Conflict, both civil and interstate has been a near constant in the Democratic Republic of Congo, since the end of the Cold War. Although a variety of factors have shaped these conflicts, the most notable are the weakness of state institutions, the impacts of other conflicts in the region, and the economic opportunities provided by vast reserves of natural resources, seized and exploited by a variety of actors both domestic and international. Together, these factors have allowed for decades of continued instability, and are in large part the reason the DRC has one of the worst human right records in the world.
As Mobutu consolidated power following the civil conflicts which came almost immediately after independence from Belgium, he set um systems of patrimonialism which continued to deteriorate state structures until his fall from power in the 1990s. Stability under Mobutu came as a result of the West’s Cold War interest in the region, and its substantial aid to Zaire. With the support of the West, both monetary and otherwise, Mobutu was able to keep regional elites satisfied, which allowed for peace and stability. As the West lost interest at the end of the Cold War, Mobutu’s systems of patrimonialism fell apart, leaving behind the weak government institutions those very systems had been deteriorating for decades. This set the stage for conflict in Zaire, as the Rwandan conflict spilled over its borders and into neighboring countries.
In taking thousands of Hutu refugees from the Rwandan conflict, Zaire inadvertently allowed space for the reconsolidation of ousted Hutu forces, which then organized assaults across the border on the newly installed government and its forces. In response, President Kagame supported by proxy a rebellion against Mobutu (who had allowed for the Hutu reconsolidation in Zaire), which installed Laurent Kabila in power. With a more friendly government in place, the Rwandan Defense Force began to carry out raids on the refugee camps, killing tens of thousands of civilians. When Kabila proved to be less receptive to Rwandan interests than initially thought, a second civil conflict broke out, ultimately leading to Kabila’s assassination. His son, Joseph Kabila assumed power in 2001, and remains in power today, through democratic elections which have been criticized as neither free nor fair.
Today, conflict in the DRC stems from the factionalism created by years of conflict and the implosion of Mobutu’s system of patrimonialism, as well as by the weakness of state in situations, including lack of monopoly over legitimate violence, and lack of territorial control. Actors both domestic and international retain extractive economic interests in specific areas, and exercise control over those areas in order to exploit natural resource reserves. Much of this criminal economic activity and privatization of public land/goods stems from the implosion of Mobutu’s patrimonial system, which led regional leaders (i.e. warlords, businessmen) to fend for themselves economically. Still other interests stemmed from foreign actors in wartime, notably Rwanda, which became entrenched in extractive economic practices during its conflict with Zaire in the 1990s.
Unless the DRC can rebuild its state institutions and structures in such a way that it can exercise legitimate control over its entire territory, it is likely that this cycle of conflict will continue. It is likely that factional leaders and foreign powers will continue to exert power over specific regions of the DRC, preventing law and order, greatly reducing the efficacy of foreign aid, and allowing for continued human rights violations and civil conflict.
Africa in World Politics – Chapters 7&12 – John Harbeson and Donald Rothchild
“The Privatisation and Criminalisation of Public Space in the Geopolitics of the Great Lakes Region” – Filip Reyntjens
“Dangerous tales: Dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences” – Séverine Autesserre