Renewed fighting has broken out around the city of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between armed forces led by the rebel general Laurent Nkunda and those of the Congolese president Joseph Kabila, deepening the region’s humanitarian crisis.
The fighting is taking place as talks are on-going between the two protagonists, brokered by the United Nations special envoy, the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo. Iain Dalton from the Socialist Party reports on the background to this conflict, particularly the role of the western powers, multinational companies, regional elites and UN troops in fermenting and perpetuating the civil war.
IN THE last few weeks over 250,000 refugees have fled from North Kivu province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) near the border with Rwanda. This brings the total of internal refugees in the region to over one million.
Rebels in the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), under the control of ethnic Tutsi, Laurent Nkunda, have been advancing on government strongholds in the province – particularly the regional capital Gomu.
Although this conflict has only been major news headlines for the last few weeks it has been going on for years, since Nkunda rebelled against the DRC army in 2004.
The conflict has been a disaster for the people of the Congo. Since the civil war began in 1998 over five million people have been killed, life expectancy is only 45.8 years in the country as a whole, and in North Kivu it is 43.7 years; 73% of the population are in poverty.
Additionally the region has seen large usage of child soldiers and North Kivu province itself is the worst area for sexual violence in the world – according to United Nations (UN) 2007 figures there are around 350 rapes a month, although local figures suggest over 800 in April 2008 alone.
Yet the civil war in the DRC was supposed to have ended in 2003. Then, a peace deal was signed to end six years of fighting after the deposition of the dictator Mobutu Sese-Seko. Laurent Kabila, who headed the Rwandan-backed forces Alliance des Forces DÃ©mocratiques pour la LibÃ©ration du Congo-ZaÃ¯re (AFDL), tapped into the mass discontent with Mobuto’s rule and declared himself president.
However, this coalition broke up almost as soon as Kabila took power and Rwanda in particular began backing a new rebellion, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) to look after its own mineral interests in the country. Kabila was backed with arms and troops by the regimes of Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
In reality, however, an on-off civil war has been going on ever since the deposition of the first prime minister of the DRC, the anti-imperialist Patrice Lumumba in 1960.
The Belgian colonial government and other western powers had wanted a compliant stooge post-independence government. Lumumba was deemed too much of a threat to the imperialist powers and the CIA-backed colonel Mobutu took power in 1966.
The western powers considered Mobutu as a bulwark against communism in the region. He crushed the remaining Lumumba supporters (Lumumba had been executed in 1961) but sporadic revolts continued thereafter and were fought with the aid of western powers. Some rebels, such as Kabila, even carved out their own statelets within the country and financed themselves through trafficking gold and other materials.
The collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the 1990s meant that Mobutu’s bloody regime became unnecessary for maintaining US interests in the country.
Added to the political crisis was the backlash from the ethnic civil war in Rwanda when over one million ethnic Hutus fled from the country – including many members of the Interahamwe militia which Mobutu used against the Tutsis in Kivu to prop up his failing regime. It is these same ethnic Hutu forces that Nkunda alleges government troops have been supporting in attacks on Tutsis and he claims that his rebellion is in defence of Tutsis, particularly his own native group the Banyamulenge.
The country’s rich mineral resources (particularly diamonds, copper, zinc and coltan – which is used in mobile phones and computers) have been fought over in the civil war with various companies backing warlords with arms to facilitate their plundering of the country. A UN report named 85 multinationals that it believed to be “violating ethical guidelines” – such as Anglo-American, Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers etc.
But it isn’t just the companies themselves. It is no accident that when an anti-imperialist government under Lumumba was elected in 1960, Belgian imperialism sought to support the break away of resource rich Katanga province in a manner that parallels the moves to autonomy by the Media Luna provinces in Bolivia.
Regional powers are also in on the act. Zimbabwe, one of the backers of the Laurent Kabila regime, was granted concessions in the diamond industry for example, whilst Rwandan forces control some mines in the Kivu region that the country borders that are protected by the RCD it backs.
Imperialism and capitalism have devastated the DRC and it is ordinary people that are suffering.
However, many journalists, international human right groups and aid agencies are still calling for intervention by foreign troops. For example, Johann Hari in the Independent (30/10/08) suggests that UN peacekeepers will need to be kept in the region to ‘stabilise’ the country and that a coltan-tax should be created to fund this.
But Monuc, the current UN peacekeeping force, has over 16,000 troops in the country and is blatantly failing to stop the abuses. Indeed UN documents disclosed by Human Rights Watch demonstrate how UN peacekeepers in Congo took part in weapons trading with rebels and smuggling.
These forces are part of the problem because by their very nature they are subordinated not to the needs of ordinary Congolese but to the imperialist powers that dominate the UN security council.
Like in Iraq at present, what is needed to combat the abuses of militias, rebels, government troops and ‘peacekeepers’ alike are democratic, working class-based defence organisations that can cut across the ethnic divides and build up the mass resistance of workers and peasants to both militia-backed warlords, multinational companies and the major capitalist powers.
Capitalism has failed in the DRC.It is only socialist ideas, such as taking the mineral resources into public ownership to use for the common good of society and not to fatten the pockets of warlords and big business, that can provide a way out of the nightmare for the working class and poor in the DRC.