The Origins of War in the DRC

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A central avenue in Goma. (Armin Rosen)

Back in Goma, an NGO employee described a situation that perfectly illustrated the relationship between government and citizen in such an incompetent and predatory state.

Years earlier, a foreign donor realized that one way to improve law and order in the DRC was by building prisons. Prisons mean that there are laws to be broken as well as consequences for breaking them; without them, criminal cases end in impunity or violence -- in more criminality. The new prisons were cleaner and more humane than what few facilities they replaced. But they sometimes deepened the problem they had set out to solve: local despots could use them to ransom or kidnap their opponents; guards would demand bribes from families delivering food to prisoners, since the state was incapable of feeding them. Worst of all, innocent people would rot in brand-new jails while war criminals like Bosco Ntaganda served as generals in the national army. Building more prisons had arguably eroded rule of law.

"Are you going to be a teacher or a warlord? You're going to be a warlord. Because it would be crazy to be a teacher."

There was a similar principle at play in Goma, where the municipal government had recently banned motorbike taxis at night, out of fears that M23 would use them as a covert means of attack. After dark, the streets are a ghostly husk of the vibrant, overstuffed city that inhabited them just hours earlier -- in the downtown of a city of one million people, foot traffic is almost non existent after dark, and the most common vehicles are armored trucks belonging to UN military police. But this isn't because drivers respect the dictates of the local authorities. They know that if they're spotted after dark, the underpaid and maybe even unpaid traffic cops, who are corrupt almost by necessity, will use the new rule as an excuse to shake them down. Something that seems to indicate the existence of the rule of law -- the force of the state, the legitimacy of its rules and of the officers who enforce them -- indicates its opposite.

In North Kivu, the citizenry's alienation is so total that every transaction serves as a grim reminder of the state's failures. At my hotel, at restaurants, with shopkeepers and women selling phone cards on the street, I paid in U.S. dollars. I never exchanged money -- such a transaction would produce an unwieldy and worthless stack of bills, and you might be laughed or glared at by the wait staff if you tried to pay for a $20 (18,000 francs, roughly) cote d'beouf with them.

The primacy of the dollar puzzled me. It is impossible to obtain dollars, which are backed by the most powerful government on earth, in exchange for francs, which are hardly backed by anything. Every dollar had to travel thousands of miles before it arrived in the DRC -- they didn't print them in Kisangani, after all. Even so, the American currency brought in by expats and foreign businessmen had simply re-circulated over the years, until it blotted out the Congolese franc, along with much of its practical value. A basic form of sovereignty -- the ability to mint money and affect nationwide economic policy -- had faded, and even the small act of purchasing a bottle of water had the effect of condemning the state to irrelevance.

The disintegration of the state's moral and legal authority plays itself out in ways that are deeply insidious and directly connected to the region's violence. One Goma-based humanitarian professional explained how something like ICC-indicted warlord Bosco Ntaganda's integration into the military might pervert everything else in the eastern DRC. "Ntaganda got a good deal. What incentive are you giving people here to be good, or to follow the law, or to not take up arms? None," he said. "Are you going to be a teacher or a warlord? You're going to be a warlord. Because it would be crazy to be a teacher."

The night I returned from Rubaya, I met young men who had made exactly that decision. Their names were Henri, Wolf and Chris, and I spoke with them in a discrete corner of a hotel courtyard in Goma. They were budding warlords from M23-occupied territory, leaders of fledgling Hutu militias that were fighting the mostly-Tutsi rebels. Chris was a thin and intense man who drew invisible maps on the table with his forefinger as he spoke. He had been a math teacher before he became a militant. The quiet and muscle-bound Wolf brought along a fancy notebook with the MONUSCO logo embossed on the cover; he had been studying to become a teacher as well. Henri was president of a group called the Movement for Popular Self-Defense; the other two belonged to a militia called the FDIPC, whose meaning I never learned. Between them, they claimed to command about 400 fighters, and they volunteered responsibility for various battlefield successes over the course of our conversation, including the killing of eight M23 the week before.

"For a long time, nobody understood our suffering," said Chris. "As a Hutu living in Rutshuru [M23's capital], no one can help us." Certainly not the state. "The government is unable to end armed groups," Chris said with no apparent irony. "Inside the government, there are people creating armed groups."

He took a conspiratorial view of his country's problems: "The Tutsis now have 11 [FARDC] generals. Nine are in faction, working together. There are 45 Tutsi colonels, who continue to create problems. Why do they do that? The Tutsis already have many things here. Other ethnic groups don't have the same advantages as them."

This is a bigoted train of thought, but it hints at a painful history: during the 1996 invasion, Rwanda and its proxies massacred over 100,000 Hutu refugees who had fled into DRC, a round of reprisal killings too systematic and too ferocious to be justified by Rwandan national security alone. Later, the CNDP, the forerunner of M23, had largely been integrated into the Congolese armed forces after the 2009 peace agreement -- Rwandan-supported insurrectionists hadn't been punished but rewarded with high-ranking positions in the military as the rest of the region suffered. Even before that, Rwandan meddling had led many in the DRC to think of the country's Tutsis as a kind of fifth column, sleeper agents for the ruthless and brilliant Paul Kagame, whose tiny country had a preternatural ability to wreak havoc in its much larger neighbor.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in DRC because of attitudes like these, suspicions that can quickly morph into violent paranoia and hate. The three junior warlords were convinced of an anti-Hutu conspiracy that went all the way to the White House, which was suspiciously willing to accommodate Kagame's every whim. Their sense of abandonment was absolute: "Hutu are not against Tutsi," said Chris. "We are ready to live with them. And Congolese society is not against Hutu. The problem is Kagame. Here in the DRC, we have approximately eight million dead, a genocide. Why does no one publish this? The Hutu arrived in the Congo during the [Rwandan] genocide. The international community gave them permission to enter. Why don't they do anything to help them now?" The world had instead sided with Kagame, Chris said, a man who, in his opinion, "hates, hates, hates Hutu. It's not even a question."

He believes the U.S., a friend to countries that had sown violence and chaos in DRC, had abandoned the Hutu as well. "When there was a report about the Congo, Susan Rice refused it," said Wolf, referring to the American UN ambassador's cautious public treatment of evidence that Rwanda, a U.S. ally, was aiding M23. "And when there's a woman raped in India, she says there's been a rape."

It was the absence of the state, and of an army capable of defeating M23, that had turned these young men into fighters. But they were animated by grievances that ran far deeper than state failure, and that hinted at cycles of victimization, dispossession, and bitterness that no government could be expected to break. But violence couldn't break these cycles either -- 400 bush soldiers were incapable of creating a region where all wounds were healed, and where rational politics, or a sense of democratic citizenship, could be possible.

Wolf, Chris, and Henri were M23's enemies. But it is this psychic vacuum, the hidden corollary to the eastern DRC's political and security void, which the rebel movement seeks to occupy and exploit. I met scores of people in the DRC, and members of M23 provided some of the most cogent and comprehensive interpretations of the country's problems. The people with perhaps the clearest view of their nation's tragedy were also violent hypocrites: ethnic militants who talk about national unity; armed thugs miming platitudes about democracy and human rights, projections of another country's foreign policy -- Rwanda's -- that insist on their Congolese character. They don't embody the schisms that drive the conflict forward so much as wield them like a blunt instrument, as if insisting on the ugliness of Central Africa's ethnic and historical divisions, and the vanishingly tiny space for resolving them nonviolently.

M23 represents the lack of a viable alternative to the current disorder, and the seemingly chronic perversion of the entire region's civic life. This, like the predation and constant bungling of the Congolese state, is a critical ingredient in the DRC's logic of conflict.


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MONUSCO personnel ride through Rutshuru on April 24, 2013. This picture was taken outside of the local government complex, where M23's senior leadership was meeting at the time. (Armin Rosen)

M23 traces its origins to the CNDP, the earlier Rwandan-supported group that was integrated into the FARDC under a treaty signed on March 23, 2009. After the truce, the Congolese government was mindful of the potentially violent consequences of exerting any sort of real command over the ex-rebels, who were allowed to continue their mafia-like reign over areas they controlled before the peace treaty. In early 2012, there were rumblings that this arrangement was about to change, and even hints that the Congolese government intended to turn Bosco Ntaganda, the CNDP leader who became an army general under the 2009 treaty, over to the ICC. Some of the ex-CNDP, and probably some of their Rwandan backers, decided that the 2009 treaty had worn out its usefulness. The rebellion began with mass defections in March of 2012, and still hasn't ended.

"The Congolese state has outsourced its monopoly on violence to the UN."

In November of 2012, M23 marched on Goma, violating an unspoken international red line. Well-trained and heavily armed Rwandan commandos reportedly joined them. The FARDC was overmatched and fled, and in the absence of the national military, the UN made only tacit attempts at stopping the onslaught. This was widely criticized, but what looked like failure might actually have saved large sections of the city: M23 just waltzed into Goma without the costliness and destruction of an urban street battle, sued for peace, and retreated 11 days later after a round of frantic international diplomacy -- but with their negotiating position enhanced.

MONUSCO actually did engage M23 with attack helicopter gunships early in the crisis -- but that was before the FARDC emptied out of Goma as the rebels advanced, putting the peacekeeping mission in an impossible situation. "[The FARDC] withdrew from the front lines late last year, as M23 advanced on Goma," says Kieran Dwyer, a spokesperson for the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. "There was then a decision point of how far do we go unilaterally in using force against M23. As they advanced further, do we fight in the streets of a city with hundreds of thousands of civilians? There was an ultimate call that we would have put civilians at more risk if we had allowed the fight to be taken inside of Goma than if we had resisted the advance." MONUSCO evacuated civilians at risk of being targeted by M23 and continued to patrol the city even as it was under the militant group's control. This was arguably in keeping with the mission's purpose: after all, the main objective of the peacekeeping force is to protects civilians, and it isn't really oriented towards traditional -- not to mention politically-sensitive -- war-fighting activities.

Yet in taking Goma, M23 and its Rwandan backers had proven their point, without the messiness of a long occupation: They were capable of seizing Goma if they wanted to, and the Congolese state and the international community were unwilling to stop them. The red line was no red line at all.

M23's return to Goma is unlikely, but it's a possibility that both the UN and the FARDC are obviously taking seriously. The Goma airport is ringed with UN bases. Armored personnel carriers full of Uruguayans and UN-labeled Egyptian army jeeps patrol its streets, and the feeling of a warzone begins well south of M23 territory.

The last government checkpoint appeared just as the city gave way to fields of volcanic stone, a collection of plastic chairs where bored policeman hissed perfunctory questions at any driver with the gall to exit their domain. It was the first of three checkpoints before entering M23 country. The second was manned by the UN mission, called MONUSCO, which made an overwhelming display of force: six emplaced tanks, gun-toting soldiers, pickup trucks with machine guns in back. The Indian battalions sport tough-sounding names like the "Deccan Devils," but at least two people closely involved in the UN's Goma operations told me that the Indian army's main objective in the DRC was to avoid losing a single additional soldier. For one checkpoint, at least, MONUSCO seemed like a formidable army, the type of modern force that no one would want to gamble on having to shoot through (setting aside the questionable applicability of battle tanks to a guerrilla war in a volcanic forest).

About a half-kilometer up the road were soldiers in fresh jungle camo, with shiny new machine guns that made a mockery of the wooden rifles carried by the FARDC, and high-end walkie-talkies sticking out of their pockets. There is no reason for an outsider to fear them: M23 has a "humanitarian coordinator" named Dr. Alexi, an ex-UN physician who makes sure that the group respects NGO activities and adheres to international law. This neatly encapsulates M23, a group that terrorizes civilians and recruits children, but still understands the public relations benefit of appearing to care about humanitarianism. At the checkpoint, and at dozens of subsequent checkpoints, our car, which had large signs reading "PRESSE" taped to each side, was waved through.

By the best estimates, M23 is down to its last 1500 fighters, and we might have passed the bulk of them during the drive to Rutshuru. There were M23 on the back of pickup trucks, young teens toting jet-black rifles that looked like they had barely been fired. There were M23 in matching green rain slickers standing over bends in the road -- even soldiers who looked like they had barely entered their teens wore clean, well-fitting uniforms. I saw M23 harassing commercial trucks; credible word had it that the rebel movement's grunts hadn't been paid in weeks.

We also passed hundreds of MONUSCO troops even after we had crossed into M23 country. In one town, our jeep cowered by the side of the road while ten high-clearance trucks passed, with blue-helmets crowded into their hoppers and Indian tanks following close behind. M23 and MONUSCO know that they have nothing to gain from a shooting war; in lieu of open conflict, they stare at each other with looks of undisguised violence and contempt. I was sure that an especially angry-looking Indian tank commander would exchange words with one basilisk-eyed militant and was relieved when he drove off in silence.

Two armies occupy M23 territory, and they are content with leaving the other alone, for now. It turns out M23 and their Rwandan supporters actually had violated a red line in seizing Goma -- in early 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of the 3,000-troop "intervention brigade," consisting of special forces from South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi. In a break with standard peacekeeping practice, the brigade's force composition and rules of engagement will allow them to go on the offensive in order to protect civilians. The UN is dabbling in modern counterinsurgency methods for the first time in its history.

The force will be deployed over the course of the summer, and by late June, 2,000 soldiers were already in DRC. In a best-case scenario, the force will both protect Congolese and recuperate some of the credibility that MONUSCO lost during a difficult year. Sometime in 2012, members of an armed group called Mai Mai Cheka summarily executed the local chiefs in a town called Pinga, and then paraded their heads in front of the nearest MONUSCO base. If the brigade succeeds, MONUSCO -- and, by extension, the UN -- can transcend these earlier issues, and the international community's commitment to protecting Congolese civilians will be harder to question. (The U.S. has a stake here: America provides 27 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, including $519 million for MONUSCO over the last fiscal year).

But in the DRC, even the definition of "success" is an open question -- especially given the recent history of foreign interventions in the country's east. In 1996, Paul Kagame and Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni's campaign against Mobutu was thought of by some as the continuation of the remarkable events in South Africa just a couple years before -- part of a larger movement to transform a troubled continent, and reverse a legacy of conflict and misrule. Mobutu belonged to a class of post-colonial leader that needed to be expunged: a vapid kleptocrat who spewed old-line pan-African nonsense; an illegitimate president-for-life who would even tolerate Rwanda's genocidaires if it would increase his chances of retaining power. In its violent aftermath, which included brutal reprisal killings against Hutu refugees (recounted in in Howard French's A Continent for the Taking), and a war between Uganda and Rwanda, the campaign ended up mocking whatever higher ideals it might once have stood for. The DRC wound up with the Kabila clan, a dictatorship just as sclerotic as that of the leopardskin enthusiast who had ruled Congo -- or Zaire, as he had renamed it -- since 1965. And it wound up with 15 more years of war.

The intervention brigade will be much smaller than the '96 invasion force, and its goal will be to strengthen, rather than overthrow, the sitting government. And it isn't the result of adventurism, but of a 20-year policy failure that the international community is finally confronting. Yet within the vacuum of the eastern DRC, even the greatest of charities -- and the defeat of M23 qualifies -- could have worrying consequences. Will the brigade opt for a light footprint, and wage targeted, special operations-style strikes on militia leaders? Will it clear territory for the FARDC, which has a human rights record as troubling as some of the armed groups the brigade is empowered to fight? Olivier Hamuli, an FARDC Lieutenant Colonel and army spokesperson, told me that the brigade was being deployed for his military's benefit: "It is coming to support the FARDC. They will have good equipment, such as drones along the border, which will be necessary to control the armed groups." In Hamuli's mind, the brigade is there to help them fight the Rwandans.

"American soldiers are well-paid and well-equipped," Hamuli said, after pointedly asking me to name a military that would remain as disciplined as the FARDC under the difficult circumstances that it faced. "They have everything. But they still tortured and raped in Iraq," he said. Given the FARDC's dismissive attitude towards the army's crippling command and control issues, it isn't surprising that some analysts doubt whether a UN military victory over M23 will change much of anything. "No one's saying the offensive part of it won't work," says one Goma-based expert. "It will work. These are 14-year-olds with AK 47s. Of course they're going to get flattened by South Africans with tanks and helicopters...the problem is that the brigade is not going to stay. They're going to move on to the next armed group."

From Kinshasa's perspective, the brigade comes with few strings attached, and little added pressure on security sector or governance reform. Some experts I spoke with told me the UN hasn't really thought about what will fill the vacuum left behind by the armed groups it defeats.  Dwyer says that the intervention brigade should be viewed in terms of parallel developments in the political sphere, like the 11-country peace initiative, Mary Robinson's appointment as special envoy, and increased international pressure on Kinshasa on security sector reform and other matters. "The idea is that if the political framework is effective," he said, "any armed groups that have any legitimate concerns will have an avenue to be addressed at the regional and local level."

But even then, the brigade signals the further erosion of the state: "The Congolese state has outsourced its monopoly on violence to the UN," said one Goma-based analyst.

Like Rubaya, Rutshuru would prove that this wasn't really the state's to outsource in the first place.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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