The Democratic Republic of Congo – the business of war

A heady mix of rebels pursuing power, abundant resources and a lack of strategic solutions to address the underlying problems continues to fuel violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Conflict Background


By Kirthi Jayakumar

The Democratic Republic of Congo (henceforth, DR Congo) has been at war since the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Set right in the heart of Africa, the DR Congo is at the very centre of an armed conflict that has so-far claimed 6 million victims, with a burgeoning toll of sexual violence.

The war started with the influx of the Interahamwe, who left Rwanda under fear of prosecution for complicity in the Genocide. The mass incursion opened the floodgates for inter-rebel group violence, with war in the Eastern region quickly spiralling out of control. The conflict could have been settled, but but instead to governing authorities exploited the ensuing chaos to institutionalize corruption and money-making through the trade in rare minerals. Soon dubbed ‘conflict minerals’, the revenues generated fuelled the continuance of war and sexual violence. Corporations, high-ranking military officers, businessmen and governments effectively played a role in backing the rebellious groups, in order to prolong the state of war and make business easy. The DR Congo is a treasure trove of minerals, possessing an abundance of cobalt, coltan, copper, diamonds, gold, tin and tungsten.

Mining in the Congo is the biggest fuel for violence. Mining itself is carried out at the rudimentary level by local people. Their frugal capacities to mine and be self-sufficient in mining techniques facilitates the entry of external actors. Mining practices are taken over – often by supervising army generals who charge tariffs to local miners – and the mined ores are sold to middlemen, who then sell it to businesses and governments abroad.

On the other end of the spectrum of impunity lies governmental (mal)-practice. The government sells-off the mining rights in some of the country’s regions that are under enemy control. Once a price is agreed, a government-backed militia group takes over the region. The mining company moves in soon after more money is paid. If the rebel group in a particular region refuses to comply with a company’s request to take over their land for mining, a rival rebel group is paid to show brute force re-take the region. Violence conquers the entire area. Some more money exchanges hands, more metal is extracted and the whole cycle starts again.

Guns aplenty are available, whilst younger boys in awe of rebellion are always willing to turn fighters. Very rarely do they have the goal of power seeking – instead it is a burst of zeal to protect their village, or to wreak vengeance, or simply to wear the pants of power. But as much as every other non-fighting civilian, these minions are victims of the big game.

Sexual violence is collateral damage; incidental to the presence of violence and a continued state of war. Women and children are brutalized, left to die after being used, and spurned by their own families because of the ‘stigma’ that sexual violence leaves.

Rebel groups tend to be headed by generals, each controlling a region and waging a war – for control, for wealth, for power and for the Congo. The UN has had its largest force in the country – not to stop the war, but to broker a deal that will help shift attitudes and persuade warring factions towards stopping war. The UN and the government of the DR Congo want the rebellious myriads to come to the negotiating table, to compromise and to agree to end the war.

The fallacy lies, however, in the fact that a warlord making money isn’t necessarily going to bother brokering peace when war is his breadwinner. War is business in the DR Congo. War is policy in the DR Congo. War is reality in the DR Congo.

This irony is that though the DR Congo possesses a treasure trove of resource and mineral wealth, the country lives in a state of abject penury, despair, misery and exploitation. A heady mix of rebels pursuing power, abundant resources and a lack of strategic solutions to address the underlying problems continues to fuel violence in the DR Congo. We have a responsibility to protect. But instead, we’re too busy taking their resources for our Cell Phones and Airplanes while leaving them to die.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

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