The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on earth, but colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest. It is also one of the biggest battlefields in Africa’s history, the object of a conflict that has been dubbed ”Africa’s first world war.”
With all eyes on burned-out cities in Syria and Yemen, the world knows little and seems to care even less, about the cycle of violence in the DRC. The ongoing war in the country has been dismissed as an internal African implosion. However, it is a war that the West has fostered, fueled and funded. It’s a conflict that is powered by the world’s need for minerals. Congo, the sixth most mineral-rich country in Africa, has become the stage for a regional war driven by foreign economic interests. Many factors have contributed to the instability in the DR Congo, such as the vast size of the country, its wealth of resources, an unstable transition to independence in the 1960s and autocratic rule.
Thus, understanding Congo’s unattainable peace means looking back at the violence in the past. The historic development of this vast country is extremely complex and has been influenced by a myriad of external forces. By understanding this history, it is possible to put the present tensions into context and to question why such a devastating conflict has remained present in the DR Congo for so long. Under King Leopold II’s rule, the Congolese people were enslaved and brutally killed in large numbers. After the country achieved independence from Belgian rule in 1960, there was a brief hope of liberation. Unlike other African states, such as Kenya (which made a peaceful transition to independence), there was an intense tussle for power between various leaders.
What was missing was the development of a Congolese government that was stable enough to fill the vacuum of power that had come to exist. When the Belgians pulled out in 1960, they had grappled with the country for more than half a century but had done’ almost nothing to prepare it for independence. Primary education was widespread, but there was only a handful of university graduates; copper and diamonds helped to make the country rich by African standards, but most of the wealth went out to Belgium; the civil service relied heavily on Belgians,’ most of whom fled the country after less than a fortnight of black rule. Ultimately, after a coup, Joseph Mobutu became the undisputed leader, renaming the country Zaire and, “cloaking” himself in leopard skins and African nationalism. Claiming to restore the nations dignity, when in reality Mobutu set about filling his bank accounts while most of those he ruled saw their country crumble around them.
Perhaps it is most important to recognise the devastation this country’s people have experienced over the last two decades. War, disease epidemics, widespread sexual violence and a large recruitment of child soldiers have crippled DR Congo. Nevertheless, the situation has been further worsened by the international Community’s incompetence to failed intervention in this conflict. The UN High Commission for Refugees notes that there were 2.6 million people internally displaced in Congo in 2013. Although estimates predict this will decrease in coming years, it still poses major problems for the establishment of a long-term and stable peace. At the same time there is little to show that help is on the way.
In March 2009, in an attempt to contain rebels’ activities, the Congolese government allowed the Rwandan army, with the support of the United Nations, to collectively expel FDLR rebels (The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” is one of the most prominent Hutu rebel groups, active in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo) from DRC. The United Nations, sent 19,815 blue helmets to the country through its United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO), the second-largest mission created by the UN Security Council. The UN launched its second offensive believing its participation would protect civilians and human rights. Instead, a new wave of horrific violence broke out.
The situation grinds away at ideals that are hardwired into democratic political culture. It is a place to observe things through their absence: There are many soldiers, but no state; over 19,000 UN peacekeepers, but no peace to keep. The conflict in DR Congo is a humanitarian catastrophe of virtually unfathomable proportions, caused by a war that has raged across more than half of a country almost the size of Western Europe, and has seen the direct military involvement and failure of eight foreign countries. It’s a war that did not disappear from the ‘radar’ of international consciousness. The fact is, it was never really on it.
Congo sits on what may be the richest patch of this planet: there are diamonds, oil, uranium, gold, a rich soil and exquisite wildlife. It is also home to the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, a war that is still rumbling on today.