Since a coalition of neighboring states with Congolese proxies ousted then Zairian President Mobutu in 1996 and installed Laurent Kabila president 8 months later, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the battleground for wars within wars, where networks of conflict interact together to produce various patterns of local resource extraction and various patterns of local and regional violence. It has seen its lion share of mass atrocities.

While some would see the Congo wars as prototypical, internal “new wars,” conflicts in and around the DRC defy traditional distinctions between “intrastate” and “interstate” armed conflicts.  They are neither civil war nor inter-state war. They are not merely civil wars with active transnational forces, nor are their regional effects and dynamics merely “spillover” phenomena from the internal conflict.  The Congo wars appear to be, instead, complex, hybrid wars combining civil war, inter-state war, and cross-border insurgencies.[1]

These have involved at least nine African countries as direct combatants claiming security threats from insurgency movements based in the DRC, as well as a number of internal rebellions with competing agendas and foreign sponsors, and with varying degrees of local mobilization and support. They also include more localized conflicts that involve civilian auto-defense militias, non-Congolese insurgency groups operating out of the Congo, and competing ethnic groups fighting over control of local resources and population.

Today, the Congo has captured the popular imagination in the West as the “rape capital of the world,” a country plagued by a “resource curse,” and considered to be “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster since World War II,” if we are to believe mortality estimates that put the number of war-related deaths at over 5 million.[2]

The Three Congo Wars

The conflict in the Congo is best understood as three interlocking wars:

1-    The first began in September 1996 as an invasion by a coalition of neighboring states of what was then Zaire, and resulted in replacing president Mobutu with Laurent Kabila in May 1997.

2-    The second broke out in August 1998 when a similar configuration of neighboring states some of whom had been Kabila’s patrons in the first war, broke with him and attempted a similar ouster, but without their earlier success. It ended with the signing of the Lusaka Cease-fire agreement in July 1999 by the Kabila government and the MLC and RCD rebel groups fighting it, the result of a stalemate in the war and considerable external pressure.

In both the first and second wars, neighboring states established local proxy movements in an attempt to put a local stamp on their activities. However, the bulk of the Kabila’s fighting forces in the first war were foreign (mostly Rwandan)—this was the AFDL; while in the second war this was less so. In that war, the MLC’s forces were largely Congolese trained by Uganda officers, while the RCD forces were integrated with Rwandan troops and commanders.

3-    When the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement was signed in July 1999, three rival Congolese rebel groups—the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) and the split factions of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD-Goma and RCD-K/ML) controlled two-thirds of the DRC’s territory. Laurent Kabila’s government in Kinshasa, which had itself taken power by force two years earlier, controlled the remaining third. The withdrawal of most foreign troops shortly thereafter created a power vacuum, and a third war began behind UN-monitored cease-fire lines in northeastern Congo. This war, which persists to this day, is fought between ever smaller groups—foreign and domestic—that have since become significant actors in the illicit activities in that region.

The end of one war and the emergence of another one: What factors helped another kind of violence emerge?

The first Congo war lasted only eight months. There was very little resistance by the Congolese population, despite the foreign (mostly Rwandan Tutsi) nature of the Laurent Kabila-led AFDL forces, because they were keen to see the end of Mobutu’s 32-year dictatorship. Mass atrocities committed during this war were mostly retaliatory attacks against Rwandan Hutu refugees who had fled across DRC in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and RPF military victory in Kigali, and against Congolese civilians perceived as Hutu collaborators. A UN mapping report of mass atrocities published in 2011 documents a number of “acts of genocide” perpetrated by Kabila’s Rwandan forces in the advance to Kinshasa.[3] That said, the first Congo war ended with a decisive military victory over the Mobutu regime and on 17 May 1996, Laurent Kabila was installed president.

Having achieved a military victory in the first war, Laurent Kabila needed to shore up his domestic power base that increasingly resented the presence of Rwandan Tutsi nationals in the army and senior government positions. Kabila’s claim to leadership was largely based on having led a “revolution” against Mobutu, but as time passed it became increasingly obvious that the “revolution” was more a foreign invasion than a violent uprising against authoritarian rule. In the short fifteen months between the end of the First Congo War and the start of the Second, Kabila managed to antagonize the UN, Western donors, his domestic power base, and his foreign sponsors. By early 1998 it became increasingly clear that the leaders who had been most responsible for putting Kabila into power were dissatisfied with his performance. His presidency had not produced the results they wanted, as Kabila had not succeeded in ending the problem of border insecurity by neutralizing the insurgency groups threatening his neighbors from the Congo—the principal reason that motivated the neighborhood intervention in the first place.

The second war broke out on 2 August 1998 when Kabila broke relations with Kigali and expelled his former Rwandan backers out of the country. It lasted a year and saw more mass atrocities than during the first war. These were mostly concentrated in eastern Congo where there was strong popular resistance to the RCD and Rwandan occupying forces, although it began in Kinshasa with a pogrom against Tutsi civilians and troops in the national army. The northwestern territories controlled by the Ugandan-backed MLC rebellion, saw little resistance and mass atrocities were few, as the MLC was seen as an army of liberation from Chadian occupation, and led by a local son.

Seeking support wherever he could find it, Kabila integrated Mai Mai guerrillas in eastern Congo, particularly in the RCD-controlled area, into the Kinshasa network and even named some of their leaders to high positions in the army. He did the same with the Interahamwe/ex-FAR and other Rwandan Hutu in the country (and later the FDLR). Kinshasa’s support of the Mai Mai and its mobilization of the Rwandan Hutu created an alliance of opportunity between them. As time passed, the Kinshasa–Mai Mai–Rwanda Hutu network, to which one can also add the Burundian Hutu insurgency movement the FDD, became Kinshasa’s strongest card in a war in which its own army and state allies were unable to gain significant military victories.

Despite over twenty failed UN, OAU, SADC efforts to end the violence, the second Congo war ended as a result of a military stalemate that allowed sustained international pressure and mediation to result in the signing of the Lusaka cease-fire agreement in July 1999–one year after the war started. The genius of the Lusaka Agreement is that it recognized the overlapping layers of state and non-state actors involved in the war, while recognizing the security concerns of Rwanda and Uganda regarding insurgency movements based in the Congo. It called specifically for the disarming of all foreign militia groups in the Congo—the so-called “negative forces.”

To a large degree, the Lusaka Agreement did what it was supposed to do. The cease-fire lines held. However, after the signing of the Lusaka Agreement, mass atrocities and the accompanying humanitarian disaster began behind the cease-fire lines, largely limited to the three eastern provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu, and Maniema, and which persist to this day—a dozen years later. This third Congo war has proven more resilient and deadlier than the first two, consisting of a series of more localized conflicts over land and resources that have been exacerbated by state actors in the region.

Why does the third Congo war persist?

The Third Congo War is fundamentally different from the First and Second Congo Wars, as are its networks within which actors are linked, influenced, and compete. It is far less structured with many more, although smaller and more fragmented armed actors increasingly linked to competing illicit and transnational networks.

While mass atrocities in the first war ended through a decisive military victory and the second war ended through stalemate and international pressure, why does the third Congo war persist? Over near one-and-a half decade into this war, one can point to many reasons. Here are a few.

Genuine grassroots mobilization against “foreigners”

During the second war, there was a genuine mobilization of multiple Kivutian auto-defense groups (Mai Mai) who emerged and coalesced around a common objective—to rid the Kivus of any and all foreign occupation. These civilian militia groups–as with all other armed groups in the Congo both domestic and foreign–have never been disarmed and continue to fight, though now for control of territory, land, and lucrative resources.

The harsher the repression, the greater the violence

In the Congo wars, we have seen that the stronger the popular resistance, the greater the violence used against it. In other words, where there has been little resistance, there has been little violence. It is not surprising then, that the level of mass atrocities during the first war (no resistance) was lower than the second war (considerable resistance) and that the bulk of the atrocities committed in the second Congo war occurred in the east, where repression of civilian populations has been harsh and resistance fierce. These mass atrocities have lead to cycles of retaliatory ethnic violence, or in the case of some minority-led groups like the CNDP, a push for local dominance as a preventive measure. By contrast, self-defense groups did not emerge on this scale in the west, largely because there was little popular resistance to the MLC rebel presence there. And while there are a host of social grievances, to a large extent, today the western part of the country remains free of the violence that plagues eastern Congo.

No denouncement of Lusaka cease-fire violations

After the Second Congo War ended, the weakness of the state combined with the absence of reform of the security systems led Kinshasa to fall back on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” As noted earlier, Laurent (and later Joseph) Kabila recruited Rwandan Hutu fighters located on both sides of the cease-fire line into the failing Congolese army and set the stage for retaliatory attacks and the current dynamic of ethnic violence in the Kivus. Kinshasa’s alliances with actors east of (ie, behind) the cease-fire line were a gross violation of the Lusaka Agreement, yet were never denounced by the international community. The violence in the east benefitted Kinshasa, because it completely undermined the legitimacy of the RCD and Rwandan occupation in the Kivus. It kept the narrative of the Rwandans as invaders alive and well. It also helped to hide the continued failure of the Congolese state. This was equal opportunity neglect, however, as there was equally little denouncement of the continued presence of Rwandan military officers in eastern Congo, and Rwanda’s growing influence over economic and other networks and the support of proxies in that part of the country–this, despite the readily obvious and growing authoritarian drift of Kigali.

It took the international community nearly ten years to try to negotiate a cease-fire in the east. Until that point, it was what William Zartman calls “diplomacy as usual.” It was only after Kinshasa saw a rapprochement with Kigali in its interest that a deal was struck. What changed? In the decade post-Lusaka, Kinshasa had begun to assert its authority throughout the country, and violence in the east became an obstacle to Kinshasa’s state-building project. The near fall of Goma in October 2008 to Laurent Nkunda and the Rwandan-backed CNDP prompted a Kinshasa-Kigali “deal” that caught international diplomats by surprise; and which has inexorably linked Kabila’s future to that of a domestically despised Congolese minority, the ethnic Tutsi.

Emphasis on implementing the agreement that ended the Second Congo War at the expense of efforts to end the (ongoing) Third Congo War

Until then, the position of the international community (especially the U.S.) was that any attempt to negotiate an end the violence in the east would compromise progress made in establishing the Transitional Government of National Unity of 2003-2006 and risk destabilizing its delicate balance of power. So while the Lusaka agreement was aimed to end the second war, it continued to be implemented during a raging third war. This emphasis on implementing the agreement that ended the last war at the neglect of the ongoing war was fully evident at the Inter-Congolese Dialogue held at Sun City, South Africa in 2002, where the focus of both international mediators and Congolese stakeholders was overwhelmingly focused on power sharing arrangements and who would get which government positions, to the complete neglect of the mass atrocities occurring in the east.

Efforts to end third war began in earnest only after a decade of anarchic violence, making a complicated job that much more complex

The structure of a particular conflict presents difficulties for strategies of resolution and particularly demobilization, and after twelve years of violence, the war in eastern Congo has grown in complexity. Diminishing state capacity under Mobutu and then twelve years of the Third Congo War have led to the emergence of a shadow economy linked to transnational economic, social, and security networks, which local actors use as a means to assert new claims on resources and authority. The structures of conflict that have been established are now difficult to dismantle.

Not only must fighters from over at least two dozen armed groups be de-linked from military command and control structures that may transcend territorial boundaries, but the forces themselves must be de-linked from the political economies of war—a key structural obstacle to transitions from war to peace—and other social networks in which they may be embedded.  Economic reintegration into non-rent-seeking economies is critical for the prevention of re-recruitment into new rebel armies, as well as to prevent fighters from being drawn into criminal networks to supply the labor for the political economies that help sustain these conflicts.

A continued legitimacy gap for Congolese leadership

Despite the expense and effort that went into organizing the first post-transition elections in the DRC in 2006, Kinshasa increasingly relies on strong-handedness because its authority rests on weak national and local institutions—a crisis of governance and legitimacy that neither the 2006 elections, nor the flawed and contested 2011 elections have solved.


[1] See T. Carayannis, “The Complex Wars of the Congo: Towards a New Analytic Approach,” Journal of Asian and African Studies,vol. 38(2-3):232-255, 2003.

[2] Dr. B. Coghlan et al. Mortality in the DRC: an ongoing crisis. International Rescue Committee and Burnet Institute, 2007. Available at http://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/migrated/resources/2007/2006-7_congomortalitysurvey.pdf

[3] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations. Report of the Mapping Exercise documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003. 2010, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/ZR/DRC_MAPPING_REPORT_FINAL_EN.pdf

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4 Responses to How Mass Atrocities End (or don’t): The Democratic Republic of Congo

  1. [...] don’t): The Democratic Republic of Congo by ingeta on Mar 23, 2012 • 1:33 pm No Comments By Tatania Carayannis, Deputy Director/Conflict Prevention and Peace [...]

  2. Hi Tatiana,

    I think you are absolutely right to insist that we need to conceptually disaggregate the wars in the Congo. We speak of the first (96-97) and second (98-99 or -03) Congo Wars, as if there were only two, when in fact hostilities of various kinds continued long after the second war could be said, by whatever criteria, to have ended. Lumping what has been a complicated mess of disparate events into discrete categories can seem like something of an academic exercise. But failing to do so results in something between confusion and blindness. Lacking the right “label-concept” to speak about the ongoing hostilities, we don’t really know how to talk about them–and sometimes the result is that we simply don’t.

    That said, I’m not convinced that it’s quite right to speak of three wars, either, with the third ongoing since Lusaka. (And don’t most accounts mark the end of the second war not at the Lusaka Accords but with the formation of the all-inclusive transitional government?) Or if we do want to talk of three wars, it might be better to do so with the caveat that the third war, to a greater extent than the first two, has been characterized by several distinct phase changes.

    The first was from Lusaka in July 1999 to Laurent’s death, in January 2001. This was a period best described, I think, as a phony peace. None of the signatories believed the Lusaka Agreement was anything more than a makeshift truce representing the realities of the current military impasse. The belligerents continued to probe the “frontlines” seeking weaknesses in the other sides and fought pitched battles to consolidate their position. (An example would be the fights between Rwandan and Ugandan forces over the gold mines of Kisangani of 1999 and 2000.)

    The second period was from Joseph’s accession to the Sun City Accords. This period was marked by a genuine search for peace, at least on Joseph’s part. (His quest for peace during that period is still, I think, the best thing that can be said about Joseph’s career, and is quickly becoming the only good thing.) What I thought was odd about the Accords–which you rightly put your finger on–was the extent to which everyone pretended this was really all about domestic power-sharing, when, as we all knew, Rwanda and Uganda still had major stakes in the country directly and via their support for the RCD and MLC.

    In retrospect, the Accords did succeed in laying the groundwork for the departure of (most of) the “negative” elements and for the legal re-incorporation of the break-away regions (excepting the Kivus and Maniema) back into the country.

    The third period was from Sun City to November 2008, with the startling rapprochement of Kinshasa and Kigali. The hostilities during that period were confined largely to Ituri and the Kivus, and gradually devolved from opposing blocs of foreign-supported militia into much more of a free-for-all. It was during this period that the proliferation of armed groups and the absence of a central governing authority combined to create a Hobbesian-like environment, akin to what we see in Somalia. Grievances formerly settled by local mechanisms or suppressed by the central government (Lendu-Hema or Banyamulenge-”authochtones”) predominated.

    Rwandaphones continued to play an outsize role during this period. The FDLR was still the nastiest of the militia (as measured for example, by the number of rapes with excessive violence it committed). And the CNDP, which had legitimate interests that were threatened, did what every group whose power exceeds its wisdom does: Protect itself by seizing more and more power, thereby exacerbating the very anger that it felt the need to protect itself from. (One of the murkiest (for me) questions in all this is the evolving nature of Kigali’s relationship with Rwandaphones in the Kivus.)

    A fourth period was from the Kigali rapprochement through to Operation Kimia II or Amani Leo. At the time, a lot of us, me very much included, thought the idea of incorporating the disparate armed groups into the Congolese army, and then using them to attack the FDLR, was criminally insane–one of the very worst ideas in the history of UN peacekeeping. The mass proliferation of human rights violations caused by the suddenly augmented Congolese army during its campaign against the FDLR seemed at first to vindicate that judgment.

    In retrospect, I’m not as confident of my condemnation as I was then. To be sure, the incorporated but not properly integrated militia continue to cause all sorts of grief. It’s not as if they stopped living off the population once they were given FARDC uniforms, and many FARDC soldiers are understandably pissed that every semi-literate militia leader with a Kalashnikov has been given the rank of colonel. It is also profoundly disappointing that the process rewarded the violence entrepreneurs over the many people within the communities who worked for peace. And from time to time we see army units defecting and going on frolics of their own.

    On the other hand, my impression is that overall amount of conflict has diminished significantly, that the central government’s control of the former militia–very much excepting the CNDP–has significantly increased, and that operations against the FDLR have yielded some positive results. I could be wrong on all counts: These are provisional and impressionistic judgments, and the absence of good statistics about what is going on makes it hard to know for sure.

    So for what it’s worth, here’s my view of the four distinct phases within the Third war:
    I)July 1998 (Lusaka) – January 2001 (Kabila assassination)
    II) January 2001 – April 2002 (Sun City)
    [IIa) Interregnum: April 2002 - July 2003 (Transitional Government)]
    III) July 2003 – November 2008 (Kinshasa-Kigali rapprochement)
    IV) November 2008 – date

    I’m not profoundly invested in this particular agglomeration of the facts; the messiness of the period make it something of a Rorschach test, without correct or incorrect answers. It’s still a useful exercise, however, because it can help us to see how fundamentally things have changed during that decade. What had been an invasion became a war between proxies and then devolved into a semi-interlocked set of internecine local conflicts; what had been government-sponsored plunder became contests of much more complex origin and motivation; what had been a period marked by the absence of government authority became a period marked by governmental lethargy and failure. All of which could, but largely didn’t, inform what should have been the international response to the crises.

    A few thoughts prompted by your specific statements:

    “If we are to believe mortality estimates . . .”
    The wording suggests you have your doubts. Fair enough: at least two mortality studies I’m aware of have come back with much lower estimates. But is that what you meant–to cast doubt on the IRC’s reports? It’s not entirely clear.

    “By early 1998 it became increasingly clear that the leaders who had been most responsible for putting Kabila into power were dissatisfied . . .”
    To whom was that clear? What contemporaneous sources do we have regarding that dissatisfaction? I ask because I remember hearing dire warnings from sources in Bukavu, but people in DC to whom I related those concerns reacted dismissively. The people I spoke to in the USG remained ignorant of the dangers until the war broke out, when they expressed complete surprise. And there’s at least some reason to believe they weren’t just pretending to be ignorant: USAID personnel in Bukavu and Goma, for example, weren’t withdrawn until after the invasion was underway. (Had the US known Rwanda was about to launch a second war, wouldn’t they have withdrawn personnel?)

    “The second war broke out on 2 August 1998 when Kabila broke relations with Kigali and expelled his former Rwandan backers out of the country.”
    Yes. As you know, there’s a huge debate about who started the war and who’s responsible for it. Gourevitch, in his role as Kagame’s chief propagandist staff writer at the New Yorker, blamed Kabila entirely, a mere three months after declaring him one of Africa’s “new leaders.” There is, I hope, an emerging consensus that it was primarily Kabila’s attempt to assert his own independence that provoked Kigali. A source close to Kagame at that time has told me that Kagame launched the war primarily because he was irked by Kabila’s lack of deference to him; a cleverer man might have gradually weaned himself of Kagame’s influence without provoking him to war.

    “The MLC was seen as an army of liberation from Chadian occupation. . .”
    I did not know that.

    “These civilian militia groups–as with all other armed groups in the Congo both domestic and foreign–have never been disarmed and continue to fight, though now for control of territory, land, and lucrative resources.”
    That was definitely the case from 2003 to 2008, but I wonder to what extent you see these groups (excepting the CNDP), actually (slowly and incompletely)coming under the discipline of the army now that they have been incorporated into it. In other words, is mixage finally beginning to work?

    “[T]here was equally little denouncement of the continued presence of Rwandan military officers in eastern Congo, and Rwanda’s growing influence over economic and other networks and the support of proxies in that part of the country.”
    Amen, sister. It didn’t seem to matter how many Congolese arch-bishops the Rwandan army killed, or how many Hutu refugees it slaughtered, the Rwandan army really had carte blanche there for a while, didn’t it? There’s an interesting article to be written about how US policymakers–accelerated by the arrival of the Bush team–gradually changed their mind about Kigali, and someone needs to assign it to one of their graduate students.

    “[T]he position of the international community (especially the U.S.) was that any attempt to negotiate an end the violence in the east would compromise progress made in establishing the Transitional Government of National Unity of 2003-2006 and risk destabilizing its delicate balance of power.”
    Not sure I understand that as well as I should. Can you elaborate?

    “[F]ighters from over at least two dozen armed groups [must] be de-linked from military command and control structures that may transcend territorial boundaries, but the forces themselves must be de-linked from the political economies of war.”
    I agree, but how? Dr. Mukwege and others have suggested re-tooling much of DRC’s outsize army into workers rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, for example. What other practical ideas are there?

    Finally, a big question: What is Kabila doing? Why has he proven so remarkably uninterested in pushing for peace in eastern Congo? Is there a clever strategic reason for the inaction, or is it just sloth?

    I apologize for the length of this response. I woke up early this morning with assignments I’m trying to avoid, and this was an interesting piece that I hope provokes, in these days of Kony mania, some deeper reflection by those people able to get things done about what, exactly, needs doing.

  3. [...] such questions, the authors have chosen to use the framing contexts of Sudan, Guatemala, and DRC. Sudan has experienced episodic mass atrocities since 1955, four instances of which are [...]

    • Bertrand Mendes Mamona says:

      Thanks for all observations and analysis; one thing, first of all, is very strange in this congo wars and endless conflicts:
      - the rwandan regime makes the entire world believe that in the democratic republic of congo, there is an ethnic called “bayamulemge or rwandophones,” congolese tutsis DRC etc… that these ethnics are unwanted in the DR Congo, NEVER, NEVER AND NEVER EVER.

      Mobutu, instead of his dictatorship behavior wanted and helped the tutsis from rwanda running from the genocide to relocate in the mountain of Mulenge, some where living already in the surroundings of Congo (Goma, Masisi, Uvira areas due the close contacts of the borders etc.

      All theses situations do not make rwandese to become all of sudden Congoleses, No! It does not make them anyhow to become congolese, never..
      Now, the stories which are being told all over the world and the regions are that the “congolese tutsis, the banyamulenge or rwandophone are unwanted” all those reasons give rwandan and his people to come into congo to rape, kill, murder, loot and disorganize the poor people who are not even armed to defend themselves…However, whatever they do is a seed and that seed which is being planted everywhere will one day bear fruits and tha fruit is called revenge and violence, the most cruel one, unwanted and undesirable orphans are there, crying for help but who ca help them, the actual government can not do much because they all the same tribe mates though it is difficult to say loudly…One question remains : How long will they make people think that what they say is the truth?

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