violence have become the dominant modes of socio-economic life. International intervention was complicit with this transformation. During the rebellion of 2005 to 2009, the phrase ‘no Nkunda, no job’ became commonplace, suggesting that UN workers and humanitarians were instrumentalizing the war to secure lucrative contracts and mineral rents rather than pushing for a peace settlement.

Time and again, external actors have failed to contain the escalation. The UN peacekeeping mission, deployed in 1999, has gradually been reduced to a politically marginal ally of the Congolese army. It has recently begun to retreat in the face of popular discontent and accusations of being in cahoots with the FDLR, to which it is indirectly linked because of its support to Kinshasa. The peacekeepers of the East African Community, on the other hand, spent nearly a year overseeing a shaky ceasefire in 2023 before being dismissed by Kinshasa for not fighting the M23. Now, an incoming regional force, under the auspices of the South African Development Community, is viewed as hostile and partisan by both the M23 and Rwanda. It is unlikely to fare better than its predecessors.

Two major African peace initiatives – the Nairobi peace process, which brought together the Congolese armed groups except the M23; and the African Union-sponsored Luanda roadmap, aimed at mediating between Kigali and Kinshasa – have so far had little impact. The Nairobi talks were little more than a pathway to reorganizing the armed groups as government proxies, while the Luanda roadmap became a forum for Rwanda and DRC to accuse each other of violating past commitments.

Although various countries have condemned Rwanda’s support for the M23 and its military deployments into the DRC, as well as Kinshasa’s use of armed proxies, international engagement with the crisis has been sparse and erratic. Global powers still see it as a marginal issue. This has fuelled accusations of partiality – whether it is pro-Rwanda voices emphasising Western complicity in the genocide, or pro-DRC ones stressing Anglo-Saxon support for Rwanda-backed rebellions. The result is a legitimate and deep-seated resentment towards the West, which has been exacerbated by constant diplomatic mishaps. In February 2024, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding on sustainable mineral trade with Rwanda, which has long been accused of benefitting from illegal mineral exports from eastern DRC. After vociferous protests, the Europeans backpaddled and issued a statement in which they tried to strike a balance between condemnation of Rwanda and the DRC.

Much ink has been spilled on identifying the prime mover of the conflict. Millions have been spent on ambitious peace programmes, often focusing on tropes about ‘ethnic violence’ or ‘greed for resources’, and assuming that that the various parties act according to what Westerners presume to be their ‘rational interests’. Across diplomacy, academia and activism, there are competing theories of where to place the blame: Rwandan interference, DRC’s governance problems, international intervention, transnational trade networks, the multiplicity of armed groups. Attempts to strike a balance in apportioning responsibility, meanwhile, are often met with accusations of moral equivalence. Supporters of Rwanda claim that, given its roots in the genocide, the FDLR cannot be equated with any of the conflict’s other actors; it is in a moral league of its own. Supporters of Kinshasa argue that singling out the FDLR is a veiled justification for Rwanda’s incursions into the eastern DRC.

This creates a cascade of moral problems. To survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the FDLR still has the same extremist anti-Tutsi ideology and therefore poses a continuing threat. Yet from a Congolese perspective, the FDLR is a shadow of its former self which no longer has the capacity for violence on the same scale, and its presence has now become a pretext for recurrent Rwandan aggression. Both these positions are understandable. The aim should be to create a dialogue between them, but in present conditions this seems almost impossible. It is difficult to find agreement on even the most basic facts of the conflict, since they are increasingly weaponized to suit the narratives of either side. The infamous UN mapping report – an inventory of crimes committed in eastern DRC between 1993 and 2003 – is a case in point. Over 500 pages, it compiles an extensive list of abuses committed by all warring parties; but is often selectively cited to assign sole responsibility to certain actors and exonerate others. This has compromised attempts to understand this intractable crisis along with efforts to resolve it.

The absence of honest peace efforts and the recent radicalisation of the conflict – both militarily and discursively – have damaged the social fabric of the eastern DRC. As many told me during a recent stay in North Kivu, the political polarisation has become so acute that any attempt to take an impartial stance is seen as giving ‘support to the enemy’. As of this month, Goma is now isolated from the rest of the country, with the M23 in control of large parts of North Kivu. The Congolese army is using its proxies to mount continual counter-offensives, resulting in additional displacement. Diplomatic efforts are stuck, as each side is entrenched in its maximalist positions. Kinshasa insists on an unconditional withdrawal of the M23 and Rwandan troops, while Kigali demands an immediate end to the collaboration with FDLR and warns against outside intervention. Against this backdrop, the current escalation seems increasingly reminiscent of the turmoil and regional conflagration of the 1990s.

Read on: Joe Trapido, ‘Kinshasa’s Theatre of Power’, NLR 98.