Writing experiment: Trying an everyone’s read of Congo…

… in less than 1500 words, reducing complexity as much as possible without skewing facts. All that, to favour readability with the aim of making the below essay comprehensible for whichever reader with or without preexisting Congo knowledge.


My last articles have sparked an interesting amount of critique, most of which was favourable from all sides of the debate. I am very thankful for this. However, a few voices vigorously criticised articles such as the the precedent on this website. Most of them were anonymous and did not underpin their points contentwise. For a writer, this is of course the most helpful type of feedback: Someone tells you your work is bullshit but cannot say why. Awesome. Some at least did not stay anonymous, such as Thomas Turner. Author of two widely detailed books on the DRC and having worked/lived there, I admire his writing a lot (such as other longtime observers’ books and articles). If I understood correctly, Turner said my analyses were confused and not helpful.

Although in my humble opinion, such a commentary is exactly that (and certainly not my work) I still must say: I agree and I disagree with Turner.  Given that I am not a mother tongue writer nor graduated in journalist English prose but I still report on and analyse the complex humanitarian, political, and security dynamics of eastern Congo, there is a possibility of my writing being confusing at times, especially for readers who are no Congo nerds. Contrary to most freelance work I do, this website also includes a couple of more nitty-gritty analyses, making it also more difficult to grasph the full context, if not familiar to it. However, I also disagree. If Turner would have read my work more closely, he might have been able to note that most of my articles try to take on contexts that have been confusingly explained by mainstream media (there is a few notable exceptions, though), and shedding light on clichés, underreported side aspects, and so on. This website actually tries to make complexity as readable as possible while reducing complexity only where absolutely necessary to maintain a full and deep analysis.

Nonetheless, I take such criticism seriously. Therefore, in the following, I am trying to offer a short analysis which, I hope, can more or less clearly explain the current Kivu crisis to anyone from Congo pundits to people that barely have an idea of what “Congo” is. I do not say Congo for dummies because whoever is a dummy on Congo might be a specialist in fields where I am a dummy. Neither I say Congo for children, because I consider it a great lack of respect if adult people who simply have not learned a lot about something before are equalled to children or children automatically considered as ignorant, as Invisible Children in their awful and dire Kony2012 campaign have done.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a state in the midst of the African continent. Successor to a country called Zaire and the preceding colony of Belgium and the Congolese Free State that was private property of a Belgian King, the territory and people of the DRC have witnessed a lot of hard times and calamity. Before colonialism the area had a low population density and was organised in various centralised (kingdoms) and decentralised units. Cruelty of colonial administration ended with a hasty decolonisation in 1960. A year later, the country’s first head of government, Lumumba, got killed and parts of the country in the southeast tried to become own entities through secession. These parts were Katanga and Kasai regions, neighbouring Zambia and Angola. DRC’s other neigbours are Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Today it covers an area of 2.35 million square kilometres and includes the naturally indicated 3/4 circle the Congo river (see article picture) traverses on its journey to the atlantic.

The United Nations sent their first peacekeeping (blue helmet) operation to prevent the implosion of the newborn state. After years of turmoil, it worked out, but in 1965, a certain Mobutu seized power. He should for 32 years remain the country’s single rule, renaming the country Zaire and establishing a system of government that worked like that: Within the state and its administration, Mobutu set up a web of patron-client relationships. Thus, bureaucracy was based on personal relationships. This paved the way for rampant corruption and the national economy broke down. Informal business was necessary for the ordinary people to survive.

In the 1990’s after several interventions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fond, Mobutu lost his allies in France and the US. After the fall of the Iron Curtain they did not publicly want to endorse his autocratic rule anymore. Mobutu was forced to liberalise his rule. Free elections were announced, but then something else happened: In Rwanda, a militia based on ethnic hatred and the government in place which had set up the former committed genocide of a part of the Rwandan population referred to as Tutsi. The perpetrators were Hutu (although moderate Hutu were among the victims) and started their murder campaign after the then Rwandan president’s plane was shot early April 1994. The genocide happened during a month roughly and was stopped by a rebel group, the Tutsi-led RPF of today’s Rwandan president Kagame. Both the population and the genocide perpetrator fled Rwanda, mainly to eastern Zaire.

Mixing up with political tensions on the ground, the refugee crises fuelled an explosive mix of conflicts and fault lines. Shortly after the end of the genocide in Rwanda, the new government there helped setting up a foursome rebel front called AFDL. Led by Rwandan military they were able to both fight the fled genocidaires and take power in Kinshasa, the DRC’s/Zaire’s capital after a quick civil war. Laurent-Désiré Kabila, an old Congolese insurgent and businessman took power in 1997 and broke the coalition with his fellow AFDL leaders and the Rwandan supporters shortly after. Consequently, in 1998 another civil war began pitting Kabila’s Congo with several African allies (Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola, Namibia, etc.) against a new rebel coalition called RCD (backed and built up by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi) in Congolese territory. The latter fell apart into first two pieces of territory, and as the RCD broke up, even 3 or 4 pieces.

After 5 years, much fighting and negotiating, the conflict parties signed the Accord Inclusif et Global and a transitional government was created, preparing elections in 2006. Some rebel groups, such as the FDLR (the group of the remaining Rwandan Hutu genocide culprits) and others like in northeast Ituri area of the Congo, continued to spark insecurity the the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. 2006 elections were won by interim incumbent Joseph Kabila, the other Kabila’s son, but conflicts continued as General Nkunda, a former rebel, sought the bush again and created CNDP rebel group. In 2009, his rebel group was integrated again as Kabila, Kagame, and Nkunda’s right hand Ntaganda (indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes) stroke a deal in the frame of the March 23 accord

Shortly after the Congo’s 2011 elections, won by Kabila but amidst widespread rigging accusations, a new rebel group entered the scene, called M23 according to the aforementioned agreement. For over a year now, they add up to some 30-50 non-state armed groups, rebels, militias, bandits, that maintain insecurity in the widest parts of eastern Congo. Many of them are new (Mayi Mayi Bede), others exists for one or two decades now (FDLR). Some of them work like a state within a state (M23), others are completely decentralised (most Raia Mutomboki militias).

The Congolese army is too poorly organised to maintain order among all these groups and commits atrocities on the sides of civilians such as other groups too. Despite its capacities among older officers, the lack of payment, food, and equipment make it one the most disorganised armies in the world. It mirrors the state as such: Public office is used for individual gains such as in the times of Mobutu. The state is not absent in most areas, it is over-present and used for private interests.

Since 1999, the UN blue helmets have come back to the country, gradually stepping up their presence from a few hundred observers to 17,000 normal military staff plus 3,000 intervention troops these days. Responsible to monitor the implementation of peace accords, protect civilians, and help rebuild the state, the mission called MONUC (since 2010 MONUSCO) has had a hard time. On one side, it could not live up to expectations, while on the other side expectations have been unrealistic all through its deployment. Late 2012, the M23 overran government soldiers of FARDC and conquered Goma – the east’s largest urban area – with UN troops watching idly.

In March 2013 the UN Security Council, the body responsible to decide over military operations of the UN, decided to add a 3,000 troops intervention brigade to neutralise all armed groups in the DRC. This is a very complex and challenging task, given that 3,000 plus equipment is militarily very little assets for such a thing to do. In addition, eastern Congo is plastered with hills and jungle panoply, has almost no extra-urban infrastructure, and all local militias know their fief rather well.

Therefore MONUSCO has started this task by setting up a security zone around aforementioned town of Goma, a feasible begin since the security zone officially includes a territory where no official rebel position is known these days. It sounds as they might at a later point enlarge this zone and regain territories bit by bit, but we do not know much about their strategy so far. What we know is that there has been rampantly inaccurate and confusing coverage of these events. While some news said the security zone would include M23 positions and MONUSCO would soon start war, others have accused MONUSCO to shelter FDLR rebels and cover up FARDC war crimes. While in the context of volatile and rumouresque Congo information landscape everything could be true, it turns out that often many announcements are wrong and only a part of the large mass of news turns out to be true a posteriori.

For now, the situations seems to be as follows. The security zone, accompanied by a deadline for arms bearers until 2 August 4pm, is clear of non state armed groups, while others maintain their position in more remote areas of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, and northern Katanga. The humanitarian situation is dire – hundreds of thousands of newly displaced persons have added to even more chronically displaced. The medical, nutritional, and educational situation is insufficient. In many places, violence makes the rule, torture, extortion, rape, and other forms prevail to the detriment of civilians. The conflict in the Congo is a politicised one. Although ethnic narratives (i.e. autochthony) , economic incentives (“conflict” minerals), external intervention, and other explanations are part of the wider puzzle, the connection of local, national, and regional power struggles is often at the centre of mayhem in the region.

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