The Congo:
Peacekeeping and Its Limits

Kendra Dupuy describes the complicated history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and why peacekeeping missions are not always enough to resolve protracted conflicts.
Why has ongoing violence in the DRC proved to be one of Africa's most intractable conflict?

Peacekeepers can assist in maintaining the peace, but how do they contribute to long-term resolution of war?
"Today's lecture is not our most optimistic" says Kendra Dupuy, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). We will be looking at an extended history of conflict centered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a state in Central Africa that has seen decades of protracted violence.

The nation, not to be confused with the neighbouring Republic of Congo, used to host the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world and is a good example of a number of themes discussed in the course: complex conflict onset, disrupted education, gender-based violence, repeated peace agreements that may not always hold. The fighting has developed into Africa's worst conflict and even, at times, the world's worst.

Some facts to start things off:
The DRC is the second largest country in Africa. It is located sub-Sahara and has a population of about 85 million.
The country's official language is French.
The country hosts a mix of religions, with Christianity forming the majority. There is a 12% Muslim minority.
The DRC is home to a vast amount of natural resources.
The largest world exports of the materials needed for computers and smartphones are found in the DRC.
The Congo basin is one of the world's largest forested areas.
The country was colonized by the Belgians.

Cycles of Violence

The Congo region, referring to the geographical river basin (and later the country), was formally colonized by the Belgians in 1885 at the behest of King Leopold II, who had long had interests in the region. It remained a colony until the country gained its independence in 1960, but not until the local populace suffered under their European administrators.

In part driven by the region's rich deposits of natural resources, in part legitimized by ideas that inner Africa was a "heart of darkness" needing to be tamed, the Belgian regime in the Congo treated the locals like disposable workers. Rubber exports made their way to Europe and the wider world at the expense of labourers who could face having their limbs severed for minor offenses, or no offense at all. Gratuitous killings were not unheard of. These and other atrocities were documented in the best-selling history book King Leopold's Ghost, which makes for a difficult read.

Even after gaining independence in 1960, some historians claim, true independence was still was still far off – but while previous threats to local autonomy came from 19th-century colonial powers, in the mid-20th century the DRC was caught between superpowers waging a Cold War. The country's first president, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1991 in what's widely been accepted as a targeted strike by the CIA for his sympathies towards Communist powers.

Then came the regime of Joseph Mobutu, an army chief of staff who came to power in a 1965 coup – he was supported by the United States for his anti-Communist stance and accordingly given a free hand to dominate local affairs. He would go on to be a bigger threat to local security than Lumumba ever was.

Mobutu instituted a one-party system, renamed the country Zaire in 1971 and surrounded himself with a personality cult. There was even a time when certain news shows would start their broadcast with a short clip of the president descending form the clouds. His fortune allegedly ranked in the billions, much of which was embezzled from aid funds and national resource production and export.
Mobutu Sese Seko, born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu | wikicommons
A major criticism of the Mobutu regime was that, since the DRC had (and still has) such a wealth of natural resources, there was no reason for the country's populace to remain so poor. Some have labelled this a geological scandal. These resources were a major source of Mobutu's personal wealth, as was American aid, but when the Cold War ended in the late 1980s he found that his Stateside allies were less interested in propping up his regime. The economy crashed, and he lost the ability to pay off local officials, businesspersons and other entities. Inflation rose, and the opposition saw an opportunity to challenge the ruling party.

Then came the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which was a systematic attack by the Hutu ethnic group on the Tutsis, who had historically enjoyed privileges under the colonial system. When the international community got involved (and the Tutsis came back for revenge), the Hutus responsible fled to the neighbouring DRC and many settled in a border town called Goma. This was the capital of the North Kivu region. From there they busied themselves with occasional raids into Rwanda. These raids prompted response from Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and led in part to the First Congo War.

A main result of the war was that a coalition of Rwandan, Ugandan, Burundian and Congolese opposition fighters formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which successfully toppled Mobutu's regime and installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as the new president. Zaire was renamed the DRC once more, but the violence was not to end there.
Back in the 1880s, there was a Tutsi group called the Banyamulenge that had settled in the DRC's east and their status had constantly been in flux over the course of Mobutu's brutal dictatorship. Sometimes they could vote. Sometimes they were citizens. Sometimes they could run for office. Sometimes they had none of these privileges. When the Rwandan Hutus arrived after the genocide, many of them having been perpetrators, the local Tutsis found an outlet for their aggression. Then add to this matchbox Rwandan Tutsis who would enter the DRC to attack the newcomer Hutus (who had, as noted above, engaged in raids on Kigali). This tension could not help but boil over at some point.

Rwanda and Uganda both supported the new Kabila government and their armies remained in the DRC under the auspices of bringing stability and other assistance during the transition. But as time went on, tensions emerged between Kabila and his allies over their split loyalties. That, and there were reports of these foreign soldiers becoming huge exporters of gold and timber and other resources.

Kabila officially told the troops that they had to leave, which led to another invasion of the DRC by Rwanda – this time, however, it was to remove Kabila. Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia supported Kabila while Uganda supported Rwanda. This lead to the Second Congo War (1998-2003), which began just one year after the previous conflict had ended. It lasted nearly five years, Kabila was assassinated and his son Joseph Kabila became president. Peace accords were signed in 2003, but only after nearly half the continent was drawn into the conflict.
During the transition to Joseph Kabila's regime, many Hutu regiments stayed in the eastern Kivu regions due to fears of reprisals should they return to Rwanda. Peace in Kivu was complicated further when Kabila ran for president against rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba in 2006. Bemba lost, challenged the results and returned to Kivu to continue fighting. His group, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) has alternated between being a political party and an armed movement, and he was arrested by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2008 and convicted for war crimes and sexual violence. These charges were overturned in a 2018 appeal.

But the MLC was not the only insurgent group to emerge from the two wars. Various war bands have emerged, gone dormant or emerged again, the most famous of which being the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony and made famous by the viral Kony 2012 YouTube campaign. The fighting was not limited to the Kivu region, though it cannot be denied that it was the worst hit.

Another major consequence of the Second Congo War was the intensification of local conflicts like that in Ituri province. Ituri, just to the north of North Kivu, is home to the clashing agricultural Lendu and herder Hemu ethnic groups. The political instability ushered in by the war, as well as the influx of weapons into the region, reignited hostilities between the two groups and led to over 60,000 deaths. Many of these occurred in the context of massacres.

This amount, however, still pales in comparison to the approximately 5 million deaths caused by the war. The bloodshed, at times called "Africa's world war," prompted response from the UN in the form of peacekeeping missions. Whether or not they were effective in their mandate, however, is a hotly debated question.

Peacekeeping and Efficacy

The DRC's case has, in retrospect, often been used to illustrate the notion that peacekeeping is becoming an increasingly irrelevant tool in the modern world. That said, peacekeeping is typically supposed to happen when a conflict's already over. Its purpose is to keep formerly warring parties apart, not to step in when the fighting is still hot. In the DRC, you could argue that the conflict never really finished. In situations like these, you get UN peacekeepers (often called the Blue Helmets) who don't have a mandate to engage armed groups with force. Which means they're keeping a peace that doesn't exist, and playing witness to violence they can't stop.

There were two ghosts hanging over the DRC peacekeeping mission: Bosnia and Rwanda. Somalia too, to an extent. In all of these cases, either delayed action or a weak mandate for the protection of civilians (PoC) allowed massive slaughter to take place, reducing the UN to a bystander to atrocity. No one wanted the DRC mission to become a repeat of the same, but it still faced major criticism. Some argue that they were just as useless, while others argue that, even though many people still died, systematic massacres at the scale seen in Rwanda didn't happen. The extent of the peacekeeper's ability to halt escalation of the violence is fiercely debated, and the work remains rather thankless.
Sylvain Liechti |
MONUSCO was the mission from the UN to the DRC, often made up of troops from different countries – Pakistan and Bangladesh are common sources of troops. The high salaries help with recruitment, and both countries lack a colonial relationship to the DRC, which can be a benefit. Ugandan troops have also been present since 2003 but they've been involved in major instances of corruption and smuggling, so there was a push to remove them from the mission.

The handover from the Ugandan Blue Helmet troops was a complicated process –there was some controversy, as alongside the criminal elements were genuine efforts to keep the peace, even if in questionable ways. It's been well documented that UN workers made major appeals to different countries to provide troops to replace the Ugandans, who did end up agreeing to leave peacefully. Nevertheless, it was still a tense moment, and through it all was a constant question: could peacekeepers really keep the peace? If they really did prevent another genocide, observers would never know. 2005 saw instances of violence where nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were killed, resulting in motions to scale the mission up.

Meanwhile, in the United States, there were various initiatives to block access to goods and resources coming out of the DRC. A mineral called coltan, used in the development of smartphones, proved especially controversial – its extraction has been linked to forced and child labour, and it has been a key resource used to fund certain rebel groups. This led to a media campaign decrying 'blood smartphones,' which compared the untraced coltan market to that for blood diamonds. The controversy escalated when women's rights groups got involved, saying that Congolese coltan should be boycotted because the industries created around them have increased the amount of violence against local women. Campaigns like this are controversial even when successful: with the ensuing boycotts, a number of locals who were otherwise uninvolved with the conflict lost their livelihoods and thus became vulnerable to armed groups when they came recruiting.
Rob Lavinsky | wikicommons
At this point, rebel groups in Kivu and the country's north (spilling over into Uganda, the neighbouring Republic of Congo and South Sudan) were increasing due to the lack of government control in the east and northeast. Some argued that the DRC was not even a state anymore, since Kabila was unable to manage even basic infrastructure in rebel-controlled regions.

New peacekeeping regiments came in with UN mandates and focused on addressing major rebel groups with the government's help, but sometimes it happened that when a rebel group was defeated the government forces would then reject the peacekeeping mission so as to take advantage of new power vacuums. And when new peacekeeping operations (PKOs) actually received a mandate to fight harder, reports emerged that abuses, sexual violence and smuggling operations were taking place among the PKOs themselves.

The typical PKO mandate nowadays is to parachute in, deploy in areas of volatility, protect civilians, disarm rebel groups and help the government build its capacity to administer the state. This is often done in a number of ways. Training local police forces is a common project. Sometimes schools are constructed, or elections are assisted and observed. But these expanded mandates put into question PKO neutrality, especially in contexts were liberal democracy is viewed with suspicion. One common criticism is whether growing PKO mandates make them any different from military intervention. Which is countered with the question of whether, without these more robust mandates, they'd be able to prevent massacres at all.

And so the DRC remains a mix of non-state conflicts, civil wars and interventions by foreign actors. Resource extraction is often compromised by smuggling. The failing government is complemented by sometimes-bewildered PKOs and an international community focused more on terrorism and the Middle East. Then there are the concerns of other regional African nations to take into account. The violence periodically erupting in the DRC is anything but simple.

But while this complexity may appear to some westerners as a kind of Heart of Darkness, the exact opposite is true. This isn't the primordial workings of a dark human nature – the different players have names. Histories. Dilemmas and narratives that can be tracked historically. Even in periods where parts of the region descend into chaos, there are reasons, factors and grievances that can be addressed, even if imperfectly. Dismissing the chaos as something essential to the reason is to throw one's hands up and abandon engagement – paying attention to the nuances may not lead to easy answers or consolation, but it certainly is a better place to start.
Kendra Dupuy was a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) until 2019. She now works for Norwegian People's Aid.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo from wikicommons
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Further Reading
The Limits and Unintended Consequences of UN Peace Enforcement: The Force Intervention Brigade in the DR Congo
Tull, Dennis. (2018)
International Peacekeeping, 25 (2): 167-190.