The image didn’t shock the world. “He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day,” photographer Alice Seeley recorded in 1904, “so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too. And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalised both. And they presented N’sala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once-living body of his darling child.”
In the past month, tens of thousands of refugees have been fleeing attacks by the M23 insurgent group in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province. The insurgents are reported to have unleashed large-scale terror, including extrajudicial executions, rape and forcing victims to cook and consume human flesh. East African peacekeepers have now been deployed to end the violence—but it’s far from clear if they’ll succeed, and for how long.
A century ago, Congo’s great rubber plantations fuelled the savageries of colonial Belgium. Today, the DRC’s enormous riches—a third of the world’s cobalt, which powers everything from mobile phones to cars; giant reserves of columbo-tantalite for electronic circuit boards; lithium; tin; gold and diamonds—remain a curse.
The conflict in the DRC doesn’t get even a passing mention in Indian newspapers. As the country seeks to grow its industrial base and secure its supply chains, however, it is imperative for New Delhi to begin paying attention—or risk unhappy outcomes.
Foreign mining companies have long been known to be increasingly protecting their investments by shipping in mercenaries. Last year, outrage erupted after a video surfaced of mercenaries working for a Chinese mining company whipping local residents who had allegedly trespassed in search of copper. That ought to be a problem for the rest of the world—and not just because of concern for human rights.
Roads to bloodshed
Like so many wars across the world, the crisis in the DRC is fuelled by regional powers. Insurgent groups like M23 control informal trafficking chains that move mineral resources from the DRC into neighbouring countries like Uganda and Rwanda. In essence, insurgents act as proxy armies of their neighbours. Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice ordered Uganda to pay damages of $325 million to the DRC for waging a proxy war between 1998 and 2003, driven by the looting of gold, diamonds, and timber.
The DRC’s neighbours deny accusations of theft—but the data tells a different story. Forty per cent of Uganda’s exports now consist of gold, even though the country’s own central bank estimates just a tenth of over $1.7 billion it exports is mined in the country. The obvious implication is that it’s coming from the next-door DRC. Even though Rwanda isn’t a major producer of columbo-tantalite, it is the third-largest exporter.
The immediate trigger for the M23 campaign, expert Jason Stearns has suggested, was strategic. DRC-Uganda agreement to build roads running from Kasindi to Beni and Butembo, and another from Bunagana to Goma, to be built with protection from Uganda’s military, would integrate the DRC with its eastern neighbours. They would also allow for more regulation and taxation of illegal cross-border mineral traffic.
In Rwanda, Ugandan troop deployments were seen as a potential strategic threat. In a speech to Parliament in February, President Paul Kagame warned of retaliation: “We do what we must do, with or without the consent of others.”
Ethnicity and conflict
Foreign intervention isn’t the only reason, though, for warfare. Insurgent armies like M23, scholars Kasper Hoffman and Christoph Vogel note, have cashed in on a welter of unresolved ethnic conflicts, which have raged on since the colonial period. Regime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was deposed in 1996, had stoked these ethnic fires, stripping the Banyamulenge—Congolese of Rwandan extraction—of citizenship. Largely led by ethnic Tutsi, M23’s commanders fought alongside the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which overthrew the genocidal Hutu regime in Rwanda.
Large numbers of similar insurgencies dot the region, driven by complex ethnic conflicts. The Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Force (ADF)—which evolved from the Rwenzururu ethnic-nationalist movement of the Bakonzo of Uganda and the Nande in the DRC—has conducted large-scale massacres. For months, Ugandan forces have attacked the ADF inside the DRC—with no notable military success.
There are also multiple insurgencies active in the northeast of the DRC, and proxy wars are raging in the highlights of Fizi, adjoining Burundi.
Fighting with insurgents has also led other countries into fighting within the DRC. Earlier this year, Burundi troops and irregulars were reported to have crossed the Ruzusi river into Rwanda, where they allied with the Gumino and Twigwaneho against RED-Tabara insurgents. RED-Tabara, in turn, allied with another Burundi insurgent group, the Forces Nationales de Liberation, to defend itself.
Exactly how the M23 story will end is unclear—because the curtain was to have fallen on it a decade ago. In operations that ran from March to November 2013, the M23 was crushed by the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission and the Force Intervention Brigade, consisting of Tanzanian, Malawian, and South African troops. M23 leader John Bosco Ntaganda, known locally as “The Terminator,” was handed over to the International Criminal Court to face war crimes charges and the remnants of the group surrendered to Uganda.
The lesson from the rebirth of M23 is that new insurgencies will inevitably arise—unless the global community can put an effective security architecture in place.
Large parts of the world’s most valuable resources—from hydrocarbons to minerals—are to be found in countries mired in conflict. Leaving security to mercenaries opens the path to proxy wars and colonial-era savagery. Like other democratic countries with an economic stake in the region, though, India remained on the sidelines.
The United Nations’ traditional peacekeeping system just doesn’t have the resources and institutional framework to engage in long-term state-building operations. The price for that failure, the war in the DRC shows, might be higher than the world ought to be willing to pay.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)