The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), specifically the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika, have been engulfed by violence since the 1990s. Following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Hutu refugees fled to the DRC, prompting ethnic conflicts with local Tutsis. In response, armed groups emerged, destabilizing the region and threatening the population’s security. Kinasha was unable to stop these groups. Government impotence led to an increase in armed militias, as people looked to private groups for protection. With the situation becoming increasingly complex, numerous rebel groups, some supported by neighbouring countries, have descended into fighting each other and government forces.
The United Nations (UN) estimates more than 5 million internally displaced people and over 20 million facing severe food insecurity as a result. Several hundred thousand have also fled to neighbouring countries, putting the stability of the region at risk. The UN established one of the largest peacekeeping forces, of around 20,000 personnel, but still has not been able to restore peace and security.
Several factors, often interdependent, contribute to the continuation of the conflict.
Access to land has been a dominating factor; in a country with widespread poverty, ownership of property is equated with economic power. In the DRC, as in most African countries, there are numerous ethnic identities, and political power is divided along those ethnic lines. Consequently, these different ethnic groups fight to gain political power in order to secure access to land. Moreover, state and non-state actors use this interethnic struggle to promote their own political and economic interests, adding fuel to the violence. The dire socio-economic conditions, created by extreme poverty, lack of basic services, and weak governance generate extremism, which is also exploited by these different groups, and lead to further violence. People view joining armed groups as a way to express their grievances and the sentiment of belonging to a social group.
DRC is known to be one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources. Rebel groups use these lucrative resources as funding, thus facilitating territorial expansion and the procurement of more powerful weapons. Thanks to these resources, along with a weak government authority, some groups have achieved quasi-autonomous existence.
In the past year, the situation worsened in most provinces, according to the UN. In North Kivu, violence has increased following a split in the rebel group Nduma défense du Congo-Rénové (NDC-R). Conflict between different factions of the rebel group led to killings and displacement of civilians. Other rebel groups, such as the Nyatura militias and the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), have attempted to control the territory once held by NDC-R, leading to more violence.
In other parts of the province, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) have been executing attacks against both civilians and government military, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC). The ADF is also competing in the region against other rebel groups for the control of cocoa, which is an important source of income during the harvest season.
In the South Kivu province, the UN reported a deterioration in the security situation due to widespread conflicts between ethnic communities. Some Tutsi groups are considered Rwandan, or foreigners, rather than Congolese, even though these communities have existed there for centuries. Attacks on civilians in these communities, by neighboring areas who consider themselves true Congolese, are frequent, especially after FARDC decreased their operations in the region.
Another UN report notes that the Ituri and Tanganyika provinces have stayed relatively calm in the past few months. But with the surge in violence in North and South Kivu, the UN seems no closer to finding a solution. Human rights violations in the region continue, communities are terrorized, and soldiers from various armed groups destroy villages and livelihoods.
There are numerous causes inhibiting the peace process in the Congo. The fractionalization of armed groups compounds tensions and thwarts the peace process. Indeed, it is harder to achieve peace, where all parties are satisfied, when the number of competing rebel groups is high. Furthermore, interference by foreign actors, specifically neighbouring countries, intensifies the conflict. Uganda and Rwanda support various rebel groups for political and economic purposes. Additionally, humanitarian workers are often the target of rebel groups’ attacks. Usually, workers under attack are those in the field trying to aid local civilians. Civilians frequently get caught in the crossfires between warring factions, including humanitarian workers and visiting officials. On February 22, 2021, the Italian ambassador was assassinated in Goma, North Kivu. The FDLR is suspected of having perpetrated the assassination, but have denied these allegations and accused the Congolese and Rwandan forces of the crime.
The conflict in the DRC is one of the deadliest in the world -- and one of the most complex. The UN, African Union, and the Congolese government, along with neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi need to cooperate together if they wish to achieve peace. This war has been threatening the security of millions of people plus the stability of the region. Unfortunately, peace is still a distant hope.