Amidst the whirlwind of world affairs making headlines at the 77th UN General Assembly (GA) last September, one significant diplomatic event took place in a slightly less mediatized setting. In the margins of the GA, Felix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, met in a Manhattan skyscraper as the result of discrete diplomatic efforts that France deployed in
Amidst the whirlwind of world affairs making headlines at the 77th UN General Assembly (GA) last September, one significant diplomatic event took place in a slightly less mediatized setting. In the margins of the GA, Felix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, met in a Manhattan skyscraper as the result of discrete diplomatic efforts that France deployed in Kigali and Kinshasa. During the meeting, communicated to the press at the last minute, a tanned Emmanuel Macron posed between the two African leaders, seemingly anticipating a peaceful resolution to the meandering conflict that has been tearing up Ituri and South and North Kivu (the three eastern DRC provinces) for over 30 years. The summer of 2022 witnessed a resurgence of violence in eastern DRC by the M23, a Hutu rebel group, one of the most active and murderous in the Eastern Congo. A new element of this evolution was that popular protests in eastern Congo demanded that the authorities of Kinshasa sever all diplomatic ties with Kigali. Motivating this resentment against Rwanda was a UN report published in August, which confirmed the Rwandan supply of weapons and funding to M23. The allegations were firmly refuted by President Kagame. A few days after the UNGA, the East African Community (EAC), a sub-regional group (including Burundi, DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda), sent troops to Bunagana, in the North Kivu province. The troops entered the region, which had been under M23 siege for over a hundred days, from Uganda. Later in November, a ceasefire was brokered by the heads of the states which are most impacted by the conflict. They convened in Luanda, Angola. Paul Kagame was not present, only his foreign minister was deployed. However, as was anticipated, the ceasefire lasted little more than two days, with the hostilities resuming on November 25th. Mass atrocities were again reported in villages North of Goma, the main city of North Kivu, in early December. This article explores how this failure stems from fundamental flaws in conflict resolution attempts, which are linked to the lack of acknowledgement of the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict. The EAC’s strategy will hence remain ineffective as long as it fails to address the provinces’ crippling economy of chaos and integration problems.
I. The Central African giant with feet of clay
It is all too well known that the eastern DRC region finds itself tangled in a web of predatory mining operations and great power interests. The Congolese soil contains an estimated 24 trillion dollars of untapped mineral resources. Porous borders, weak governance, and an intricate ethnic history conjugate to yield spirals of violence. This quagmire is profitable for everyone but the local population and the DRC government. At least one-fifth of the mineral revenues were lost to corruption between 2013 and 2015, and nearly all of the DRC’s gold is smuggled outside of the country with no tax revenue for the government.
As a result, since the late 1990’s, over a hundred militias commit crimes against humanity, enrolling child soldiers, abduction, rape, and massacre to intimidate the local populations, incentivizing them to either re-locate (at least 140,000 have been displaced since July 2022) or be subjugated. Within the three regions, there are at least 3,276 mines, where 440,000 of people work often under armed supervision. The armed militias have constituted geopolitical assets that allow Rwanda and Uganda to tap into Congolese riches with impunity. From the 1980s until the late 1990s, the mining sector in the DRC was on the brink of collapse. The revival of global demand for minerals in the 2000s, spurred by China’s massive industrial growth, ushered in a new era for mining governance in the DRC, with new actors and fierce competition in the mining sector. In the early 2000s, the demand for coltan increased tenfold.
Soaring global demand for the riches of eastern Congo has fueled illegal activities, but has also attracted great powers’ attention. The relative power of international actors in the region has strongly evolved since the DRC gained independence. Having recently returned stolen artifacts, and recognized its role in Patrice Lumumba’s assassination (first Prime Minister after independence), Belgium no longer holds power in the region as it did after the end of the colonial era. Today, it retains some industries in the east and south (Forrest Group, Trademet and Traxys) but has long been surpassed by China. The DRC is a lynchpin of China’s development strategy in Africa and among the first recipients of major “infrastructure for minerals” deals. The US on the other hand is lagging behind in asserting its influence in the mining sector of the DRC; 70% of the DRC’s mineral portfolio is under Chinese control (up to 80% for cobalt), and is followed by a strong Canadian presence.
Furthermore, the global frenzy for resources aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine will not favor a cooling down in the region. In the face of resource shortages and inflation, administrations around the world have been re-evaluating the centrality of moral assessments concerning human rights. Due-diligence, already nearly nonexistent, might hence be further eclipsed by economic concerns. Moreover, the global climate transition is likely to increase demand for cobalt, the essential mineral composing electrical batteries, by as much as fourfold by 2030. The DRC produced 74% of the global cobalt supply in 2021. Global diamond demand might also skyrocket as Russia feels the full effect of sanctions. This will likely add pressure on the region, as global demand spikes in raw material tend to boost illegal mining activity and corruption in the region. This effect prevents the state from recovering a semblance of governance.
II. Eastern DRC: a regime-change incubator
Since the genesis of the modern DRC, the Eastern provinces have been a hotbed of instability for the landlocked, and largest, country of sub-Saharan Africa. After Belgium officially withdrew (while maintaining high stakes in the Katanga region), ethnic tensions arose in North Kivu as a spillover of Rwanda’s Kanyarwanda war between 1963 and 1965. Later, the two Congo wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2002), involving nine African countries, were also directly sparked by tensions in the eastern region. The current Congolese president has arrived to power as the result of an agreement with the direct heir of the regime change of 1996, Joseph Kabila. His father, Laurent Désiré Kabila, lead the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL) overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. The movement originated from South Kivu and went down the Congo river, owing its success to support from Rwanda and Uganda. The ADFL’s sweep through the massive Congolese landmass was swift and took only a few months, resulting in the bloodless capture of Kinshasa in the summer of 1997. The disconcerting ease with which Mobutu was overthrown by insurgents originating from the distant Great Lake region has bred an enduring paranoia within Congolese governing circles. Two years later, the Second Congo War, against Kabila, was also sponsored by Rwanda and Uganda. To Kinshasans, Kabila sounded eastern, with his accent and administration employing many Tutsis and Banyamulenge. The President tried to remedy this which . This tension points to a constant throughout modern Congolese history: a crippling lack of national unity. This is the logical result of a modern Congo that was shaped by external actors’ fluctuating foreign policies instead of organic historical evolution into statehood, starting with Leopold II in 1885, then Belgium, and finally the bipolar US-Soviet confrontation. The DRC has relied on outside influence to survive since its post-independence hangover. In the early 1960’s, the UN and the US firmly countered Belgian-sponsored attempts at the secession of Katanga. The Mobutu regime was a kleptocracy kept alive through US support, IMF funding, and French-sponsored mercenaries. Moreover, the DRC encompasses 250 different ethnicities and over 750 dialects. Without the support of external powers, the DRC we know today would have certainly imploded in the 1960s. Territorial sovereignty was guaranteed through international law and not internally developed state capacity.
While international attention to the conflicts fluctuates, the territorial integrity of the DRC is constantly in peril, while the tiny and more homogenous Rwanda has less difficulty keeping itself together, although it is less well-endowed with resources. More so than in the DRC, the ethnic tensions arose because of administrative distinctions enacted by Belgian colonial occupation, which was acknowledged by the Belgian leadership in 1999. Land distribution privileged certain ethnicities over others (such as the Hutus over the Tutsis) in a small agrarian and landlocked country. Notwithstanding, Rwanda is now pictured in western media as the Singapore of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by a successful transition into peace and reconciliation after the 1994 genocide, a steady economy, and a clean and stable capital. Kigali counts among the safest cities in the world, which could not come into starker contrast with Kinshasa’s high levels of human trafficking and top spot on the global organized crime index for Africa. The gap is also palatable through the difference in median age and life expectancy rate between the two countries. The 1999 Lusaka agreement failed to include all the belligerents, and following the 2013 Addis Ababa framework, some former militiamen have been reintegrated into the FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo). Accountability and justice are hence not as structurally integrated in the DRC as in post-genocide Rwanda.
The countries of the Great Lakes share an intricate political history, abundant natural resources, and an ethnic overlap. The result is an enduring habit of interfering in one another’s domestic affairs. Moreover, to export its resources the DRC relies on the sea access of Mombasa (Kenya) or Dar El Salaam (Tanzania), passing through Burundi, Uganda, or Rwanda, all of which use taxes to exploit this Congolese strategic dependence on the east African corridors. On top of this, rebels flee to neighboring hilly regions to run their operations, representing massive sources of political instability for all the countries. These structural elements impede serene cooperation in the EAC.
III. Cold feet for classical interventionism
Why then are great powers not investing in a collective and efficient security apparatus and governance in such a key region for the global economy? Great power competition for resources and past difficult incursions hinge on effective cooperation on a security apparatus. Not a single great power has a monopoly of interest, like France used to have in Mali or the US in Iraq. Today, the only likely candidate would be China. However, it retains a pragmatic approach to peacekeeping and has never sought a hegemonic military presence. Cynically, the chaos stays bearable for China as long as it maintains its economic advantage. The US has been taking a renewed interest in the situation since 2019, following the rise of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and their plead of allegiance to the Islamic State. However, waning US implication abroad, since its withdrawal from Afghanistan marked a turn in its war on terror, and notable foreign policy difficulties in other African countries (Somalia, Mali, Libya) make the US less likely to achieve political momentum for a proactive engagement in the region. Furthermore, a typical regime change operation would not resolve the situation, since there is no effective governance or control orchestrated from Kinshasa. Finally, the hilly landscape, isolated geography and tropical climate of the Great Lakes region prolongs any conflict and makes the proliferating militias hard to dislodge. Official territorial control by Kinshasa (separated from Goma, the capital of North Kivu, by 2,740.44 km of decrepit routes through the rainforest) is hence extremely difficult, let alone by the relatively tiny UN contingent. Even as one of the biggest UN missions, the MONUSCO is a teardrop in the ocean, as the three provinces together cover over 190,211 km2 and the MONUSCO effort consists of a mere 14,500 troops (who are supposed to cover the entire country and have a weak mandate). Therefore, a nasty status quo attitude has settled around the great powers’ approach to a region they still perceive as imbued with a “heart of darkness” aura.
This summer, US attention has been directed towards the continent only because Russia sent Sergei Lavrov to many African capitals. Sub-Saharan African countries are still perceived as a passive diplomatic asset in UN fora. Moreover, the diplomatic scramble is nurtured by a greed for alternative energy sources in the post-Russian invasion era, with Saudi Arabia having just stabbed its American ally in the back. Diplomatic turf wars will not reduce the pressure on the region’s underlying geopolitical fragilities.
Regarding France’s role, its diplomatic push is part of its current strategy to revive its fading relevance in Africa. Given that new actors have overshadowed the French, France’s technique of regionalising security and investing in African institutional channels is likely to bear little fruit. First, because regional integration in Africa is extremely weak. Second, because France has historically been inconsistent in taking African organisations seriously in conflict resolution, for example when France overstepped the African Union by intervened directly in the Libyan crisis or when it intervened bilaterally in Mali in 2013. Meanwhile, Russia is increasingly seeking allies in major diplomatic venues,. Russia is recycling the Soviet era argument of anti-colonization to seduce the Congolese elites, which appears to work, since the defense minister Gilbert Kabanda visited Moscow last August, and the Congolese Air Force has purchased Russian helicopters last October. Suspicions have been raised in the West that Russia could be emulating the Wagner model in the DRC, as they do in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, and Mali. However, Russia has more active and dire fronts to fight on now, and might gradually disengage in distant and complex central Africa.
For now, direct interstate confrontation in the region is unlikely, as Kinshasa does not have the political, military, and economic means to confront its neighbors directly. Disputes will likely continue to crystallize around occasional clashes between DRC and Rwandan agents at the border, while attacks directed against civilians will likely continue to proliferate. The broadcasted call to the population to mobilize against M23 early November translates the helplessness of the Congolese executive. Indeed, the approaching electoral deadline of 2023 incentivizes Tshisekedi to address the issue more strongly, as evidenced by his declaration of martial law last March and propping up of regional intervention. However, pointing fingers at Rwanda is an easy rhetorical way to appear to be proactive about the eastern ills, without mobilizing resources to an underfunded national army.
Against this backdrop, Tshisekedi was prey to a coup attempt last February, during his presidency of the African Union in Addis Ababa. His vulnerability amplifies the instability in the eastern part of the country. As a solution, the DRC hastily joined the EAC in April this year but firmly opposed Rwanda’s participation in the EAC peacekeeping operation. However, the problem remains unaddressed if the EAC does not resolve the Rwanda/DRC/Uganda diplomatic feud. The alliance hence risks providing nothing but optical multilateralism. The power imbalance and asymmetry of needs in the EAC, between reduces the coherence of the regional group as a political project, and the solidity and solidarity of the bloc in case of external shocks. Importantly, the very leaders who partook in the Second Congo war against Kabila are still in power and members of the EAC, hindering the appeasement of neighborly relationships. Besides, UN Blue helmets, EAC, and Chinese peacekeepers all have a Christmas tree mandate and cannot solve the rooted geopolitical causes of the conflict on their own. In conclusion, the current design of the EAC fails to address the long-term geopolitical challenges in the region by fueling the resilience of undemocratic regimes. The Security Council is not addressing the tensions, still no sanctions have stopped the DRC’s neighbors from supporting the M23. Such lack of international community strategic action is reminiscent of its standby role during the Rwandan genocide. Therefore, as we write, the economy of disaster and suffering remains all too profitable, to regional as well as international actors.
Romane Dideberg is a Master's student at Sciences Po Paris and at the London School of Economics, with a keen interest in International Relations, International Political Economy, and African Studies. She is a member of the Nicholas Skykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis.
 ??ENACT; Institute for Security Studies; INTERPOL ; Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime