To Slow Bleed A Nation: Conflict in the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC), formerly Zaire and referred to in this essay as the Congo represents the slow, torturously painful death by bleeding out of an entire nation. At a minimum, the Congo by all accounts is a failed-state of high magnitude and severity. This essay will focus on conflict in the Congo post-Rwandan Genocide (1994). Rationalizing the interconnectedness within the history of conflict, the Congo’s geography and the perpetrators of relentless violence will only go so far to adequately telling how drastic the costs of conflict continues to be in the Congo and Central Africa. To understand the conflict in the Congo, an examination of those who suffer from the fighting must be included; those who suffer that are without a doubt the most important factor. The situation within the Congo is exhaustingly complex and as such this essay will focus primarily on internal relations of the Congo, its immediate neighbors, as well as a limited amount of foreign involvement of high importance.

A Fertile Paradise

The Congo is significant in size. Phoebe Okowa (2007) communicates this in saying, “roughly the same size as Western Europe… the distance from Goma, the epicenter of the conflict in the east, to the capital, Kinshasa, is about the same as from London to Sarajevo” (p. 206). The terrain of the Congo is mostly mountains and covered in luscious fauna which adds further nuance to conflict logistics (Okowa, 2007, p. 206). The uniqueness of terrain in the Congo can be compared to the meteorological microclimates found in San Francisco due to the effects of water and topographical variances (Bahr, 2014). Just as problematic as the terrain of the Congo appears to be, the nation also shares borders with nine countries, of which Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola have protracted conflict within their borders (Okowa, 2007, p. 206).

The Congo is a cookie jar filled with varieties too good to overlook. Colette Braeckman (2004) refers to it as “the geological scandal that is the Democratic Republic of the Congo” (p. 14). At the heart of this chronic, debilitating conflict is the pillaging of vast natural resources in timber and minerals. This has created excessive greed and power seeking regimes that have strangled any resemblance of a working state.  This dynamic can be comparative of too many children rushing to get their hands into the cookie jar without the gentle hand slap that typically follows.

Hands in the Cookie Jar

The Congo has been a failed-state throughout modernity. This section will highlight the norms, perspectives, and conditions for which post-Rwandan genocide conflict flourished in the Congo. For clarity, a failed state is a condition where a central government is unable to institute a credible system of administration over the population (Okowa, 2007, p. 210).

The Belligerent Belgians. Well before King Leopold II of Belgium ruled the Congo as a playground of murder from 1884 to 1906, slavery had already left its mark. However, during the time of King Leopold and the subsequent Belgium occupation that lasted until 1960, an estimated 10 million people were killed in what can only be considered a holocaust (Braeckman, 2004, p. 16). During this time the seeds of plunder and pillage were planted as the Belgians ripped out rubber and minerals to send back home (Braeckman, 2004, p.16). It raises serious questions as to if the Congo has ever recovered because the cycle of pillage continues.

The Corrupt C.I.A. Between the time of Belgian rule and the rise of Mobutu, the CIA rather maliciously toyed with the inner workings of the Congo. Stephen Weissman (2014) points this out by saying “they acknowledge that the CIA contributed to the fall of Lumumba, who lost a power struggle with Joseph Mobutu, the pro-Western head of Congo’s army in September 1960” (p. 1). Due to fears of communist leaning in Lumumba, the US contributed to the assassination of the Congo’s first publically elected leader. Lumumba was not a communist, and the Soviets knew this as well. Weissman (2014) points out that archives from the former Soviet bloc confirm full awareness of Lumumba’s political stance quite solidly as being nationalistic (p. 8).

The Monster Mobutu. The rise of Mobutu to power in 1965 further bled the nation of natural resources and critical life which culminated in his fall and the 1st Civil War in 1996 (Braeckman, 2014, p. 14). Jeffrey Gettleman (2009) describes Mobutu as “Africa’s most notorious kleptocrat” (p. 16). Because of his desperate need for US support (aid) and systemic corruption, when the Cold War ended and the US no longer worried about communism, that aid dried up and Mobutu was out of power by 1997 (Weissman, 2014, p. 6). The cycle of pillage continued to infect the identity of the Congo throughout Mobutu’s reign.

The Cyst of Central Africa

This second section will attempt to condense and organize the overwhelmingly complex array of factors, motives, groups, and actions that have defined the Congo as a poignant example of a failed state in perpetual conflict.

1994 Rwandan Genocide. In what the Economist described in 2004 as the “purest genocide since 1945,” the Rwandan genocide is undoubtedly the catalyst for the Congo’s troubles after 1994 (p. 1). A genocide planned over many months saw the systematic murder of ethnic Tutsi at the hand of Hutu forces. A preferred method of killing was using something akin to a cobbler’s hammer to smash in the victim’s skull (Gettleman, 2009, p. 16). It is estimated the Hutu death squads killed  800,000 of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda (Gettleman, 2009, p. 16). When the Tutsi eventually seized power in 1994 Hutu rebels fled into eastern Congo in an assortment of armed rebel groups.

A Trickle of War. The Allied Democratic Forces (AFDL) set out to overthrow Mobutu in Kinshasa in 1996. Rwanda entered the fray supporting AFDL aiming to eradicate the Hutu genocidaires in eastern Congo (Orogun, 2004, p. 153). This is what is referred to as the 1st Civil War. Congolese fighter Laurent Kabila led the AFDL. Geography might have played into the hands of Kabila. As his forces began to target key cities only then did Mobutu concede to talks and eventual deposition. Michael Greig (2015) describes this by saying “as civil war battles occur near the capital in secessionist conflict, talks become more likely” (p. 683). Stability would not last, by 1998 rebel forces in the Congo backed by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi set out against Kabila ushering in the 2nd Civil War.

An Explosion of War. It is mostly within the 2nd Civil War that all sides, militias and speculators of resources perpetrated the worst of the violence found within the UN Mapping Report from 2010 (Great Lakes Policy Forum, 2010). This civil war saw Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad, and even Namibia all fighting through proxy rebel groups in the Congo for control of a plethora of natural resources (Braeckman, 2004, p. 14). Paul Orogun (2004) describes this in saying, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi militarily supported the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) and the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) rebels… who had in 1998 launched their counter-insurgencies to oust President Kabila from power. On the other hand, Kabila’s regime… retaliated by harboring a plethora of rebel militia groups, including the notorious Interahamwe, the principal perpetrators of genocide against the Tutsi minority in 1994. (p. 153)

Throughout the 2nd Civil War rebel groups, foreign nations, and greedy nationals funded the fighting through the systematic torture of both land and people (Sebunya, 1999, p. 20). By 2001, Kabila was assassinated, and his son took over. Kabila’s son, Joseph Kabila, brought about the majority of a fragile peace in the Congo with the introduction of a UN peacekeeping force culminating in a peace deal in 2003 (Braeckman, 2004, p. 16). Weak and relative are two words of vital importance towards describing the peace accord of 2003. Remarkably, impunity is often cited the lasting legacy for all sides involved in the 2nd Civil War (Sadie, 2010, p. 44).

A Scab of War.  The Kivu conflict is a continuation of the 2nd Civil War but on a redacted level. Hutu genocidaires and Tutsi militias are still are still fighting it out in the North, and South Kivu Providences of the Congo along with the Mai-Mai and other Congolese warlords. While a peace deal is in effect and there is a redacted level of fighting, countless innocent lives continue to be lost.

As Kinshasa has effectively abandoned the Kivu region, it is worth noting that both the 2nd Civil War and the Kivu Conflict are unique in their propensity of rebels fighters as surrogates of participating states (Okowa, 2007, p. 209). The states of Rwanda and Uganda continue to fund rebels for the securitization of natural resources in exchange for arms. For instance, Crespo Sebunya (1999) says of this “the Congolese rebels are known to be paying off Ugandan officials with diamonds and gold in exchange for military equipment and supplies” (p. 20). Wairagala Wakabi (2004) referred to the interplay between the Congo and Uganda arms trading as a “smugglers paradise” (p. 20). Wakabi (2004) reflects further by stating, “the guns and gems trade cannot easily be stamped out because it benefits all the parties that have the power to stop it: the Rwandan and Ugandan governments – including their corrupt customs, police and traffic officers that are bribed to let in the minerals – and the Congolese warlords. (p. 20)

What has remained constant albeit now more clandestinely executed in the Kivu conflict, is the pillage of natural and human resources. The complex webs of entanglements and interests in Central Africa and the Congo specifically are too numerous to list. The trail of money involved in conflict minerals spans the entire globe.

A Collage of Genocide

            Gettleman (2009) in reviewing Gerard Prunier’s Africa’s World War says “the Congo war has been waged mostly against civilians, driving millions of people into malaria-infested jungles and cutting them off from desperately needed aid, the current estimates of four to five million dead seems chillingly plausible” (p. 16). This final section will attempt to cover the apocalyptic like conditions most of the people in and around the Congo still face to this day.

Pillage in the Congo. The manner in which rebel groups that are often proxies for foreign states, as well as national militia’s looting the Congo, is unique. For instance, with gold, miners painstakingly dig for gold, while the women vigorously grind up the ground rocks into a powder, often for only a dollar a day (Braeckman, 2004, p. 13). The diggers then have to cede half their findings to rebel leaders; Braeckman uses the RCD-Goma (Rally for Congolese Democracy) as her example group (2004, p. 13). The women, if they agree to a night of prostitution, might make a dollar more. The gold then is traded for arms often in Rwanda and Uganda. For instance, a Ugandan government budget document revealed of all it’s gold exports in 1998/99 that only 2% originated from Ugandan mines (Sebunya, 1999, p. 20). This systematically happens with the mining and production of coltan, cobalt, gold, timber, as well as agriculture leaving the Congo starved of all resources and life in chronic starvation and disease. (Braeckman, 2004. P. 14).

The Crippling of the Congo. Muzaffer Yilmaz (2007) in theorizing on intra-state conflict in the post-cold war describes adequately how perpetual conflict has crippled the Congo. Yilmaz foretells of nations having grave outcomes regarding ethnic struggle when absent a strong central authority (2004, p. 20). This has been proven concretely in the above literature. Historical factors leading to resentment are present in the Congo specifically regarding the Rwanda genocidaires still fighting in the eastern regions, and perpetuates a deep mistrust among the population (Yilmaz, 2004 p. 21).

To quote Yilmaz (2004) the most destructive consequences usually occur when competing powers support different sides in ethnopolitical conflicts. Such proxy conflicts are often protracted, very deadly, and not likely to end in negotiated settlements unless it is in the interest of external powers. (p. 24) Yilmaz’s thoughts regarding ethnic conflict are acutely played out in each of the conflicts the Congo has faced since 1994. Making matters worse for the impoverished population; the Congo is one of the least developed nations regarding infrastructure and health care with HIV/AIDS and malaria running rampant (Diehl & Balas, 2014, p. 177).

Women in the Congo. To be a woman in the Congo is to live in constant fear of death. Sexual violence as a weapon of war has been used by all sides of the conflict in the Congo (Sadie, 2010, p. 43). Helen Clarkson (2004) says of this, “as a weapon of war, sexual violence is highly effective” (p. 17). Rebel fighters systemically rape women in agricultural fields to demoralize them and steal food for their consumption (Clarkson, 2004, p. 17).  Yolanda Sadie (2010) in communicating statistics from medical centers under the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) states, “18,505 women received treatment for sexual violence in the first ten months of 2008” (p.34). Because of the constant fear of rape women are often too afraid to work in agricultural fields, and subsequently starvation follows (Clarkson, 2004, p. 17).  Due to the stigma of rape and the prevalence of the Catholic religion women who are a victim of sexual violence are often cast from their homes and society (Sadie, 2010, pp. 41-42). The prevalence of sexual violence as a weapon has placed a profound strain on an already drastically strained community and amounts to continual crimes against humanity.

Children in the Congo. The use of child soldiers in the Congo will be a permanent scar that will be felt for countless years. There is a nasty concoction of forced, coerced and voluntary conscription into armed conflict that permeates both children and adults in the Congo (Richards, 2014, p. 322). Joanne Richards (2014) describes how children are conscripted into fighting in interviewing a former Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo fighter (p. 317). Richards records the soldier saying, “in general, we did not force people, but as soon as the number of effectives diminished through combat we took the young by force” (2014, p. 317). By using tribal chiefs, crippling poverty, peer pressure, parental pressure, and outright kidnapping, rebel forces were very active in recruiting child soldiers (Richards, 2014, pp. 320-322). Susanna Kim (2006) sums up the continued use of child soldiers by saying, “in June 2005, UNICEF reported that only a quarter of the 30,000 child soldiers had been demobilized” (p. 8). When those children are demobilized they often have no home to return to nor do they have any food as the entire nation is in malnutrition.


            The Congo is such a cataclysmic set of conflicts that it begs for a solution as equally profound. However, as described above, too many interests tangle together and erode the political will towards a lasting peace. The Congo’s history and future have been laid bare at the hands of a few seeking riches from what is considered a fertile paradise. From the tyranny of the Belgians to the maliciousness of US foreign policy and meddling of next-door neighbors, the Congo’s women and children suffer the greatest through sexual violence, starvation, disease, and continued fighting. Is Dambisa Moyo (2009) erroneous when she suggests Africa be left to Africa (pp. 144-145)? Should the warring nations of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi not think of conflict but rather a unification in the aim of security? It is doubtful either of those two solutions will be sought, and the conflict will instead morph into a new creation. The above writing has shown overwhelmingly that the intra-state conflict in the Congo is anything but internal. This essay has attempted to draw out the continual theft, corruption, death and war inflicted upon the Congo and how that has created an identity and perspective only found in violence.


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