As Laurent Kabila, the increasingly paranoid president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), consulted his economic adviser in his presidential office, a trusted bodyguard strolled through the door. The teenage protector loomed over Kabila, and Kabila leaned towards him, expecting important news. In an instant, the young man lodged four bullets into his leader, the palace resonating with the sound of the revolver blasts. The year was 2001, and Laurent’s son Joseph quickly took the reins of an embattled government.
The Congolese held their breath, hoping that new president Joseph Kabila would transition the government away from greed and corruption. At first, the younger Kabila seemed committed to change, nominally ending the devastating Second Congo War in 2002 by signing a peace agreement with rebel groups in the mineral-rich east. But signs of hope quickly dissipated as the violence from the Congo War continued unabated, and evidence that Kabila was growing rich through embezzlement disillusioned his countrymen.
Amidst calls of electoral fraud from opponents, Kabila won the presidential vote in 2006 and again in 2011, leading to violent unrest. Now, with signs that Kabila will attempt to tamper with the constitution in order to seek a third term, violent demonstrations are erupting across the war-torn nation. The US, UK, EU, UN, African Union (AU) and other international players are considering imposing heftier sanctions against the DRC as a means of deterring Kabila’s authoritarian retention of power.
However, regardless of what happens in November, the economic and political turmoil that has embattled the Congolese nation throughout its 51-year history is unlikely to calm. Beyond the Parliament in the capital of Kinshasa lurk the shadowy and powerful foreign interests that influence Congolese policy. To advance economic and geopolitical interests, the more established governments in Uganda and Rwanda have historically financed, armed, and manned rebel armies in the Congo, which have upended governments and spurred two of the world’s most deadly wars. Without international intervention, or at least international scrutiny, Ugandan and Rwandan leaders will continue to fuel chaos in order to deepen their own pockets.
In 2012, a rebel group called M23 flooded the countryside of the eastern Congo, establishing cartels to extort valuable minerals and causing the evacuation of 800,000 Congolese. The group purportedly formed in reaction to a lack of implementation of the March 23, 2009 peace deal between the Congolese government and M23’s predecessor, the CNDP. However, M23 was also likely motivated by a network of other developments: first, President Kabila had recently said that the leaders of the CNDP would now face war crime charges from the International Criminal Court, incentivizing those leaders to form a new rebel movement to save themselves from justice; second, with such immense mineral wealth to exploit, for most local soldiers it was much more profitable to defect from the Congolese army to M23; third, Rwandan and Ugandan interests lined up with the goals of M23, leading to a secretive collaboration.
For the last sixteen years, Rwanda has engaged in a proxy war with government dissidents in Eastern Congo. After the 1994 genocide and the Tutsi rise to power in Rwanda, the remaining Hutu militias fled to safety in eastern Congo. As those Hutu rebel groups still exist and pose a threat to the stability of the Tutsi-backed government, Rwandan president Paul Kagame has sought to destroy the Hutu groups that operate in the region. M23 has offered a perfect front for them to do so, as the preeminence of M23 weakened the Hutu militias operating in the region. In December of 2012, more than 1,000 Rwandan soldiers crossed the border into the DRC and, with uniforms appearing suspiciously similar to those of the M23 rebels, began to offer direct support in combat to the rebels.
Uganda, on the other hand, has been inexorably tied to Eastern Congo rebels since Eastern Congo Tutsis assisted in the 1979 overthrow of Ugandan President Idi Amin. Uganda, which maintains many Tutsis in top government positions, remains sympathetic to Tutsi rebel movements in Eastern Congo, actively supporting the disruption of Hutu strongholds in the area. Ugandan leaders, who also economically benefit from a weakening of centralized power in the mineral-rich Congo, have deployed their own troops and sent supplies such as clothing to aid M23.
More recently, last May, the UN Security Council accused Rwanda of training and equipping Burundian rebels operating in Eastern Congo. Burundi has a Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, and Tutsi leaders in Rwanda would benefit from a toppling of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government. While ethnic politics certainly play into President Kagame’s plan to arm the Burundi rebels, the rebels also play the role of destabilizing Eastern Congo even further, killing two birds with one stone for the Rwandan government.
But there is a third, and perhaps even more critical, reason why Rwanda and Uganda have meddled with Congolese affairs for decades. Not only do the individual rebels themselves get rich from their violent exploitation of mines, but much of the wealth from the minerals has historically been channeled to the Rwandan and Ugandan governments in exchange for rebel support. In 2002, the UN Panel of Experts predicted that 70% of the coltan (one of the many valuable minerals in the region) exported from eastern Congo was being mined with direct surveillance by Rwandan army officials, while millions of dollars worth of Congolese gold was being exported from Uganda. Although Rwanda and Uganda officially withdrew their armies from the area in 2003, they continued to exploit the riches from the region through the use of a series of proxy armies, the latest of which include M23.
While recent legislation, such as section 1502 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, has aimed to increase transparency in the sourcing of imported minerals to reduce the use of conflict minerals, some minerals that are extremely valuable even in small quantities, such as gold, are easy to smuggle, and it is nearly impossible to trace their source mines. Because of issues with enforcement and implementation of conflict mineral legislation, it is often still unfeasible for every company that uses minerals to adequately check whether or not their minerals could be originating from mines controlled by militias. In the meantime, dozens of rebel groups, many of which are clandestinely supported by Rwanda and Uganda, continue to wage a war that has left 5.4 million dead since the early 1990s.
As the Congolese presidential election must be scheduled by December 19th by law, the fact that President Kabila has yet to set a date for the election bodes poorly for the chances of a peaceful transition. Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of the opposition movement, threatens resistance if a fair election does not occur in the coming months. But, with such high stakes not only for the DRC, but also for Rwanda and Uganda, domestic politics are unlikely to be the only thing driving what happens with the Congolese elections. Rwanda and Uganda have favored instability in the eastern Congo for decades, and history says that they will continue to fund militias in eastern Congo to further political agendas and to funnel billions of dollars illegally into their countries. Moreover, Rwanda and Uganda have a vested interest to keep the DRC in a state of chaos in order to continue their exploitation. While it may be too early to know just exactly how Rwanda and Uganda will act in the months leading up to the potential election, one thing is for certain: the DRC people cannot let foreign interests threaten their hope for a peaceful and democratic future.