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This story originally appeared in Peoples Dispatch on December 28, 2022. It is shared here with permission.

This is the second of two stories on the ongoing crisis in the eastern provinces of the DRC. Part one can be read here

On Friday, December 23, the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officially handed over its positions in Kibumba, in North Kivu province, to the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF), citing the recommendations of the summit held in Luanda, Angola, in November. However, days after M23 announced its withdrawal from its seized positions in Kibumba, displaced communities have still not been able to return amid reports that rebel fighters are still present in the area.

Meanwhile, fighting between M23, Congolese troops (FARDC), and an anti-M23 ‘self-defense’ militia continued on Monday, December 26, in the settlements of Bishusha and Tongo in North Kivu’s Rutshuru territory. According to reports, M23 also detained around 50 people, accusing them of collaborating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Nyatura, a Congolese armed group fighting M23. However, relatives of those detained told the AFP that they were displaced people who had returned to the area to look for food. 

FARDC had rejected the M23’s announcement of withdrawal, arguing that it was a distraction used by the rebel force to reinforce its positions in Tongo, Kishishe, and Bambu, with an intention to occupy the territory of Masisi.

Friday’s purported withdrawal came a day after excerpts of a report by a UN group of experts were made public, stating that there was “substantial evidence” that Rwandan forces had directly intervened in the DRC between November 2021 and October 2022, and provided ammunition, uniforms, and weapons to M23. Not only that, the report also noted that the rebel group had passed through Uganda “unhindered” during its capture of the DRC’s eastern border town of Bunagana in June. 

These revelations closely followed statements by France and Germany condemning Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebels, in line with similar stances recently taken by the US and Belgium.

“These are just the usual condemnations, issued ‘in the strongest possible terms.’ It does not mean that these countries have taken any action. As the Congolese people, we are not waiting for any more condemnations,” Kambale Musavuli told Peoples Dispatch. “This is also not the first time that we have heard such statements. After the invasions in 1996, and then again in 1998, no one held Rwanda and Uganda accountable.” 

Musavuli also pointed to the events in June 2000, when at least 300 Congolese civilians were reported to have been killed as Rwandan and Ugandan forces fought to gain control over the city of Kisangani, and, by extension, the diamond trade. “All the UN issued at the time was condemnations,” he said.

“What we need is action, which includes the US and the UK cutting ties with Rwanda, to stop arming, training, and equipping a country that is destabilizing the DRC. The weapons that the Rwandan government is providing to militia groups are coming from military aid, Rwanda is not manufacturing them. Stopping this channel of support will have an impact.”

“There is a culture of impunity when it comes to the crimes being committed in the DRC, and there is a lack of political will in the international community, particularly in the case of the US and the UK, to hold their allies accountable,” Musavuli said. “Meanwhile, people in the Congo have continued to be killed in the same way for the past 20 years.”

In October 2010, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a 550-page report based on a mapping exercise documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international law in the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003. The inquiry was prompted by the discovery of three mass graves in North Kivu in late 2005. 

“It was a reminder to the UN that the crimes of the past have not been held to account, and that it was important to document what was going on in the DRC,” Musavuli said. 

The report looked at 617 of the most severe violations over the ten-year period, including instances of mass killings and sexual violence by armed actors in the DRC, including rebel groups and foreign forces. It concluded that most of the crimes committed would qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

In particular, the report looked at a series of crimes committed by the Rwandan army and AFDL between 1996 and 1997, stating that they revealed “a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterized as crimes of genocide.” Calls by the Congolese government to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to establish an international tribunal to investigate the crimes committed in the country have been ignored.

Not a resource, but a capitalism curse

Addressing the All African Conference in 1960, DRC’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had warned, “Our internal difficulties, tribal wars, and the nuclei of political opposition seemed to have been accidentally concentrated in the regions with our richest mineral and power resources… Our Katanga because of its uranium, copper and gold, and our Bakwanga in Kasai because of its diamonds have become hotbeds of imperialist intrigues. The object of these intrigues is to recapture economic control of our country.”

50 years later, the UN mapping report explored the connection between the exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources and the abuses being committed in the country. Resource exploitation had become “heavily militarized” with the first invasion in 1996, with the direct involvement of a growing number of foreign actors, including “rebel groups and armies from neighboring countries,” the report noted. 

By the time of the second invasion in 1998, it added, natural resources “gradually became a driving force behind the war.” About 60-80% of the world’s coltan reserves, used to manufacture mobile phones, are located in the DRC. In 2002, a UN panel of experts concluded that “all coltan mines in the east of the DRC were benefiting either a rebel group or foreign armies.”

“Ample evidence indicates that Rwanda and Uganda were financing their military expenditure with the profits from natural resource exploitation in the DRC,” the report stated, adding that according to some estimates, the income Rwanda received provided for 80% of all army expenditure in 1999. Meanwhile, a major part of the gold produced in the Ituri region was “exported through Uganda, then re-exported as if it had been produced domestically…” 

Uganda’s gold exports soared from $12.4 million in 1994–95 to $110 million in 1996, the year it began occupying the DRC. In 2019, 95% of the country’s gold exports were of non-Ugandan origin.

In 1999, the DRC approached the International Court of Justice to seek $11 billion from Uganda as reparations for the harms caused by its military occupation. Finally, in February 2022, the court ruled that Uganda must pay $325 million over five years, including $225 million for “loss of life and other damage to persons” and $60 million for damage to natural resources.  

“Cobalt, lithium, coltan, these are minerals necessary for the fourth industrial revolution. When we talk of lithium, most people think of Bolivia and not of Monono. The DRC is also the world’s largest producer of cobalt. As long as we have these minerals in the Congo, we will have forces destabilizing the country,” Musavuli said.

“But the minerals are not the problem, capitalism is the problem. Norway has oil, it is a resource-rich country, why don’t we see what is happening in the DRC there as well? It is clear where the DRC has been placed on the capitalist chain of production, as a place whose resources are exploited,” he added. 

On December 13, the governments of the DRC and Zambia signed an agreement with the US towards developing an “electric vehicle value chain.” US interest in the DRC’s cobalt reserves is not new, given its importance not only in electric vehicles, but also military equipment. So much so that the US continued to deliberately ignore the very obvious role that it was playing in fueling the violence in the DRC. 

Moreover, the deal with the DRC and Zambia did not emerge in a vacuum, Musavuli explained. In fact, both countries had already signed agreements for mineral exploration for the manufacturing of electric batteries back in April. “The US has inserted itself into this process. Why? One of the reasons is the attempt to block out China from the African continent. The DRC being the largest producer of cobalt (around 80% of the global reserves), and with the huge push away from fossil fuels towards wind, solar, and electric energy, the Congo will be at the center of the discussion.”

“The US is just trying to guarantee its flow of resources while ignoring the interests of the Congolese people. The US Africa Summit did not engage in how to bring about peace and stability in the DRC. The focus was ‘how do we gain access to the Congo’s cobalt?’”

Ensuring peace, stability, and sovereignty

During the summit, US President Joe Biden also met with Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi along with the heads of state from Gabon, Liberia, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone to “discuss their countries’ upcoming elections in 2023.” The US also plans to provide over $165 million to “support elections and good governance in Africa in 2023.” 

“The current government of president Tshisekedi is not a government of the people. The facts on the ground show that the 2018 election was stolen, with Tshisekedi being backed by the US,” Musavuli stated. “Today, the Congolese people are facing a situation where they have to solve the challenges facing their country with a leader who was imposed upon them.” 

Not only do such meetings raise concerns of further interference, their paternalistic tone is hard to ignore – “Can you imagine an African president calling a leader from Europe to discuss their elections? This tells us very clearly that these are not the leaders chosen by the people. Because a leader chosen by the people will not be summoned to Washington, they will go to the people of Kinshasa, of Goma, to hear their needs,” he said. 

The Congolese people had already shared their demands for a free and fair election, Musavuli stressed, for an independent electoral commission and constitutional court, for opposition leaders to be able to express themselves, for journalists to be able to write critical articles without fear of arrest or exile. 

“This is also a message to the African people, that these leaders do not represent our will, and that the struggle of the people across Africa, including in the Congo continues to be at multiple levels. We have to fight the compradores, our local elite who are chosen by foreign powers. We must fight the corporations that are looting our resources, displacing our populations, and polluting our waters,” he added. 

“We must also fight against multilateral institutions such as the UN, whose peacekeeping and stabilization force has been in the DRC for twenty years, with a billion dollar budget, yet has nothing to show for it. Why are they still in the Congo? The situation in the country now is similar to the one in Haiti, where it is essentially becoming a UN colony.”

“We are trying to solve problems that the Congolese people did not create,” Musavuli reiterated. “We are not going to the root cause of the conflict. The true essence of finding a way forward lies in addressing the Rwandan genocide. There needs to be an inter-Rwandan dialogue, in a country where 80% of the population are Hutus and 14% are Tutsis, being led by a very specific clan within this minority with ties to the monarchy… The monarchy is effectively in power with bourgeois politics.”

He added claimed “The challenge lies with the Rwandan regime led by Paul Kagame and supported by the West, specifically around the Entebbe principles of the 1990s, which were presented by the US when talking about the so-called ‘renaissance leaders of Africa’ – including Kagame from Rwanda, Museveni from Uganda, and Meles Zenawi from Ethiopia.” 

“They were given unfettered support. And what do these countries have in common? That they invaded another African country, and that they have the blood of millions of Africans on their hands… For the inter-Congolese dialogue to work, we need to have democracy in Rwanda, where the Rwandan people are able to discuss the future of their country, instead of having a dictator imposed upon them for over two decades. The same needs to happen in Uganda, another key US ally.” 

Stability and justice for the DRC also means ensuring an end to the interference by the US and the UK – “We also call upon the working classes of these countries to unite with the Congolese people and understand that their fight to have a just leadership in their countries is directly connected to our struggle.” 

“Just as Kwame Nkrumah said, the DRC’s challenges are both internal and external. The external forces will be foiled by our allies, the free and liberated people of the world, who believe in peace and stability and justice in the DRC. As for the internal forces, we, the daughters and sons of Patrice Lumumba, will continue to fight until there is a liberated Congo,” Musavuli asserted.

“The day the Congo is in the hands of its people, the entire African continent will change. As long as Congo is kept unstable, with puppet leaders and in a dysfunctional state, Africa will not advance… Our call is not to governments but to the people, to unite under Pan-Africanism and to understand that if capitalism is to be fought, it has to be fought in the DRC. Because the Congo is where capitalism gets its fuel.”

Tanupriya Singh

Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch.