The Democratic Republic of Congo, not to be confused with neighboring Republic of Congo (also known as Congo Brazzaville), is a resource rich nation in Central Africa. Despite its natural wealth, it consistently ranks as one of the poorest economies in the world. The history of the Congo is a narrative of manipulation by the West and its regional neighbors, the result of which has left lasting fissures between the many tribal ethnicities, and which continues to cause conflicts today.
Much of Congo’s problems can be traced back to its colonial roots. What was then called the Congo Free State was actually de facto private property of King Léopold II of Belgium. For nearly three decades, the social and political fabric of the Congo was tailored by the King for the single purpose of extracting its material wealth. In the absence of any significant investment in governance, education, and public infrastructure, the Congo immediately declined into chaos and civil war upon its independence in 1960.
It was further Western intervention that finally brought the most unwelcomed kind of stability. During the height of the Cold War in 1965, a soldier named Joseph-Désiré Mobutu took power through an American backed coup, renaming the country Zaïre. Preaching a passionate anti-communist rhetoric, Mobutu leveraged American support and resources to buy the loyalty of key allies, or otherwise brutally suppress dissent as the country’s dictator. It was his three decade rule and continued Western intervention that would sew ethnic tension within the country, and create the catalyst for the many conflicts that followed.
Part of the ethnic tension was caused directly by Mobutu’s scheme to consolidate power. In order to control the numerous ethnic groups in the Congo, Mobutu mimicked the Belgian colonial tactic of “divide and rule”—give political power and wealth to the minority. The fear of retribution and rebellion from their more numerous counterparts motivated the privileged minority into a cycle of violence and brutal repression. This tactic was most prominent in eastern Congo, where minority Hutus from neighboring Rwanda have settled for generations. Mobutu’s favoritism resulted in several massacres between the Hutus and their Hande, Nante, and Tutsi neighbors.
Mobutu’s reign finally began to crumble in the 1990s, as the end of the cold war meant dwindling Western support for Mobutu’s Zaïre. Without dollars motivating his political allies, Mobutu’s control eroded. But it was genocide in neighboring Rwanda that finally ignited decades of ethnic tension and threw the country into war. Many Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide fled to Congo and continued attacks against the now Tutsi dominated Rwandan government across the border. The fractured Mobutu government was unable to control this restless region. Rwanda’s government proceeded to arm Tutsi communities marginalized by Mobutu’s rule, and a rebellion was born. There was no shortage of dissent in the Congo, and other opponents of the Mobutu government quickly joined this initial uprising. The combined force, now called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, finally overthrew the government in 1997.
But the new government could do little to mend lasting ethnic scars, and war loomed again on the horizon. The rebel alliance which overthrew Mobutu quickly devolved into infighting. Neighboring powers threw their support behind opposing sides of the rebellion, roughly divided between Hutu and Tutsi bases of support. This became “Africa’s World War”—the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over five million deaths over five years of fighting. The conflict ended in a military stalemate and a peace treaty resulting in power sharing, and preservation of the pre-war regime.
Today, peace remains elusive despite a series of subsequent peace treaties and the presence of United Nations Peace Keepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A 2008 report estimated as much as 45,000 people are killed each month as a result of several on-going conflicts. Armed groups that previously agreed to disarm were actually found to be recruiting more soldiers. The government has launched a renewed military offensive in the east against Hutu rebels, and a planned roadmap for peace was canceled. In addition, local warlords, collectively called the Mai-Mai, have organized in the absence of the overstrained government security forces. Originally for the purpose of self-defense, the Mai-Mai have instead gravitated towards pillaging and exploitation of the countryside. The country’s porous borders have also allowed other armed groups, like Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, to find safe havens, threatening to further destabilize the entire region.