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Understanding the conflict in Congo

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During the mid-2000s, Congo was often referred to as the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis. In 2007, a survey by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) put the death toll of the Congolese conflict at 5.4 million, making it the world’s deadliest war since World War II. This equates to approximately 45,000 deaths every month since 1998.

Most recently it was reported that at least 25 people have been killed – including seven civilians hacked to death – in an overnight attack by the Ugandan rebels in an eastern town of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Stephanie Wolters, the head of the conflict prevention and risk analysis division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says the conflict in the DRC has been going on for decades and there is not one particular trigger that lead to the on-going and now very endemic conflict in the east of the country.

“Much of it has to do with just years and years of bad governance in Kinshasa which lead to the overthrow of Mobutu who ruled for over thirty years. Then there was the subsequent governments never really being able to re-establish and in some instances not really trying to re-establish the state authority over eastern DRC,” Wolters explained.

Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga was the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which Mobutu renamed Zaire in 1971) from 1965 to 1997. According to reports, once in power, Mobutu formed an authoritarian regime, amassed vast personal wealth, and attempted to purge the country of all colonial cultural influence, while enjoying considerable support from the United States due to his anti-communist stance.

What has further compounded the political instability is that the DRC has been open to immense meddling by neighbouring states.

“For example you have Rwanda and Uganda who has become involved at different times in the conflict in the eastern DRC who continue to drive that conflict, but there are also aspects that has to do with local tensions between communities over resources and other different issues,” Wolters went further.

Poverty increase

Repeated conflicts have profoundly disrupted local livelihoods. Millions of people have been forced into displacement. As of mid-2014, there were more than 2.8 million internally displaced persons and refugees.  This violence and turmoil it creates has severely affected the agricultural livelihoods of the poor, reducing their capacity to produce and trade. As of 2006, more than 70 percent of the Congolese population lived below the poverty threshold of $1.25 a day.

Furthermore there has been an unparalleled surge in human rights abuses by militias and soldiers against the local populations. In recent years, the plight of women and girls has been highlighted by a series of cases of mass rapes. Sexual violence has created high levels of trauma and led to the breakup of many families.

In 2004, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the DRC. In 2012, former Ituri warlord Thomas Lubanga was found guilty of recruiting child soldiers and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. A second judgment was rendered in 2014, and three other warlords have been indicted.

The war has rarely caught the attention of the international media, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that most of the phones and gadgets we rely on are made from the valuable minerals that fuel much of the conflict.

Years of continued warfare have led to the creation of a war economy. Many people at the elite level now have an entrenched interest in the continuation of conflict, and the extraction of lucrative natural resources has been an important element in the strategy of several armed groups.

Flawed peace agreements have enabled former rebels to integrate into the national army while maintaining their lucrative illegal networks. Parallel chains of command have multiplied, seriously damaging the military’s cohesion and effectiveness in combat.

“So it’s a whole series of conflicts piled on top of each other trapped in a country where there is effectively no functional state and no functional army who is able to assert itself and protect its own civilians in that part of the country,” Wolters concluded. VOC (Umarah Hartley)


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