As the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) braces for what’s said to be a contested presidential election next month, high rates of civilian mortality and displacement have been fueled by conflicts between militant groups for territory in the resource-rich eastern provinces, as well as political violence and growing tensions with neighboring nations.
As a result of the regional conflicts that erupted in the 1990s and 2000s in the Congo, militias have plagued the area for years. Since early October, the conflict between M23 rebels and militias supporting the government of the DRC has escalated in the eastern province of North Kivu and north of Goma, the provincial capital.
The Tutsi-led M23 has roots in past rebel organizations in the eastern region of the DRC. Early M23 versions, going by different names, alternated between phases of rebellion and absorption into the Congolese army in the early 2000s.
After capturing control of Goma, M23 was militarily routed in 2013, and many of its fighters fled to nearby Rwanda and Uganda. Following years of inactivity, M23 resumed action in late 2021, taking control of large regions of North Kivu and forcing over a million people to flee despite the presence of international peacekeepers.
Alafia Bailey, a fifth-year Afro-American studies major and African studies minor from Houston, Texas, discussed the need for broader awareness and education on conflict within the Congo area, stressing that global conflicts such as these are not isolated events.
“Most people, myself included, don’t know about what’s happening in the Congo currently because the main focus internationally has been on the Palestine and Israel conflict,” Bailey said. “We need to be able to shed light on multiple injustices.”
After years of widespread protests, Kinshasa ordered the withdrawal of regional and international peacekeeping forces, due to civilian abuse. The United Nations (U.N.) announced that the M23 campaign has led to an increase in hate speech and violence against Congolese who are ethnically Tutsi.
Tensions between the DRC and Rwanda have increased again despite the two countries’ formal normalization of relations in 2022. Following a five-year hiatus, M23 insurgents reappeared and intensified their attacks on Congolese troops, taking significant territory along the borders with Uganda and Rwanda.
The government of Kinshasa, the African Union and several Western countries, including the U.S. and France, have accused the rebel group of being backed by Rwanda, however, Kigali has denied these allegations and accused Kinshasa of increasing its military presence inside the Congo and backing Hutu extremist militias.
As of October 2023, over 5.7 million people in critical need of more than $2 billion in medical and other relief reside in the eastern provinces based on reporting by Reuters. According to U.N. reports, up to a million people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict in the eastern province of North Kivu alone, while nearly 4.8 million internally displaced people (IDP) reside with host families.
The International Organization of Migration (IOM) declared that it is “intensifying its efforts to address the complex and persistent crisis in the DRC as the number of IDPs climbs to 6.9 million people across the country – the highest number recorded yet” in a statement released to the public.
“With ongoing conflict and escalating violence, the DRC is facing one of the largest internal displacement and humanitarian crises in the world,” Fabien Sambussy, IOM’s Chief of Mission in DRC, publicized.
“For decades, the Congolese people have been living through a storm of crises,” Sambussy said.
IOM shared that since June it has built 3,347 emergency shelters and provided 7,715 kits, including non-food necessities, although IOM operations in the DRC are still severely underfunded, with just 37% of the $100 million requested being granted. IOM advocates for more land to establish sites in North Kivu for security improvement and more resources to carry out its humanitarian mission.
“I think it’s important for us to educate ourselves on things going on in the continent because it affects us here as well,” Bailey said.
The expansion of industrial-scale cobalt and copper mines in the DRC has also been a critical factor in the internal displacement crisis. The DRC is the largest producer of cobalt – a mineral used to build lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other items – in the world.
The DRC is also the leading producer of copper in Africa, which is used in renewable energy systems, electric vehicles and other applications, making the DRC’s resources significant in the green energy transition many nations are undergoing.
Netfa Freeman, a community organizer in Washington, D.C., and member of the Coordinating Committee of the Black Alliance for Peace commented on the history of colonization and imperialism in the Congo as a catalyst for the ongoing destabilization and turmoil.
“The Congo is rich in almost everything the world needs,” Freeman said.
Human rights groups have long criticized the mining and trade of the DRC’s cobalt, copper and other minerals due to the abusive labor environment and the escalated violence in many areas where militants hold control.
The Initiative for Good Governance and Human Rights and Amnesty International conducted visits in February and September 2022, where experts and investigators spoke with 133 individuals impacted by copper and cobalt mining in six locations surrounding the city of Kolwezi in the Lualaba Province.
Their report highlighted how the search for minerals has forced native Congolese people from their farms and homes, as evictions have frequently occurred without just compensation or sufficient resettlement, including numerous human rights violations.
In November 2016, the Congolese military set fire to the Mukumbi hamlet in the southern province of Lualaba to clear the way for the Dubai-based Chemaf Resources to mine cobalt and copper. Corporate representatives who were escorted by police initially warned the neighbors, locals were beaten when they attempted to stop the military, and the fire left a 2-year-old girl with permanent scarring based on an Amnesty International investigation.
Ernest Miji, the local chief, declared that after Chemaf acquired the concession in 2015, three company representatives accompanied by two police officers, came to tell him it was time for Mukumbi’s residents to move away the Amnesty International report reads. Miji said the representatives visited at least four more times in the report.
“While people would like to think of the [Congo] as ‘Africans just not being able to get ourselves together,’ these conditions are necessary for the Western world to continue the exploitation,” Freeman said.
According to the U.N., there are over one million Congolese citizens escaping to neighboring African countries, as increased violence has led to the suspension of U.N. air deliveries for aid to certain eastern provinces. During a recent visit to France, President Tshidekedi mentioned the possibility of postponing national elections to advocate for the European Union’s support with peace negotiations in the DRC and sanctions for Rwanda for its support of M23.
In March 2023, M23 and the Congolese government came to an agreement on a cease-fire, yet it was quickly breached, and then broken again during the following month. U.N. representatives have noted that in light of the worsening security conditions in Ituri and North Kivu, the withdrawal raises the possibility of a security void.
The South African Development Community agreed in May to send troops to eastern Congo to support U.N. forces prior to the December 2023 elections, but a month later the U.N. declared that the unpopular MONUSCO peacekeeping operation would be withdrawn.
“The most recent escalation of the conflict has uprooted more people in less time like rarely seen before. We urgently need to deliver help to those most in need,” Sambussy said.
Freeman stressed the importance and connectivity of the internal displacement and human rights abuses in the Congo on a global scale and the potential effects of raising awareness of these issues in the African diaspora.
“Even if we’re not on the continent of Africa, the Congo, being the heart of Africa, needs us outside of the continent to realize our connection and relevance to us to emerge from these conditions,” Freeman said.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew