Congo: The Profits, and Costs, of War

Ugandan troops withdrawing from the Democratic Republic of Congo
Ugandan soldiers leave the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sept. 29, 2002 (Photo: Peter Busomoke/AFP).

When Presidents Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Paul Kagame of Rwanda reached a peace agreement July 30, calling for the withdrawal of 20,000-40,000 Rwandan troops in exchange for Congo’s arresting anti-Kigali Interahamwe militiamen, many commentators hailed the accord as the beginning of the end of “Africa’s world war.” Three months later, ethnic militias, backed by foreign governments, are fighting each other for survival, Rwandan troops are massed at the border, and the road to peace looks as elusive as ever.

Indeed, the country now known as the DRC has known little but war and suffering since its years as a Belgian colony. The most recent conflict began in August 1998, with an attempt by ethnic Tutsi rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda to depose former Congolese president Laurent Kabila, whom they accused of sheltering ethnic Hutu Interhawame militias responsible for the 1994 genocidal slaughter of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda. Troops from Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad intervened to save Kabila’s regime. Mounting evidence suggests they were motivated by Congo’s rich resources in diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, and coltan—a metallic ore used in small circuits found in cell phones, laptops, and pagers. As the Congo desk of the Rwandan Patriotic Army reportedly put it, Rwanda’s “real long-term purpose” was to “secure property.”

And the property at stake was enormous: A recent U.N. report found that at the height of the demand for coltan, Rwandan soldiers and affiliated criminal groups were making roughly US$20 million a month trading that ore alone. And so one peace effort after another failed—for a few criminals, the war was simply too profitable to call off.

But for the people of Congo, the human cost has been devastating. The vast country, which is roughly the size of Alaska, Mississippi, and Texas combined, split into rebel- and government-held regions. The most recent estimates indicate that the war has claimed as many as 3.5 million lives so far. Civil society groups in Butembo have found that 90 percent of the population lives on a few cents a day. Women have been forced to resort to prostitution to survive. The Paris-based relief agency Medecins Sans Frontières reports that in one “representative” southern town, one in four children died over the course of two years.

Faced with such dire circumstances, many have resorted to mining diamonds illegally in concessions President Laurent Kabila granted to Zimbabwe in 1999 in exchange for Zimbabwean support against foreign-backed rebels. There they can earn as much as US$50 a month, but if they’re caught, they face summary execution at the hands of the Zimbabwean Defense Forces.

As an Oct. 17 article in London’s Financial Times pointed out, there may be no clearer connection between the war and the profits its participants enjoy then the recent withdrawal of Rwandan troops. At the zenith of the high-tech boom, prices for coltan soared to US$240 a pound. Following the contraction of the high-tech sector, they have fallen to US$20-$30 a pound, making Rwanda’s engagement far less profitable.

Though profits in the coltan trade have contracted, there is still considerable money to be made in Congo. According to an Oct. 21 report from the U.N. Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the DRC, “Three distinct criminal groups linked to the armies of Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the government of the DRC have benefited from overlapping micro-conflicts [and] will not disband voluntarily, even as the foreign military forces continue their withdrawals.” Events would seem to bear that prediction out. Days after roughly 21,000 Rwandan soldiers withdrew from mineral-rich eastern Congo on Oct. 5, hell broke loose as guerrillas from the Rassemblement Congolais Pour la Democratie (RCD-Goma), a rebel group backed by Rwanda, and pro-government Maï-Maï tribal militias rushed to establish control of the ground formerly occupied by the Rwandan army. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, more than 13,000 refugees have fled into Burundi, Tanzania, and Rwanda since the fighting began.

As the fighting worsens, aid workers are finding it increasingly difficult to help the civilians affected. The World Food Program suspended its operations in the area after 50 people were killed in a gun battle in Kindu, Congo, near the Rwandan border. Rev. Nestor Salumu, Chairman of the Kindu diocesan Justice and Peace Commission from Kindu, told the U.N.-operated Radio Okapi, “We are living in a dramatic situation that risks unleashing an unprecedented war between tribes and families driven by revenge.”

The instability that has followed the withdrawal of Rwandan forces has also worried Zambia, which abuts the DRC to the southwest and currently shelters roughly 55,000 refugees from the crisis. September battles between the RCD-Goma rebels and Maï-Maï militias in the Pweto area of eastern DRC led to a fresh influx of refugees into Zambia.

In Ituri, on the DRC’s northeastern border, Ugandan troops have also withdrawn. Here, too, violence has continued. Fresh clashes between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups—as well as between the Mouvement de Libération de Congo (MLC), a rebel group backed by the Ugandan government, and breakaway factions of the RCD-Goma—have erupted, sending still more refugees fleeing across the border to Uganda.

According to an Oct. 14 article in Nairobi’s independent East African, most of the people fleeing are Hema victims of attacks by the Lendu. A few Lendu have also sought refuge in Uganda, claiming they were themselves being attacked by the Maï-Maï militia. Since June 1999, armed conflicts between the Hema and Lendu have left an estimated 50,000 people dead, mainly civilians.

In an Oct. 17 open letter to the U.N. Security Council, Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, warned of “the possibility of genocide” and reported that “mass killings and targeted rapes based on ethnic identity” as well as “extremist calls for ‘ethnically pure’ towns and villages” are increasing in the area.

The regional press has reacted to the continued violence with alarm. An Oct. 11 editorial in Harare’s independent Daily News warned against excessive optimism: “While the majority of [the rebel groups] may not have the military capacity to march on Kinshasa, they can seriously impede the peace process. [The focus] on the regional dimension of the war must now be replaced by attention to the internal dimension of the tragedy.”

The Daily News also harbored “concerns about the capacity of the DRC to [disarm the Interahamwe]. There is also the fact that these factions have been used by the DRC government and it may be difficult to just say: ‘Thank you, you may go home now.’ The same is true for both Uganda and Rwanda in relation to the various groups or factions that they have spurned over the years.”

Writing in the Oct. 4 edition of Johannesburg’s liberal Mail and Guardian Gregory Mthembu-Salter looked forward to the Oct. 25 meeting in Pretoria aimed at forming a coalition government: “The next requirement for peace, or something approaching it,” he wrote, “is the formation of a new coalition government in Kinshasa. Everyone now recognizes that this must include Kabila, representatives of opposition parties, and the rebel military juntas controlling the north and east of the country—the Uganda-backed MLC, and the Rwanda-backed RCD. Mbeki tried and failed to achieve this during talks at Sun City [South Africa] earlier this year, but members of the president's office are busy working on the project once more. They may have better luck this time, since all the external belligerents are taking a chance on peace and want their internal allies to do the same.”

An Oct. 20 report in Kampala’s government-owned Sunday Vision was not as convinced that the “external belligerents” were committed to peace. The paper quoted “international observers and intelligence sources” as saying that Rwandan troops had crossed the border into eastern Congo to retake a village Maï-Maï militiamen had pried from RCD control. According to the report, thousands of Rwandan troops with armored vehicles were seen crowding at the area where Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo intersect.

The next day, Christine Umutoni, Rwanda’s Ambassador to Uganda, strenuously denied the report in an interview with Kampala’s government-owned New Vision. But, she warned, “When the situation demands and when we make up our mind to do so, we will inform the world that we are re-entering the DRC because of security concerns.”

Most would agree grave security concerns remain. As Tegulle Gawaya put it in an opinion piece for the same Kampala daily, “Congo's political and military equation, already complicated by the involvement of armies and militias from neighboring countries, remains tricky until the numerous rebels groups and factions, with ever-shifting allegiances and brutal tendencies, are sorted out…. Most have a narrow political agenda, some none at all. It is just a question of survival and many have come to believe they cannot live together too nicely with their neighbors. They have no central command.”