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.
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.
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. 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.
 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.
 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
 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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