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Boiling pot of violence and volatility in the DRC fuels regional tensions

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Picture: John Wessels / AFP / taken on December 12, 2023 – A woman walks under a election campaign banner of Felix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and leader of the Union of Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party, at the popular Kintambo roundabout before elections in Kinshasa in December.

By Kim Heller

As he celebrated his second term win in December 2023, President Félix Tshisekedi may not have anticipated the dark days ahead for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Violent clashes between the DRC’s armed forces and the M23 rebel group over the first few weeks of 2024 have put pay to his election promise of ‘Unity, Security, Prosperity’.

In the early days of 2024, hundreds of civilians have been killed in the crossfire and tens of thousands forced to flee their homes in the Eastern parts of the DRC. Destruction of property, rape of women and scenes of hungry, displaced citizens is the real-time reality of the DRC. It is a nation that has enjoyed little peace and once again finds itself in deep distress, as yet another tragedy of epic proportions unfolds.

Violent clashes in the DRC are not new. Over the past three decades, in particular, the DRC has been caught in a vicious cycle of warfare between the Congolese army and armed rebel groups. It is estimated that there are close to 130 militia groups operating in the DRC. The cost to innocent citizens has been enormous.

In an interview with Channel Africa, on the escalation of violence in the DRC, international relations expert and conflict negotiator, Dr David Matsanga, described the country as “the boiling pot of Africa”. Dr Matsanga spoke of how the DRC has not seen peace since 1961 when they killed the country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Lumumba was committed to usher in country sovereignty and ensure that the DRC’s treasure trove of mineral resources benefit citizens rather than Western powers. He was duly assassinated. In an article in The New Yorker, Congolese academic and author, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, wrote that “Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin”. “Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.”

True liberation and prosperity have yet to materialise in the DRC. Its rich mineral wealth continues to benefit other nations while its own citizens languish in a perilous state of instability and poverty. According to the United Nations, the DRC is facing one of the “largest humanitarian crises in the world”. For now, things look bleak in the DRC. There is a toxic build-up of internal domestic dissent, ethnic division, and unstable regional geopolitics. In the intensified new scramble for Africa, the people of the DRC find themselves unprotected by their own army as well as the United Nations peace keeping forces, which Dr Matsanga describes as moribund. Despite being in the DR for over two decades, the UN forces have failed to protect citizens from militia groups.

The UN Refugee Agency has expressed its deep concern about the recent escalation of violent clashes and the “dire consequences for civilians, including an estimated 135,000 internally displaced people fleeing the town of Sake towards the nearby provincial capital Goma”.

Raudhat Saddam, a researcher at the HORN Institute, spoke to TRT World about the interplay between domestic politics and the geopolitics of the region. Saddam argues that exit of the United Nations peace-keeping force has created a “power vacuum” for militia groups to gain territory and balance within the space. She emphasises the need to understand the root causes and historical factors underpinning the violent clashes. She speaks of how “explosive” ethnic issues cannot be ignored. She speaks too of the need to resolve issues around citizenship and citizenship rights. She emphasizes the need for the DRC to heal and speaks of how the solution will be found in development rather than destruction. Like Saddam, Matsanga does not believe that military intervention will end the conflict. Matsanga argues that the answer does not lie in “more troops…more troops…more troops…the result of this is more carnage, more rape, more human catastrophe.”

The never-ending conflict is largely due to the country’s vast mineral riches over which international countries and companies lust. It is not surprising then to discover that the bullets of many militia groups are being funded by foreign forces, across many seas, who are eyeing the lucrative mineral wealth that is in abundance in the DRC. In many respects foreign forces also exacerbate domestic issues and resident problems as it serves their economic and expansionist interests.

There is a lot of finger-pointing at Rwanda for the current escalation. According to the United Nations, Rwanda is supplying weapons to the M23 rebel group, including surface-to-air missiles. Rwanda government officials have denied this.

The US State Department has called on Rwanda to withdraw its troops from the DRC. But the response from Rwanda has been that the “DRC has launched massive combat operations in North Kivu, in contravention of the decisions of regional mechanisms, and clearly aims to expel M23 and Congolese Tutsi civilians into neighbouring countries.” A statement from the foreign Ministry of Rwanda points to “threats to Rwandan national security stemming from the presence in Congo of an armed group whose members include alleged perpetrators of the 1994 genocide”.

The warfare in DRC is set to continue and there is a real threat of a broader regional conflict.

During a Security Council meeting on the Great Lakes region, United Nations’ Huang Xia’s said that the risk of a direct confrontation between the DRC and Rwanda, who continue to accuse each other of supporting armed groups, is very real. He added that the military reinforcement of both the DRC and Rwanda and “the absence of a direct high-level dialogue and the persistence of hate speech are all worrying signals that we cannot ignore”.

Historical, long-standing, and unresolved politics between Rwanda and DRC cannot be ignored and are undoubtedly contributing to the current wave of conflict. A mini summit convened by the President of Angola, Joao Lourenco, last week was aimed at developing ‘constructive and reconciliatory dialogue between the DRC and Rwanda.’ But tensions remain high. This week’s African Union Summit does not appear to have made much progress on resolving the conflict or reducing the level of suspicion and mistrust between the two countries.

The conflict is unlikely to end until issues of ethnicity, identity, citizenship, plunder of minerals, endemic poverty, and old war scars are all tackled head on. For now, the DRC does not resemble the vision Patrice Lumumba had for the country. He wished for a country free from foreign rule, independent and unified. Until the DRC is configured for war not peace, it will remain the ‘boiling pot’ of Africa, and the threat of ongoing warfare will forever loom over the distressed nation.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.