The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has seen violence escalating in recent months, with clashes involving militant groups over territory and natural resources, extrajudicial killing by security forces, political violence, and rising tensions with neighboring countries. After years of massive demonstrations against peacekeeping troops, who have been branded as ineffectual by authorities and accused of assaulting people, Kinshasa ordered regional and international contingents to depart the nation. The withdrawal of foreign military is scheduled for December 2023, coinciding with a hotly disputed presidential election. Given how quickly the parameters of war are shifting, violence in the resource-rich Eastern regions of Congo likewise does not seem to be abating.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been marred by conflict since 1996, resulting in approximately six million deaths. The initial trigger was the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, leading to the First Congo War in 1996–1997. The conflict intensified as Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi militias, supported by President Paul Kagame, invaded Zaire, resulting in the victory of the Kabila-Kagame coalition in 1997. However, deteriorating relations led to the Second Congo War in 1998, marked by alliances shifting and Rwanda's continued involvement. The war formally ended in 2002 under Joseph Kabila, with an estimated death toll exceeding three million by 2004. The 21st century saw the emergence of rebel groups such as the March 23 Movement (M23), primarily composed of ethnic Tutsis. Accusations of Rwandan support for M23 strained relations, leading to a rare UN offensive in 2013. Flashpoints along the Congo-Rwanda border, coupled with the proliferation of mining operations, added complexity to peace efforts. The DRC's vast mineral resources, particularly cobalt, attracted global attention, with Chinese companies dominating mining activities. The Beijing-Kinshasa relationship faced scrutiny, including allegations of Chinese capital benefiting political elites.
Félix Tshisekedi's inauguration in 2019 marked the first peaceful transfer of power in DRC's history. However, the 2018 election results faced controversy, and Tshisekedi inherited challenges such as Ebola outbreaks and ongoing violence. The globalized conflict, intertwined with economic interests, drew attention to China's role in the DRC's internal conflict and economy. The Beijing-Kinshasa relationship raised concerns, particularly regarding the exploitation of natural resources and human rights violations in Congolese mines. Despite the United States maintaining a relationship with the DRC, trade relations are constrained by restrictions on imports from conflict-affected states and bans on ‘conflict minerals’.
Massacres, burned villages, and mass rape have become routine in the Eastern part of the DRC in the last few months. Alternatively, people are also arbitrarily imprisoned under inhumane conditions. Reports of violence between rebel groups and government forces flood the headlines, with citizens paying the highest price. According to the UN, a staggering 300,000 people fled in February alone, contributing to a record high of over 5 million internally displaced individuals. The death toll in recent years has reached hundreds of thousands, painting a grim picture of the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in the region. Sexual violence against children and child abductions are also on the rise. In both 2021 and 2022, the DRC had the world’s highest levels of verified cases of sexual violence against children by armed forces and groups. In 2022, 730 children were verified as abducted, marking the highest number of abductions ever recorded by the UN in the DRC.
The reason for the current escalated conflict is because of M23, a notorious rebel group, which has gained renewed attention due to its recent resurgence and alleged support from neighbouring country Rwanda. The group fighting the government army in resource-rich areas is accused of promoting Rwanda's geopolitical and economic interests by accessing crucial raw materials. Despite denials from the Rwandan government, evidence suggests involvement. However, M23 is just one of over a hundred armed groups active in the region, each vying for territory, resources, and influence. Rwanda is not the only nation involved in Congo’s affairs. Besides insurgent factions emerging in neighboring countries, there are also regional military forces engaged. These forces collaborate with the Congolese army to combat rebel groups. Notably, the longstanding UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO, along with a newly added East African force aimed at confronting M23, includes soldiers from Kenya and Burundi. The U.S. is a major donor to DRC, providing aid, supporting the U.N. peacekeeping operation MONUSCO, and contributing the largest share of humanitarian assistance. Following a recent unsuccessful ceasefire, Angola has announced its intention to deploy troops.
Criticism is widespread, directed not only at the UN but also at other military forces, for their perceived inadequacy in safeguarding civilians from violence. A development worker with four decades of experience in Congo asserts that despite witnessing atrocities, these forces merely observe without taking effective action. Experts affirm that both military forces and various actors, including rebel groups, politicians, and businessmen, exploit the chaos and lack of accountability in the region, facilitating easier access to valuable raw materials. The situation in Congo is deteriorating, leading to a severe humanitarian crisis. The ongoing conflict can be seen as a repetition of history, with an increasing number of countries becoming involved and exploiting Congo's resources, ultimately at the expense of the local population.