The sight of thousands of desperate panicking people fleeing towns in the North Kivu region in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was a sad reminder of a war that never went away, a devastating conflict more lethal than any since World War 2.
Between 1998 and 2003, the DRC, with assistance from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, fought off the attacks of Rwanda and Uganda, and hostilities have continued to flare up since, particularly in Kivu. This reached such a point that a peace deal involving a whole range of armed groups was signed in January this year.
It didn't last long: fighting broke out again in August as Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People, a Tutsi militia of 5,500, attacked a number of towns and camps (both military and refugee). The movement of people increased. There were already 850,000 displaced persons from the two previous years of conflict. Since August another 250,000 have been on the move, in some cases for the second or third time. In the DRC as a whole there are more than 1.5 milion displaced people. More than 300,000 people have fled the country.
With Goma, the North Kivu capital, under siege from Nkunda's forces, but also partly terrorised by retreating Congolese army soldiers looting and rampaging, there are fears of a full-scale resumption of war. Already, since 1998, 5.4 million people have died, from the war and from war-related violence, famine and disease. The director of the International Rescue Committee has said that "Congo is the deadliest conflict anywhere in the world over the past 60 years" (Reuters). The chief executive of Irish relief agency GOAL said "It's the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust," telling Reuters that it was "the greatest example on the planet of man's inhumanity to man."
Inflamed by ethnic hatred and revenge
Laurent Nkunda claims that his forces are in North and South Kivu because the DRC should have brought various Hutu forces to justice. In particular they focus on the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) for their part in the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda. Backed by Rwanda, Nkunda has threatened to go right across the country to the DRC capital, Kinshasa, 1500km away.
The role of groups such as the FDLR is well documented, but so is the progress of Nkunda's own forces as they systematically loot, rape and murder their way across the country. It's not the first time that the claim to ‘defend the people' has been used to terrorise the population. In Rwanda and the DRC the incitement of ethnic hatred and the desire for revenge continue to inflame the situation
Plunder of mineral wealth
In trying to explain what lies behind the continuing conflict in the DRC, it is impossible to ignore the variety of valuable minerals it has. From the Guardian (30/10/8): "A UN investigation on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that the conflict in the country had become mainly about ‘access, control and trade' of five key mineral resources: diamonds, copper, cobalt, gold and coltan - a metallic ore that provides materials for mobile phones and laptops.
Exploitation of Congo's natural resources by foreign armies was ‘systematic and systemic', and the Ugandan and Rwandan leaders in particular had turned their soldiers into ‘armies of business'. The UN panel estimated that Rwanda's army made at least $250m in 18 months by selling coltan."
In the Independent (30/10/8) there is an article in which the Africa Director of the International Crisis Group says "Nkunda is being funded by Rwandan businessmen so they can retain control of the mines in North Kivu. This is the absolute core of the conflict. What we are seeing now is beneficiaries of the illegal war economy fighting to maintain their right to exploit." The article continues "At the moment, Rwandan business interests make a fortune from the mines they illegally seized during the war. The global coltan price has collapsed, so now they focus hungrily on cassiterite, which is used to make tin cans and other consumer disposables."
The DRC has an area 90 times that of Rwanda, and a population more than 6 times as big, yet it seems incapable of seeing off a relatively small militia force, even with the help of 17,000 UN troops. The rapid retreat of its army in the face of a new offensive is apparently normal. The Guardian (28/10/8) says that DRC government troops "are notorious for turning their guns on civilians and for fleeing when faced with a real threat. The Congolese army, a motley collection of defeated army troops and several rebel and militia groups after back-to-back wars from 1997 to 2003, is disjointed, undisciplined, demoralised and poorly paid." The state of the army reflects the state of a ruling class that can't control its frontiers or what goes on inside them. The reality of dozens of heavily armed groups, many of them backed by countries like Rwanda and Uganda, some of them more determined to act on ethnic hostilities, others more wanting to profit the exploitation of valuable natural resources, is a classic expression of the gangsterisation of capitalist society. In a world of ‘each against all' the DRC government can't control the situation, but the armed gangs can't have any ambition beyond becoming bigger gangs, if they survive at all.
The UN, the EU, aid agencies and ‘concerned' western governments denounce the violence, and plead their sympathy for the stricken populations. But like local imperialist states such as Uganda and Rwanda, the big powers are also part of the problem. Let's not forget that behind the Hutu murder squads in 1994 stood French imperialism, while the Americans backed the Tutsi forces in order to strike a blow against France's presence in the region; France was also a mainstay of the Mobutu regime in Zaire, as the DRC was formerly called, and the Americans were deeply involved in supporting the forces that were working towards Mobutu's overthrow. Thus Congo's cauldron of chaos has also been well stirred by the ‘democratic' world powers, pillars of the UN and the ‘international community'.
Ethnic divisions and mineral resources are among factors in the continuing conflict, but the most important reality is the decomposition of capitalist society, which is expressed not only in the tendency of the weaker countries to fall apart, but also in the sharpening rivalries between imperialist powers large and small. The fact that the capitalist system still exists, however decrepitly, means that brutal wars will continue to erupt. Capitalism is not just an economic crisis; it's also all the killing fields that scar the face of the planet.