civil war in eastern DR Congo

An insight into the the civil war in eastern DR Congo and its impact on wildlife and tourism

The largest country in Sub Saharan Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) covers 2,345,409 including a huge part of Congo basin equatorial rainforests endowed with a variety of natural resources. The resources range from wildlife and minerals to lakes, rivers and active volcanoes.

Mineral-rich DRC

Some of the minerals in DR Congo include tungsten, tantalum, diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, coltan, zinc, uranium, manganese, coal, cadmium, tin, germanium, cassiterite (from which metallic tin is obtained). Minerals in Congo are almost spread equally with Africa’s largest deposits of limestone found across the country. Furthermore, the Katanga area is known for copper, the central areas have large deposits of diamonds and Lake Kivu contains natural gasses including Methane. In the western part there are petroleum deposits off the coast of Kinshasa capital city.

In eastern DR Congo, the North and South Kivu Provinces are rich in tungsten, tantalum, gold and tin which are regarded as “conflict minerals.” The estimated value of mineral wealth in Congo stands at $24 trillion according to Global Ledge, an international business resource centre based in Toronto, Canada.

Minerals not yet useful to the local population

Despite the potential for economic development through mining, the livelihood of Congolese is dependent on agriculture with over 80 million hectares of arable land. About 90% of the 89.6 million population are farmers and fishermen according to Oxfam International; they’re involved in sustainable maize, beans, ground nuts and rice production.

Most people haven’t benefited from the mining sector besides being a key driver of economic growth. About 64% of the population survive on less than $2.15 per day according to World Bank Group (WB). Despite having a Growth Domestic Product of 53.96 billion USD, higher than that of her neighbours (Rwanda and Uganda), DR Congo is still considered among the five poorest nations of the world.

The genesis of instability in the region

The high level of poverty is linked to a long history of civil conflict and insecurity particularly in the South and North Kivu provinces in the eastern DRC. The history of the current war is highly linked to the refugee influx and spill over since the Rwandan genocide against Tutsi in 1994.

The civil war that lasted for about 100 days with the death of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus became a baggage and an enduring trauma within the Great Lakes Region. The humanitarian crisis led to formation of several rebel groups resulting in regional political and social enmities between DR Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. 

Both Hutu and Tutsi exiles formed rebel groups in eastern DRC with each trying to counteract the activities of the other, reigniting their local rivalry. Besides ethnicity, some commentators have also attributed the unending conflict in the region to the struggle for the minerals in the area. Even neighbouring governments such as Rwanda and Uganda have also been accused of fuelling the conflict in order to gain access to these minerals.

Who are the conflicting parties in the eastern DRC ?

Interahamwe (Congolese Hutus)

Following the genocide and establishment of Tutsi regime in Kigali, the Hutu perpetrators numbering about 1.2 million in fear of revenge fled into DR Congo. While in Congo, they formed a militia group called the Federation for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) with hope to fight the new government in Kigali. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), only 7% of the refugees formed the militia. The Hutus in Congo are called “Interahamwe” which means those who stand and fight together in Kinyarwanda. 

The Banyamurenge (Congolese Tutsis)

On the other hand, a significant number of Rwandan Tutsis also live in Congo. Though they had occupied the Itombwe plateau, South Kivu province before the coming of Europeans, an unknown number of Tutsis sought refuge into North Kivu province following the tribal divisions during the first Rwandan civil war of 1959 – 1962. Today, the Tutsi in Congo are collectively referred to as “Banyamurenge.” They are about 60,000 to 200,000 in number according to the Brookings Institution 2001 report, (State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror). 

While in Congo, the groups intermarried and engaged in rebellious activities against neighboring countries. As a result, the first Congo War (1996 – 1998) erupted when Rwanda aided by Uganda jointly attacked the DR Congo to destroy the emerging threat of Interahamwe (Congolese Hutus). Over the years Rwandan and Ugandan forces gained a strong presence in eastern Congo worrying the Congo government of the day that they were engaging in unlawful activities. As a result, DR Congo sought military support from Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe to chase away Uganda and Rwanda in armed fighting that resulted into the second Congo war (2001 to 2003). 

In the aftermath of the wars, the United Nations Security Council statistics indicate that there are over 100 different rebel groups fighting in Eastern DR Congo including M23 — the most prominent and responsible for the current outbreak of the war around the city of Goma in the North Kivu province. 

The M23 group

Formed by Laurent Nkunda on 4 April, 2013, the group emerged from the National Congress for the Defense of People (CNDP) a political group that had been fighting the Congo government since the end of the second Congo war. The Congolese Tutsis formed the group and were against the Hutu-led Federation for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The two took part in the Kivu conflict of 2004 through which the CNDP came out victorious and continued to fight the national army in a series of clashes including the Bukavu clash. When this became a burden, the Congolese government sought a peace deal that was signed on 23 March 2009 to have Nkunda’s rebels (Congolese Tutsis) integrated into the national forces. Sadly, the treaty wasn’t honoured and a new rebel leadership emerged as M23 taking its name from the date to keep in mind for consideration. The M23 rebels are now responsible for the current wave of fighting which broke out in May 2022 in part of North Kivu province.

An invisible hand also fuelling the conflict

According to the recent Aljazera News report, 13th June, 2022, what triggered the new fighting in DR Congo is the fact that parts of North Kivu province contain huge deposits of the so called 4 main “conflict minerals” including gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum. These are used in the manufacturing of valuable jewellery and electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, DVD players, hard drives and gaming devices. Some of the top electronic multinational corporations in the world like Apple, Alphabet, Google, HP, Microsoft, Intel, Signet, Tiffany & Co, Panasonic, IBM and Sony have disclosed publicly that there may be conflict minerals in their products according to Enough Project conflict minerals company rankings, 2017. Almost inevitably, they have been financing the Congolese local communities to obtain minerals which have sustained the war in the region.

Progress and challenges towards solving conflict minerals in DR Congo 

Almost since independence in 1960, DR Congo had its first peaceful and democratic transition of power with His Excellency Felix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo elected as president in January in 2019. Promising to restore democratic governance, free education, and peace and stability in the east. 

After the end of the first and second Congo wars in 2003, several efforts have been made to bring peace and stability in the eastern DR Congo. These included establishment of the United Nations Organization for Stabilization in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) military base in Goma capital city of North Kivu province in 2010. The UN mission mandate is to support the Government of the DR Congo through protecting civilians, humanitarian workers, and human rights defenders who are in danger of physical harm.

Areas along the strategic highway to Goma including Rutshuru and Kiwanja towns have been captured by the M23 rebels, displacing over 186000 people since May 2022 according to the UN Human Right Watch. This hasn’t only threatened the safety and livelihoods of locals but also hinders the potential travellers intending to visit Congo for tourism activities like gorilla trekking in Virunga national park.

In the same year 2010, the United States government passed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to limit the purchase of “conflict minerals” in Congo as well as to stop further related catastrophes. The Congolese Ministry of Mines, several civil society organisations as well as leaders like Dr. Denis Mukwege, a women’s rights activist who won the Sakharov Prize of Freedom in 2018, have provided significant support for the cause for positive change.

Part of this was to create certification mechanisms to label minerals as conflict free. Those intending to buy rough diamonds in Congo must contain a South African Kimberly certificate. There are also plans to support mining local communities through livelihood projects such as Microfinance, improved health and safety. The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) had certified 495 mines in eastern DR Congo as conflict-free by December 2017. Probably, there has been a reduction in purchase of minerals by the alleged global electronic corporations. However, this has rendered many miners jobless and even compelled some of them to join armed rebel groups in order to secure a living. 

War in eastern DR Congo has several adverse effects; from the humanitarian crisis to biodiversity loss. Insecurity has displaced many people into refugee camps including Rhoe camp with over 75,000 people of which 35,000 are children according to UNICEF. Rhoe refugee camp is 45km north east of Bunia, capital of Ituri province in north east DR Congo. Likewise, numerous protected areas in the DR Congo are still under threat in terms of biodiversity, and they have been listed by UNESCO as endangered world heritage sites. 

Virunga National Park biodiversity under threat 

Virunga National Park, established in 1925 is Africa’s oldest protected area. The park covers 7,800 straddling the Virunga Massif, Albertine Rift Valley and parts of Rwenzori Mountain Range. The park contains rich biodiversity including the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees; 218 mammal species including African elephants, lions, buffaloes, hippos and 706 species of birds.

Safeguarding this ecosystem has been challenging given that the park is in the middle of the conflict zone between North and South Kivu provinces. In particular, gorilla tourism that attracts over 6,500 visitors annually in Virunga Park has been interrupted on several times. Even after overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic, the park has remained closed following an attack on 20th November 2021 that killed 17 people of which 15 were Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) wildlife rangers.

Gorilla trekking safaris were contributing about $2million from sale of gorilla permits annually according to BBC News. Now without tourism taking place for almost 3 years, there’s loss of revenue and the associated benefits the neighbouring local communities get for livelihood.

About 6.7 million people live around the park and depend on natural resources. As a result, the threats facing Virunga’s wildlife heritage become more challenging. Poaching and encroachment are likely to escalate human-wildlife conflicts and lead to habitat loss.  Furthermore, there’s an emerging threat of exploring oil within the park. Though this has been criticised with UNESCO calling for cancellation of Virunga oil permits, the park was listed as a world heritage site in danger by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In that regard, tremendous efforts to protect Virunga heritage have created positive impact including establishment of the Virunga Alliance and the Virunga Foundation. Both of these are working with several stakeholders to reduce poverty, build peace and ultimately have the park removed from the list of world heritage sites in danger by 2025 when Virunga will be marking 100 years since its creation. 

DR Congo world heritage sites in danger

Just like Virunga, several other protected areas in DR Congo continue to be affected by war. Garamba, Maiko and Kahuzi Beiga National Parks; Itombwe and Okapi Wildlife Reserves are on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in danger. Both of these are habitat to Congo basin forest is the second largest in the world therefore considered as a biodiversity hotspot.

There are over 10,000 tropical plant species including the African walnut, teak, Mahogany and Pearwood trees; Euphorbia bwambensis, Kola nut and Anopyxis klaineana. In regard to fauna, there are many endangered animals, reptiles, birds, amphibian and fish species of the Congo rainforest. Large and small mammals such as the Okapi (forest giraffe), African elephants, pygmy hippo, Bongo (world’s largest antelope species), the African white-bellied Pangolin, mandrill, Atlantic humpback dolphin and the dark-brown Serotine (near threatened bat specie). 

There are over 20 primate species in Congo forests of which the lowland gorillas, Chimpanzees, bonobos and black and colobus monkeys are unique. The endangered and unique reptile and fish species in Congo rivers and lakes include the African blind barb fish and Pincushion Ray and African dwarf and slender-snouted crocodiles. Loango slender-billed weaver, Madagascar pond heron, Eurasian Peregrine falcon, Cape cormorant and the Damara tern. 

Visiting the Congo basin forest

With such wealth and rich biodiversity, yet still in the shadow of the conflict, DR Congo is one of the adventurous travel destinations on earth. Those intending to visit DR Congo need to consider the safest areas given that not all parts of the country are safe. The UK, USA and Canada travel advisories have an “Avoid All Travel to Eastern DR Congo ”, however, places such as Tchegera Island, Lake Kivu and Kahuzi Biega National Park are safe to visit through tour operator and guide. In particular, lowland gorillas can be visited in Kahuzi Beiga National Park.

The protected area is famous for harbouring over 250 of the 17000 world’s lowland gorilla population. Given that Goma might not be safe, those intending to visit the park can travel through Nyungwe Forest National Park in south west Rwanda which is safer but the longer route. From Nyungwe, it’s easy to connect to Congo via Cyangungu the capital of Rusizi district. Cyangungu is 16.5 (32 min drive) west of Bukavu capital city of South Kivu province and closest to Tshivanga the park’s visitor centre which is 32 (20 min-drive) from Bukavu. 

Lowland Gorilla Trekking

Several groups of lowland gorillas have been habituated for tourism and available for trekking. Lowland gorilla trekking permit cost is $400 per person available for booking through a tour operator. As such, Congo provides affordable gorilla safaris and the opportunity to see gorillas alone due to fewer visitors.  

Ongoing interventions to end war in Eastern DR Congo

Now as the M23 threatens to capture Goma city, Kenya has endorsed to send 900 troops as part of the joint East African standby force. DR Congo joined the East Africa Community in April and called on the member states for support to settle the longstanding war. Hopefully, the regional concerted efforts should help to protect wildlife heritage as well as civilians and ultimately end war. While this is at the forefront of President Felix’s agenda, there are serious obstacles that lie in ambush for him to achieve political stability in the east.

Firstly, the interests of Rwanda that grips the power of the Congolese Hutus. The United Nations Human Watch findings confirmed that the government in Kigali supports M23 rebels – a claim that Rwanda denies. Secondly, Uganda’s economic and diplomatic relationship with DR Congo including the 223 km road project linking the two countries seems to be overshadowing the conflict resolution efforts.

According to the Bank of Uganda’s import and export data, $241 million was made through trade, which is more than Uganda makes from the rest of her neighbours. Likely, this alone keeps both countries neutral in accusing each other over the unresolved conflict. On the other hand, the geopolitics of the East African Community, originally composed of Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania but is now welcoming new member states, seems to be opposing each towards a politically stable eastern DR Congo. The history of regional integration and the current shape of events, might in several ways be a blessing or curse in that regard.  

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