by Claude Garrod
Due to renewed activity, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which we'll simply call the Congo) has made its way again to the back pages of most newspapers in America, but few people appreciate the size of the catastrophe. To date, about six million people have died in the wars, with most of the deaths due to disease and starvation caused by the war. About half the dead have been young children. This article attempts a very brief history of the Congo conflict in order to give the reader who is unfamiliar with the conflict some idea of who the major actors are. The history of the Congo is very complex, involving competitions between the surrounding African states, some Western countries, various corporations and individuals, mostly fighting over the Congo's mineral and other resources.
1960 - After a century of suffering under one of the cruelest and most benighted colonial regimes in history, first as the personal property of Belgian King Leopold II, and then as a colony of Belgium, the Congolese finally obtain independence. They elect as Prime Minister a nationalist, Patrice Lumumba, who promises to use the Congo's mineral wealth for the benefit of the Congolese. To retain control of the Congo resources, the Belgians, with US backing, engineer a coup in which Lumumba is murdered and the country is placed under the control of a former colonel of the Congo army, Mobutu Sese Seko. With consistent American support, Mobutu maintains, for 35 years, a thoroughly corrupt and ineffective regime that does almost nothing to improve or develop the country.
1994 - In the small country of Rwanda, on the eastern border of the Congo, armed groups of ethnic Hutus carry out a bloody campaign of genocide against the minority ethnic group, the Tutsis, that results in about 700,000 deaths, almost all Tutsies. A Tutsi military force, trained in Uganda, counterattacks and gains control of Rwanda, setting up a Tutsi-dominated government headed by Paul Kagame. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus, many armed, pour out of Rwanda into eastern Congo. From there, over the next few years, they carry out attacks against the Rwandan government.
1996 - In order to suppress the Hutu forces, the Rwandan army joins with Ugandan forces and a long-active rebel group in south-eastern Congo under the control of Laurent Kabila and moves to overthrow the Mobutu regime in Kinshasa, the capitol of the Congo. They are successful and install Kabila as President of the Congo. This is the First Congo War in which about a half million people die.
1997 - Rwanda and Uganda maintain control of eastern Congo and begin to harvest the mineral wealth there. For example, Rwanda begins to export tantalum (a high-priced element used in electronic devices) not found in Rwanda: 80% of the world's tantalum is found in the Congo.
1998 - Kabila demands that all foreign forces leave. They refuse, but instead move their forces toward Kinshasa to depose Kabila. This starts the Second Congo War which causes the death of some five and a half million people. The Rwandan and Ugandan forces advance toward Kinshasa and are at the point of succeeding when Kabila is saved by military intervention on his side by Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and, to a lesser extent, Chad, Sudan, and Libya. For a time it appears that the war within the Congo may spread to a general conflagration throughout central Africa, but this doesn't happen and instead the situation within the Congo stabilizes with various armed groups controlling different territories. The Congolese suffer immensely with their country devastated and millions killed or driven into refugee camps.
2001 - Laurent Kabila is assassinated by his bodyguards. His son, Joseph Kabila, is chosen by the Congolese Parliament to succeed him.
2002 - After many false starts and broken agreements, all parties sign a "power-sharing" pact in Pretoria, South Africa. Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean troops exit the Congo, as do most Rwandan troops. Ugandan troops exit in 2003. The pact calls for the creation of a Transitional Government with Kabila as President and four Vice Presidents representing various power blocks within the Congo. Later elections are to be held for a permanent government. The Transitional Government is set up, but most of the armed militias are not disarmed. Things are better than before but the general level of disorder and violence remains high. The UN supplies about 20,000 peacekeeping troops, who have very little peace to keep.
2006 - Elections are held and won by Joseph Kabila, a man who is neither a Hutu nor a Tutsi. A group of armed Congolese Tutsis, commanded by Laurent Nkunda, formerly a Congolese general, assisted by the Rwandan government, begins a new rebellion in eastern Congo, supposedly to protect the Congolese Tutsis from attacks by Hutu armed groups. This bloody civil war is what is occurring today.
It has been suggested that a larger United Nations presence in the Congo might help to reduce hostilities. However, without a stable economy that manages the riches of the Congo for the people of the Congo and an end to ethnic conflicts, peace will remain elusive.