A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: the Democratic Republic of Congo

Democratic Republic of Congo (16,370) (FY 2015 7,876)

Click here to watch a 10-minute Overview of the Conflict in the DRC from the Council on Foreign Relations, though I take issue with some of the photos used, the lack of Congolese speaking on the DRC and that the video does not accurately portray Joseph Kabila, the video succinctly gives the history of the nation. The World’s 2nd longest running civil war occupies much of the Eastern DRC. The Democratic Republic of Congo–roughly the size of Western Europe– was colonized by Belgium and suffered terribly under occupation. The DRC is landlocked and bordered by jungle (the same area near Goma that Jane Goodall did her research and where the Jane Goodall Institute is today). In colonial times that meant there were few routes of passage in and out and so unchecked terror dominated the people. Many were enslaved and worked to death in the ivory trade or rubber plantations, later in mineral mines, or out rightly murdered. To this day the DRC holds some of the most profitable natural resources (including coltan used in mobile phones, diamonds, gold, copper and so on) which has led armed groups to compete for the wealth of the land. In 1960 the DRC was granted independence from Belgium and elected Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister. Nearly immediately the country was consumed with intense political fighting aligned along ethnic lines. As was common in the colonial era, Belgium claimed land without regard for the people living there and their warring factions. Through the fighting and aided by the United States Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu (later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko) over threw Kasavubu and Lamumba installing himself as dictator of the DRC (at this time it was called the Congo then the Congo Free State then Zaire later changed to the DRC). The U.S. intervention here attempted to remove anyone sympathetic to communism, which Lamumba may have been. Mobutu’s 32-year reign deteriorated into a kleptocracy and was tainted with corruption, political repression and violence. Mobutu continued pushing foreign nationals out of DRC until the 1994 Rwandan Genocide when Hutus and Tutsis began pouring into the DRC. This flux in population set off ethnic tension and Motubu began an ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Tutsi minority and the Banyararyanda at large. In this process he armed rebel groups in addition to the use of the military. The violence spiraled out of control and in 1997 he was overthrown by General Laurent Kabila. Kabila received support from nations in the regions due to Motubu’s nationalist policies. He was criticized for being too close to foreign governments as ethnic tensions in the DRC (called Zaire at this time) came to a boil. In a move of self-preservation he decreed that all foreign nationals should leave the DRC and the government would take over their businesses. Rwandan and Ugandan forces were outraged by his sharp turn against them and invaded in August 1998. Additionally internal groups began to rebel against Kabila backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila then called on Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia for support effectively destabilizing the region and creating essentially a 3-way deadlock between coalitions of national and rebel armies. In 1999 a tentative peace agreement and cease-fire was signed, all foreign troops left the DRC and a UN Peacekeeping operation deployed into the DRC. The Peace Keeping Operation could not effectively protect civilians and was harshly criticized for it’s humanitarian failures. Despite the UN failures and tensions boiling just below the surface, this agreement held a tentative, relative peace until 2001 when Laurent Kabila was assassinated. His son Joseph Kabila was instated as president. Joseph Kabila survived the instatement of a new constitution and won a contested election in 2006 to become a legitimate president. Over the course of the last decade and a half various peace agreements have been signed, but none actually brought peace to the DRC. Armed groups in the DRC include the national army of the DRC, M23, Allied Democratic Forces, Mai Mai Militias, Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance, the Lord’s Resistance Army among others. Rebel groups continue to occupy Eastern Congo and Kabila sought revenge against ethnic and political groups perceived to have been involved in the assassination of his father. Corruption and violence have prevailed during his presidency. Rebel groups and the military have been criticized for using child soldiers, stealing children and trafficking them, dealing in arms and drugs, pillaging and raping entire villages, and other violations of international law. The UN at one point called the DRC the “rape capital of the world.” Please also note that 53% of Congolese refugees are children.  Some of Joseph Kabila’s closest advisors had to step down when the UN discovered there was evidence they profited from the war and had secret deals with Zimbabwe, though Kabila was never directly implicated. Kabila finished his 2nd term (the constitution bars a 3rd term) in November of 2016, but has yet to step down citing the DRC does not have enough money to fund an election. The government cites the need to register some 30 million voters throughout the country with poor infrastructure ravaged by war. He estimates it will cost 1.8 billion that the DRC simply cannot mobilize. Many critics see this explanation as a way to remain in power without violating the constitution. Eastern DRC remains unstable with ethnic-based violence and self-serving armed groups pillaging the wealth of the nation.

The UNHCR’s page on the DRC

A BBC Profile on Joseph Kabila

A senior from the Honors College at Eastern Michigan University wrote an interesting  thesis on the Conflict in DRC

The World’s Worst War by Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times Sunday Review (Decemeber 2012)

BBC Country Profile

UNHCR Regional Response on the DRC interesting data in this one.


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