TOPICS > Politics

Conflict Over Resources Sparks Renewed Crisis in Congo

November 7, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Militia violence in eastern Congo has left many civilians dead in its wake. A Hoover Institution fellow and independent journalist details the causes of the fighting, the combatants involved in this civil war and limits on U.N. troops' involvement.

RAY SUAREZ: The fighting in one of Africa’s largest and most resource-rich countries is threatening to become a broader war.

Angola today sent in troops to help the Democratic Republic of Congo government put down a rebellion.

For more, we go to Mvemba Dizolele, a freelance journalist and author and now a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was born in Congo and is now a U.S. citizen.

Well, it’s now being called a civil war. Help us understand who the combatants are and what they’re fighting over.

MVEMBA DIZOLELE, Hoover Institution: Ray, thanks for having me. The conflict in a nutshell is about control of resources and the wealth of the region.

The combatants — on one side, you have Laurent Nkunda, General Laurent Nkunda, who’s a former general, a dissident general of the Congolese army who represents what he calls CNDP, the national Congolese — representation for the people. He’s a Tutsi general on one side, so he claims that he’s fighting to protect the right of the Tutsi minority.

On the other side, you have governmental forces, the FRDC, the Congolese army, and Mai-Mai groups. The Mai-Mai groups are local defense forces that are bent on protecting the country from any foreign intervention.

Nkunda supposedly is reportedly supported by Rwanda, which is, of course, led by a Tutsi government.

Causes of the Congo conflict

RAY SUAREZ: Today, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called the Congo fighting one of the most important crises on Earth. And, after all, several million people have died in fighting there in recent years. What sparked this latest upsurge in the conflict?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: What sparked this latest upsurge in the conflict is the same thing that sparked this over the last few years, namely control of resources and this genocide card.

Remember, Nkunda has been on the picture for a few years now. He led siege on Bukavu in 2004, claiming that he was moving on Bukavu -- Bukavu is the capital city of South Kivu -- that he was -- he claimed that he was moving there to protect the Tutsis.

That claim was rejected by both the United States and the United Nations. Recently, he's using the same claim.

At the heart of the matter is the presence of the Hutu militias, what they call the Interahamwe and the FDLR. These are militias that are mostly composed of Hutus who fled Rwanda after the genocide.

They set camp in eastern Congo for the last 14 years. And Rwanda used their presence there to invade Congo in '96 and also in '98, saying that they pose a threat to Rwanda and to the minority Tutsis.

Nkunda is using the same pretext today to say that the presence of this militia is a threat to the safety of the minority Tutsis in eastern Congo.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying this is really an imported conflict, that it has its roots in the fighting in Rwanda, which is just over the eastern border of Congo?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Exactly, Ray. This issue can be traced directly back to the genocide.

After the genocide, the entire Rwandan army, if you will, there were about two million Rwandan refugees who fled to Congo following the genocide. Among them, you had the entire Rwandan army that shortly just relocated in eastern Congo with all its weaponry and set camp there.

These people are ruthless. They live in the mountains. They threaten the population, oppress the population, rape women, run a lot of trade. I'm talking about minerals and any other riches that you find in the region. Those are specifically the cause of this war.

Rwanda used them as a pretext to invade Congo. Nkunda uses them today as a pretext to do what he's doing.

The armies' sources of funding

RAY SUAREZ: How do these armies remain supported in the field? We're talking about one of the poorest places on Earth, and yet we saw soldiers with automatic weapons, with rocket-propelled grenades. Somebody must be paying for this materiel, paying for the food for these soldiers. How do they keep going?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Well, it is a poor country on the surface, but underground it's one of the richest countries in the world. Congo today holds largest deposits of copper, coltan, gold, diamond, and so on and so forth.

In that particular region you're talking about, eastern Congo, one of the minerals that you find is coltan. Coltan is the ore that goes into our cell phone. It goes into our laptops. It goes into our video games. Congo has 80 percent of that coltan, that resource.

The militias control the areas where you find this resource. So it allows them to get cash to sell this product, mostly through Rwanda and through Uganda, to get the money they need. Hence, the nice uniforms; hence, all the equipment that you just mentioned.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier in the program, our audience saw Angolan troops on the move inside Congo. Is it those very mineral riches you were talking about that's a magnet to bring in armies from outside the country?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: In part, that is one of the magnets, but also they have some other accords. Angola is a very wealthy country in its own right. Angola is flush with oil money.

But Angola also has the most war-trained, war-prepared armies of Africa. Angola fought a 30-year war, so there's no army that is more hardened in Africa than the army of Angola.

So today Angola is an ally to President Kabila in Congo. And as Kabila's army is not quite up to the level to fight this war by itself, he turned automatically to his friend, Angola, to help him.

RAY SUAREZ: You talk about the weakness of the Congolese government's army. Does the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo actually control much of the country? Do they really run things, if you get out far away from the capital?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: The government is there only in name, if you will. The country has faced a lot of problem. There's almost an absence of the state, if we can use that term. The state is absent.

And as a consequence, you have these pocket of void -- you have a void across the country, so who so ever can assert himself can quickly do so, especially if they have support from foreign forces.

Limits to the U.N.'s role

RAY SUAREZ: There are many thousands of U.N. troops in the country. Can't they get in between the two armies or at least hold down the fighting?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: The U.N. -- without the U.N., the situation would be worse, so we have to be clear about that, Ray. But the U.N. has a lot of problems of its own.

One, they have 17,000 troops, the largest contingent in the world. But we're talking about a country the size of Western Europe. Or for our fellow Americans, we're talking about a country the size of one-third of the United States, the United States east of the Mississippi River, from Vermont all the way to Florida.

So it's a huge chunk of land; 17,000 troops, that's not enough. That's one problem.

The second problem is these people don't have enough equipment to cover the territory that they're called to cover.

And then, third, they don't always have the will to fight. The U.N. has what they call Chapter 7 mandates that allows them to use force to protect civilians. But what do you die for, if you're a foreigner who's fighting for Congolese? What would they be dying for?

You die for your country. You don't die for other people.

So there is a lack, if you will, of political will to get engaged and protect the civilians. That's one side of it.

The other side of it -- the U.N. also does not want to take sides. On one level, the U.N. is supposed to protect the civilians against Laurent Nkunda. On one level, they're supposed to be a neutral source, but they also have understanding that the U.N. is supposed to back the Congolese army.

So every time they back the Congolese army, then they're not seen as a neutral force.

RAY SUAREZ: Mvemba Dizolele joining us from Stanford University, thanks for joining us.

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Thank you, sir.