The scramble for, partition and exploitation of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast natural resources by both regional and international players, have for centuries robbed the country of its peace.
Since the dark colonial era of King Leopold II when the DRC was known as the Belgian Congo in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, the country has incessantly fought to just survive. The so-called ‘resource-curse’, has left citizens to bear the brunt of the ever-emerging conflicts.
The achievement of peace in the DR Congo has hitherto seemed an elusive dream, but could the incumbent President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi, be the torchbearer that finally brings peace to the Congo?
Unlike his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, Tshisekedi has made the achievement of peace in DRC top of his agenda, since taking over leadership in 2019, pegging his legacy to this quest. Why is the attainment of peace so important to Tshisekedi? Not only would it guarantee his re-election next year, but to him peace means economic prosperity for the DR Congo, whose numerous resources more than suffice to build and establish a thriving economic powerhouse.
“We want to build a strong Congo, turned toward its development in peace and security. A Congo for all, in which everyone has a place. I commit to do everything I can to bring peace,” he noted during his inauguration in 2019.
To this end, Tshisekedi has been keen to forge strategic alliances with both regional and international actors, to aid in this endeavour. The recent move was joining the East African Community (EAC). He reiterated this mission during the just concluded 77th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, noting in his speech, “Since my election as head of state of the DRC, I have not stopped fighting every day for peace. In order to definitively eradicate insecurity, restore lasting peace and ensure stability in the East of my country, several agreements have been signed with armed groups and even neighbouring countries.”
Tshisekedi, a former Chairperson of the African Union, has made significant progress towards thwarting chaos in eastern Congo, orchestrated by the March 23 Movement (M23), a group against the Congolese government in the Eastern region.
Regionally, and just recently, the DRC signed a troop deployment deal with the East Africa Community (EAC), to send forces to combat rebels in the eastern region, months after the country secured membership to the bloc in April. The agreement was signed by Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundla and the Secretary General of the EAC Peter Mathuki, in witness of President Tshisekedi. However, the actual deployment is pending a formal agreement which will describe the terms of reference, legal obligations and rights of troops and financial responsibilities of troop contributors.
In addition, the deal is to be followed by the signing by individual members before the deployment. Agreed upon by a conclave East African heads of state, the regional force would comprise of troops from member countries that would be deployed to the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri to help combat insecurity. It was agreed upon in June and later endorsed by the EAC Summit, indicating an entire agreement by the bloc to support the DRC peace process.
“The deployment of this force will be in the execution of the political will expressed by all the Heads of State of the community, namely to definitively settle the issue of stability, security and peace in the Great Lakes region within the community,” noted Lutundla.
EAC Deploys a Regional military force to DRC.
The DR Congo has never enjoyed prolonged periods of peace since the reign of King Leopold II, who was a tyrant determined to build an empire authorized by the 1884/85 Berlin Conference. He formed the Congo Free State, separate from Belgium but privately owned and controlled it himself. He plundered DR Congo’s valuable resources and unleashed untold torture to the Congolese people, issuing inhumane decrees such as enslavement, beheading, whipping, sexual violence and humiliation by exhibiting them in zoos like animals in Belgium. These atrocities claimed the lives of an estimated ten million people, which was then 50 per cent of the population. This led to an international outrage and in 1908, the Belgian government took over the colony and christened it the Belgian Congo, which it ruled for another 52 years.
During this period, the violence toned down a notch but racism continued and the Congolese were excluded from acquiring an education, employment and other opportunities until the country gained independence in 1960. Prior to this, exploitation continued by EU and European companies after World War I, using the Congolese as indentured labourers to produce coffee, cotton, palm oil, copper, gold, diamond, uranium, tin, zinc and cobalt among other raw materials.
They used forced labour to develop infrastructure to facilitate their agenda. In addition, the US engaged in heavily mining uranium in the Congo.
Despite the achievement of independence in 1960, the country fell into the hands of a brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1965. He ruled the country for 32 years. In 1997, Laurent Kabila took over the presidency by a very slim margin ameliorating the status quo but ended with the death of 3 million people. He only ruled for four years before he was murdered in 2001, and his son Joseph Kabila took over leadership and ruled until 2018.
What does M23 want from the Congolese Government?
M23 was coined after a failed peace deal which was signed on March 23, 2009. The M23 insurgency is also referred to as the Congolese Revolutionary army.
The M23 group gained prominence more than a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in the east of DRC, situated along the shared border with Rwanda. It had then been defeated in 2013 by Congo’s army (FARDC) and special MONUSCO forces; but its forces re-emerged in November 2021 with more vigour, as the UN head of MONUSCO Bintou Keita, noted in her remarks to the Security Council, “During the most recent hostilities, the M23 has conducted itself increasingly as a conventional army, rather than an armed group. They possess sophisticated firepower and equipment.”
M23 rebels wreaking havoc in eastern DRC-Image Source-TRT World
M23 leaders have called to attention the implementation of the 2013 Nairobi Accord deal, which was peace agreement whose provisions included the dissolution of M23 as an armed group, together with the demobilization and renunciation of violence, as a means of pursuing future claims. A key aspect of the deal was the granting of blanket amnesty to those who had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, to be reinstated into society. However, the Congolese government has declared the group a terrorist organization and insists it cannot honour the amnesty pact, it could spark public outrage from the many citizens who have suffered the group’s wrath. Despite the group’s interest for dialogue with the government, Tshisekedi notes that this can only happen if the group leaves DRC.
M23 members were once part of the country’s army but mutinied in 2012, accusing the government of not honouring a 2009 peace deal and marginalizing the ethnic Tsutsi minority. The World’s largest UN peace keeping force has been deployed in DRC, to help the government in the fight against M23.
In the past, Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of backing rebel forces but have repeatedly denied the allegations. Experts suggest that the armed groups in the DR Congo have been proxies by its neighbours, to push their economic interest and profit from the smuggling of DR Congo’s numerous minerals.
Conversely, the M23 rebels have accused Tshisekedi of using the conflict to his advantage to prolong and cement his power, ahead of DRC’s 2023 election. Furthermore, they allege that Tshisekedi intends to call off or delay next year’s general election citing insecurity, in light of the volatile situation. M23 accuse Tshisekedi of fanning divisions in the country, creating fertile grounds for the eruption of conflict. According to the M23 political spokesperson Lawrence Kanyuka, President Tshisekedi is using the conflict in the east as a way of holding power amid tensions. In a statement, he expressed that the M23 was interested in a peaceful resolution to the current conflict and that they had legitimate grievances.
“It’s a government strategy, to instigate and maintain conflicts to cause mayhem in the country, which it intends to use to retain power,” Kanyuka stated.
On the sidelines of UNGA, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Rwandan President Kagame and Tshisekedi to a luncheon; the two neighbours agreed on the need for the pull out of M23 forces from the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen, if the EAC deployment will yield fruit which will could herald a restoration of peace in the country.
From Left Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame,French President Emmanuel Macron and DRC’s President Félix Antoine Tshisekedi discuss the Congo crisis at the 77th session of UNGA in New York