Updated: Sep 13
By Petyo Rakov
Tensions between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda are at an all-time high, garnering international attention. A Congolese Sukhoi-25 fighter jet was recently shot at by Rwandan forces, claiming it had violated its airspace. This incident is not an isolated case of violence, but rather an escalation of a deeply-rooted, decades-old conflict in one of the most resource-rich areas of the planet. While Western media pay significant attention to other wars, the Kivuconflict remains largely unnoticed.
Decades of Violence in the Kivu Region
Located in the eastern DRC, the Kivu region borders Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The Congolese government has thus far been unable to exert authority in the remote and resource-rich region, making it vulnerable to widespread violence.
The International Criminal Court concluded that the Congolese youth sustains a generational trauma that, much like the one experienced by Europe’s lost generation during World War I, will obstruct future development by reinforcing a cycle of violence.
Nowadays, over 120 militias operate in the region. Exiled anti-governmental groups reside in Kivu such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist rebel group.
Their presence has led to regime-toppling military interventions from neighbouring countries in the past. These phenomena can be traced to the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of refugees, some of whom exiled militants, fled Rwanda, which saw Hutu militias execute at least 600,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic minority group during the Rwandan Genocide.
The relocation of Tutsis, moderate Hutus, and génocidaires (partakers) set a precedent of permanently-present foreign militants in Eastern Congo. It irreversibly strained the diplomatic relations between the DCR and its Tutsi-dominated neighbour. These developments culminated in the First and Second Congo Wars, fought mainly in Kivu, that resulted in the death of at least three million people and cemented the ethnic divisions present to this day.
The Resource Curse - A Precursor of Perpetual Violence
The DRC suffers from the notorious ‘resource curse’, which refers to the failure of many resource-rich countries to benefit from their wealth. These countries tend to be more authoritarian, prone to conflict, and less economically stable than countries without such resources.
The DRC accounts for around seventeen per cent of the global production of rough diamonds and 60 to 80 per cent of international coltan reserves, used in electronics manufacturing. Both can especially be found in North and South Kivu. In the latter, more than 60 per cent of the mines are in rebel hands.
Coupled with widespread corruption, the violent and continuous control over these resources means that only a tiny fraction of the mining revenues are relocated towards the Congolese population. For example, in 2004, the DRC mined a total of one billion dollars (933 million euros) in worth, but its treasury department only saw 40 million dollars (37 million euros).
M23 - A Military and Foreign Proxy
The insurgency group March 23 Movement (M23) is one of the most prominent militia groups in the Kivu region. According to Julien Paluku, the former governor of North Kivu and Minister of Industry for the DRC, the group is deliberately targeting rare mineral-rich regions in order to export these through Rwanda. Historically, both Rwanda and Uganda have been criticised for deliberately destabilising the DRC by financing militias present in Kivu to obtain and export its natural wealth.
Meanwhile, M23, led by Tutsis, accuses the Congolese government of failing to integrate Congolese Tutsis within the country’s military and society, citing this negligence as their main motive for rebellion. Since March 2022, the group has seized noticeable swathes of territory in Nort Kivu and it has displaced over 500,000 people as they advanced towards the regional capital city of Goma.
Regardless of their motivation, rebel violence strains the already-deteriorated relations between the DRC and Rwanda since, on numerous occasions, similarly to Julien Paluki, the DRC has accused the Rwandan Minister of Defense and Uganda of providing financial and military support to the resurgent M23.
This is de facto supported by the United States and the European Union, who urged Rwanda to cease supporting the rebels. A UN report stated that M23 rebels operate under the overall command of the Rwandan Defence Minister.
Lastly, M23’s lack of compliance with agreements for ‘orderly withdrawal’ has prompted the international involvement of a Kenya-led coalition that includes Uganda, South Sudan and Burundi, deploying soldiers to pacify the unstable area. Expectations for the achievability of this mission are bleak due to two decades of UN peacekeeping failures and questionable economic motivations in Uganda.
A New Dimension?
More recently, the Kivu conflict obtained an intergovernmental dimension when, on 24 January, a Congolese Sukhoi-25 fighter jet became the most recent apple of discord after being shot at by Rwanda.
According to the Rwandan government, “defensive measures were taken” since the aircraft “violated for the third time Rwandan airspace [in the past two months]”. Contrarily, the DRC argued that “Rwandan shots were directed towards a Congolese aircraft flying within Congolese territory”, mentioning that it was a “deliberate act of aggression that amounts to an act of war”.
These bilateral accusations risk undermining the collaborative efforts towards the pacification of the region, outlined in a multinational mini-summit held in Angola in November 2022.
Moreover, it showcases the complexity of the conflict and the interconnectivity of the causes as the abovementioned ethnic violence and anti-governmental sentiments may be exploited by foreign militias for financial gains through the export of minerals by international players.
Tough Times Lay Ahead
Although not an incidental case, the fighter jet incident is unlikely to cause a full-fledged war between the DRC and Rwanda. However, it showcases that suspicions and tensions, dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and exacerbated by the mineral wealth of Kivu, remain unsolved and sporadic escalations are to be expected. Furthermore, the political circles of both states escalate the animosities.
For example, the DRC’s president has encouraged young Congolese to organize themselves to defend the country, prompting anti-Rwanda sentiments on social media. This action succeeds the President of Rwanda’s speech from last year, which contained the following statement: “As we are a very small country, our current doctrine is to go and fight the fire at its origin […] where there is enough space to wage war”.
This rhetoric subtly implies that the Rwandan government may be open to initiating a war in Eastern Congo in the pursuit of its interest. Only time will tell whether such a small country, in the heart of Africa, can become a regional hegemony.
Sources: BBC, CFR, Crisisgroup, Economist, OHCHR, Resource governance, Reuters
Written by Petyo Rakov