By Simon Mwebaze

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been a hub for conflict for the last decade. The conflict has mostly been internal but has far-reaching consequences in the East African region. Most of the conflict has resulted from several militia groups fighting for a share of the mineral-rich regions of the country including North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituru, and Tanganyika.

The first war started in the wake of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Due to the conflict in Rwanda, the Hutu killed 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu. As a result, over 2 million Hutu crossed the Congo border and sought refuge settling in camps in North Kivu and South Kivu.

 But the conflict did not end there. Why?

Some Hutu extremists crossed into Zaire leading to the Tutsi organizing themselves into militia groups. After winning the battle in Rwanda, the Rwanda People’s Front (RPF) followed suit to eliminate the extremists in Zaire. In collaboration with the then president Laurent Kabila and other African country forces from Uganda, Angola, and Burundi, they were able to win the war in 1997. 

But not so long after, relations between Rwanda and Congo started souring. As a result, Laurent Kabila ordered foreign forces out of the DRC which allowed the Hutu armed groups to regroup.

In 1998, Rwanda invaded DRC with the support of Uganda and Burundi who were former allies of Kabila. At the same time, DRC had Namibia and Zimbabwe on their side. During the period of this conflict, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and Joseph Kabila took over. The war ended in 2002 and had recorded about 3 million deaths by 2004.

 Not too long after, a new rebel group took center stage, M23, in the early 2000s. This started a new bout of conflict until 2013. The conflict disturbed relations between Kinshasa and Kigali because the DRC accused Rwanda of supporting the rebels.

Despite taking a hiatus in 2013, M23 returned in 2022 and took control of North Kivu. Several players in the international community including the EU, AU, and US agreed with Kinshasa that Kigali was supporting the rebels. On the other hand, countries including Uganda and Rwanda accused DRC of supporting Hutu extremist militia operating in the region.

 The most recent effort to curb M23 and other rebel groups like the ADF included a joint force from East African countries. While the DRC welcomed the effort, it still did not want the inclusion of Rwanda in the task force. The most recent conflict is responsible for the displacement of 6.9 million people with 80 percent of the displaced originating in North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika. This is one of the largest humanitarian and displacement crises in the world.

 The conflict with seemingly no end in sight has had implications on the region.

It has changed the balance of foreign power in the region. The US was the major power in the DRC holding most rights to minerals including cobalt, copper, and zinc. Due to the conflict, China has taken advantage of the situation and has overtaken the US. The Chinese were able to secure several mineral deals with Joseph Kabila.

The displacement situation has led to more immigrants across the region from countries like Rwanda and Uganda. This has allowed infiltration by some terrorist groups such as ADF which has increased its attacks in Uganda recently. In June 2023, ADF attacked a school where they killed at least 41 students and abducted several others. Later in December of the same year, the ADF killed another 10 people in the village of Kamwenge.

The lack of peace and security affects several sectors especially trade within the region. A lack of safety for exports and imports across borders compromises trade between the countries. Besides disrupting trade due to insecurity, soured relations between neighbors such as Rwanda and DRC means trade between the countries becomes more complicated.

In the past, soured relations between Uganda and Rwanda led to the closure of the Gatuna border post. The border post is the most popular entry and exit point for people and goods moving between Uganda and Rwanda. DRC has also closed its border with Rwanda after a Congolese soldier was killed in 2022. Burundi, which in 2015 closed its borders with Rwanda, has followed suit as recently as January 2024 closing its border with Rwanda. 

The continued distrust between regional member countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and DRC makes the region vulnerable to challenges that could put East Africa in a more dire state. With a significant crisis already affecting South Sudan and another in Somalia, adding another conflict in DRC would exacerbate tension in the region.

This will stifle cooperation and development toward better security, infrastructure development, and harmonious trade. The region cannot afford more conflict and needs to look toward viable solutions to bring a win-win solution to all conflicting parties. Otherwise the region will suffer greatly.