The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the richest regions in the country, with diverse mineral deposits and vast arable lands. Even more than the rest of the country, however, this region has been ravaged by widespread war, sexual brutality against girls and women, theft of natural resources, and ongoing political instability. By the end of the war that took place between 1998 and 2002, more than five million Congolese had been killed. The war, which involved militias sponsored by the Ugandan and Rwandan national armies, has largely been forgotten in relation to the DRC’s current political and economic trajectory. Some analysts have focused on the DRC’s democratic elections in 2006, possible political consolidation in Uganda and Rwanda, and the rise of judicial activism in the world. They have suggested, based on win-win theory, that elections could be a deterrent to war. Such claims were decisively refuted by the renewal of war in North Kivu in April 2012 and again in May 2013.

To understand the true nature of this crisis, analysts must examine structural and historical factors in detail. Initially, international institutions and major powers, including the United States, were timid about making substantive comments on the crisis, instead describing it primarily in symptomatic terms. And although the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC is the biggest such operation in the world, costing about $1.5 billion over ten years, it remains inept, technically narrow, and ambiguous, given its myopic focus on peacekeeping and “protecting civilians,” but not on peacemaking. The tragedy in North Kivu is a case of déjà vu—more well-coordinated state aggression and pillage by Rwanda and Uganda, following the Congolese army mutiny. It has left thousands of Congolese dead, innumerable refugees, and thousands of children out of school. Schools have become military barracks, and many girls and women have suffered sexual violence.

This crisis is the result of several factors related to the failures and weaknesses of neocolonial states in the region, the consequences of “cowboy capitalism”—a rudimentary form of peripheral global capitalism based on the use of extreme violence to obtain raw materials—and regional positioning in a power struggle vis-à-vis U.S. interests. The wars have created a booming informal minerals market involving mercenaries, bandits, and businesspeople with political clout. Furthermore, the instrumentalization of ethnicity has been a political factor. Political alliances between Congolese Tutsi and the Rwanda government raise issues about the former’s national loyalty as Congolese citizens and the nature of their Banyarwandese culture.

Several militia groups operate in the Eastern DRC. Their fluidity and differing loyalties and the lack of functioning public institutions and deep poverty in the region make quantifying them difficult. At least ten movements have been consistently active in the region over the past three decades. The most important include the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony of Northern Uganda, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) along with four other LRA members who remain at large; a Hutu group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR); the Mayi-Mayi movement; and the National Congress for the Defense of the People (NCDP), led by Laurent Nkunda, a Hema who was a senior officer in the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy. Established to fight Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s regime between 1998 and 2002, Nkunda’s movement was initially supported by both Uganda and Rwanda. The peace accords in South Africa led to the establishment of the transitional government of ‘1 president plus 4 vice presidents’ until 2006, when the Rally became an opposition political party in Kinshasa following the elections. The main objectives of the militias and their sponsors have been to rule the East and control its abundant raw materials. The merchants of “cowboy capitalism” operate with impunity in Goma, Bukavu, Kigali, and Kampala.

One important source of this crisis is the nature of Congolese colonial and neocolonial state formation. The Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi became one country after Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Rwanda and Burundi, governed as two separate entities by Germany, were given to Belgium under a League of Nations mandate. The three states became a colonial federation with a decentralized administration.

Also important are the DRC’s boundaries, which, along with those of Rwanda and Burundi, often shifted prior to political independence in the early 1960s. As the personal property of Belgian King Leopold II and during thirty-two years of neocolonial rule by Mobutu, the Congo was subjected to some of the worst atrocities in the world. For instance, about ten million people died under brutal labor recruitment policies during Leopold II’s rule, while under Mobutu’s regime, political absolutism, corruption, poverty, and the “disappearance” of the state led to numerous deaths and killings that have yet to be properly accounted for. The assassinations of nationalists Patrice Lumumba in January 17, 1961, and Laurent-Désiré Kabila in January 16, 2001, are also part of the Congolese saga.

The Eastern DRC has become the most devastated region in the country, partly as the tragic result of the incapacity of the Congolese state and of Uganda’s and Rwanda’s meddling in the region. Since Prime Minister Lumumba’s assassination and the rise of various nationalist movements that supported him and his Congolese National Movement, the East has had no peace.

Political forces fighting the regimes in Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC have also taken up residence in the East, where they share common borders with similar cultures. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which roughly one million Tutsis and so-called moderate Hutus were killed, engendered general political instability. Since then, Paul Kagame’s security claims and actions against remnants of armed Rwandan opposition forces based in neighboring DRC have been supported by international institutions and won the sympathy of many states across the world. The recent war in the East is also partly the result of the Rwando–Rwandese war of April 6, 1994, during which Tutsis and Hutus brought their conflicts to the Kivu provinces.

The root of the crisis lies in the pursuit of wealth by any means through the chaos created by groups associated with political elites in Uganda and Rwanda and their Congolese cronies, especially the Congolese Tutsis. Furthermore, the lack of democracy in the region, with authorities not being accountable to their constituents, has given political elites the “prerogative” to act mostly on their own behalf. Also contributing to the crisis have been a lack of effective central administration with clearly articulated norms and rules in the Kivu provinces; the absence of a well-trained Congolese national army; and the continual contesting of the outcome of the 2011 presidential elections in the Congo.

There is no quick fix for the crisis in the Eastern DRC. Only a strong Congolese state, partly or fully welfarist and inclusive and “participatory,” can create conditions of stability and peace. A strong state should be a unifier, protector, and developer, supporting progressive ideas, while working in partnership with its citizens. With committed leadership, social democracy, and economic nationalism, the DRC could create institutions that would protect its citizens. The solution requires, first, the organizing of genuine and broad national and local debates on territorial boundaries, citizenship, the nature of the state, nationalism and the pan-African project.

This solution will not descend from international institutions, the BRICS, the Kampala and Kigali dialogues, New York or Washington DC, despite their increasing power. It must be engendered from within Congolese civil society, its vision of Africa, and the Congolese people’s appreciation of their history and traditions. The pan-African political, economic, and military framework envisioned by Kwame Nkrumah can inspire the leadership to save the country from balkanization—to which Prime Minister Lumumba referred as early as 1960—and more possible invasions and exploitation by internal and external predators. The DRC should enhance its leadership status by introducing issues related to pan-African institutions, either through the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the Economic Community of the Central African States (ECCAS), and achieve greater regional solidarity. The loyalty of Congolese citizens is divided because of their government’s weak performance in protecting them, their economic and political interests, and their ethnicities.

Thus, it is through a national project that the Congolese people and state can break away from the dominating mechanisms imposed by globalization, which are part of an unwritten conspiracy to destabilize the country. The challenge for the Congolese state will be to find ways to pursue this enlightened nationalism through the rule of law, the systematic fight against corruption, and the pursuit of people’s well-being, while avoiding any form of authoritarianism. A genuine universalist democracy, with a pan-African vision of society and a focus on people-centered values and institutions, should be part of this rethinking of the Congolese state. What people think should be incorporated into the political discourse. “Business as usual” in the DRC will not result in sustainable peace in the long run.

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