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Five misconceptions about the Congo conflict

1. The conflict in the DRC is all about minerals.
Not quite. The war began in 1996, with three main causes: the collapse of the Zairian state after 32 years of misrule; the spillover from the Rwandan genocide with a million refugees (including perpetrators of genocide) on Congolese soil; and local conflicts over land, citizenship and power. There was a lot of money made from looting tin and gold stocks in the Kivus in 1996/7, and some multinationals (Lundin, AMF, De Beers) made deals with the rebels before they got to Kinshasa, but there is little indication that this was a main motivation for the war.

More substantial involvement in the minerals trade began with the coltan boom of 1999-2001. Now the minerals trade is the the largest money maker in the Kivusm, and many armed groups, including the Congolese army, heavily tax the minerals trade and make a fortune. But they also make money off charcoal (a $30 million dollar trade around Goma alone), fuel (the biggest import commodity) and other trade.

Also, there are many areas where there are rebel groups but few minerals – for example, the Lord’s Resistance Army, that massacred over 300 people in December, does not appear to be exploiting the mineral trade. Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP, possibly the strongest militia in the region until 2009, only controlled one mine, although they had interests in many trading companies in Goma for which they provided protection.

So yes, mining is a key element in the conflict and has served to prolong the fighting and motivate some of the actors. But the violence is a result of a many things and to reduce it to mining would be simplistic.

2. Coltan, a key ingredient for cell phones, is the main mineral traded in the Congo
Nope. Coltan does contain tantalum, which is a crucial ingredient for cell phones. Coltan exports peaked in 2000 due to a bubble in the market, but collapsed and little coltan was exported between 2002-2007. Tin is still king: In 2009, according to Congolese government figures, 520 tons of coltan were exported from the Kivus and around twenty times as much tin.

[Caveat: because a lot of coltan gets exported as tin (it’s twice as valuable, so its cheaper to export it as tin), we may not have very accurate figures. Also, recently coltan prices have been climbing up again after several big mines elsewhere in the world suspended operations.]

It’s also important to note that over 80% of the world’s tantalum comes from Australia, Brazil and Canada, according to the US Geological Survey.

3. The FDLR is composed of Interahamwe and ex-FAR who carried out the 1994 genocide
Misleading, although this is what the Rwandan government and even some diplomats like to say. The FDLR was formed in 2000, and many of its commanding officers used to be in the Forces Armees Rwandaises (FAR), Juvenal Habyarimana’s army that was defeated during the genocide. The former FDLR commander once told me that, several years ago, almost all officers over the rank of captain had been in the FAR. But that does not mean that they participated in the genocide – some units, such as the presidential guard, helped orchestrate the killings, while others did not take part.

As for the Interahamwe, who knows. What we do know is that a great many of the FDLR troops (perhaps over 50%) are under the age of 30, which would have made then around 14 at the time of the genocide – they could have participated, but most studies (Scott Strauss, for example), find that very few perpetrators were under the age of 14, while perhaps 20% were between 15-20 years old. That would mean that up to half of the FDLR are probably not genocidaires, although racist anti-Tutsi ideology is pretty alive within the movement.

4. The CNDP is a Tutsi militia
Sort of. The CNDP was (in theory they don’t exist anymore, although they maintain their command structure) led mostly by Tutsi officers and backed mostly by the Tutsi community. They only had around 1-5 non-Tutsi field commanders over the rank of Major. But a majority of footsoldiers were non-Tutsi, including a large number of Congolese Hutu peasants and members of the Hunde and Nande community, some of whom were recruited by force.

5. The UN mission has failed to protect civilians in conflict zones
That’s pretty accurate. But « protecting civilians in imminent danger, » which is their literal mandate, is easier said than done. MONUC will find out about a massacre days after it happened and fly hundreds of miles to « observe corpses, » which is what some Congolese think their mandate actually is. MONUC has too few soldiers, they are not embedded with their Congolese counterparts, and the country is too big.

The point is, if you wait until the danger is imminent, it’s probably too late to intervene. Even if you are close enough (which is rare), intervening means becoming party to the conflict, which the UN is reluctant to do. Evidence is the CNDP Kiwanja massacre, which happened under their noses in 2008, and the RCD Kisangani massacre in May 2002 – in both cases, MONUC was within earshot of the massacre.

A better protecting civilians is by deterring violence, not intervening when it’s too late. MONUC has had a spotty record at deterrence: they prevented the CNDP from taking Goma in 2006, killing up to 500 CNDP soldiers, but they allowed the CNDP to take Bukavu in 2004 and failed to get Kinshasa demilitarized to prevent to post-election violence in 2007.

(More to come soon).

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