The story so far: On October 30, the UN International Organization of Migration (IOM) reported that the number of people who have been internally displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has risen to 6.9 million. In the eastern province of North Kivu, nearly a million people have been displaced due to the ongoing conflict with the rebel group, Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23).
What is the conflict in the DRC?
The conflict in the DRC dates back to the 1990s when it went through two civil wars in 1996 and 1998. The conflict erupted in the wake of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where ethnic Hutu extremists killed nearly one million minority ethnic Tutsis and non-extremist Hutus. Since then, the eastern DRC, bordering Rwanda, has been facing insurgency perpetrated by several rebel militant groups. According to the UN, besides M23, more than 120 insurgent groups are active in the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika. Violence by several militant groups over territory and natural resources, extrajudicial killings by security forces and rising tensions with neighbouring countries have killed thousands. Tensions between the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda continue to increase as both countries accuse each other of supporting ethnic Tutsi and Hutu-led rebel groups respectively.
The resurfacing of the Tutsi-led led-M23 rebel campaign in November 2021 worsened the security situation in the eastern provinces of DRC. The group carries out frequent attacks and has taken control of several towns. In November 2022, a ceasefire was mediated between the DRC and Rwanda; however, it failed after the M23 rebels announced non-compliance. The East African Force and the UN peacekeeping force which were deployed to oversee the withdrawal of the rebel groups failed to achieve their objectives. Since January 2023, M23 has been advancing in the region.
Who are the major actors?
The prominent rebel groups besides M23 include the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Cooperative for Development of the Congo (CODECO). ADF, the Uganda-based rebel group, has been operating since mid-1999 in eastern DRC and have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State in 2019. CODECO claims they aim to protect the interests of the ethnic Lendu against the Hemas and the Congo army. Then there is Rwanda who the DRC accuses of supporting the Tutsi-led M23 group. In contrast, Rwanda claims the DRC supports the Hutu militias who carried out the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and fled to eastern DRC. Both countries deny the other’s allegations.
We also have the East African Community (EAC). In November 2022, the EAC deployed its troops in eastern DRC to stem the violence. The forces were from Kenya, South Sudan, Burundi and Uganda. However, since August, widespread protests have been ongoing demanding the withdrawal of the EAC and UN peacekeeping forces. Protesters accuse the regional and international forces of failing to address the insurgency. DRC President Felix Tshisekedi has demanded the EAC to leave the country by December 8.
Why has there been displacement?
First, ethnic intolerance and insurgency. Following the Rwandan genocide, around two million Hutu refugees crossed Rwanda into North Kivu and South Kivu provinces of DRC. They organised ethnic militias in DRC fearing prosecution. Tensions intensified as Rwandan Tutsis organised militias against the Hutus who fled to the DRC. Subsequently, several ethnic and inter-ethnic groups who felt threatened started organising their militias against each other. The multiple rebel groups and several actors fighting in the region have carried out widespread killing, sexual violence and massive human rights atrocities.
Second, is the political uncertainty and lack of inclusive governance. President Felix Tsikedi came to power in 2019 through democratic elections. The country is to hold elections on December 20. However, the electoral commission has said that continuing insecurity in parts of the country would pose a challenge to a “free, democratic and transparent” vote. Meanwhile, the peripheries of DRC are ruled by numerous ethnic chiefdoms which are recognised by the government. The grievances of these peripheries are not met inclusively as struggles for representation, power, territory and resources are being ignored.
Third are regional tensions. The armed groups have been supported by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi at various points, acting as proxies for each country’s interests in the region. All of these have led to the fourth factor which is a humanitarian crisis. According to the Kivu Security Tractor, this year alone, 1,400 people were killed and over 600 attacks were reported in the region. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the crisis has left more than 1.1 million people in need of food support across North Kivu, Ituri, and South Kivu. And finally, the feeble international response. International actors have failed to make a considerable effort to address the crisis. According to organisations such as WFP and the Norwegian Refugee Council, lack of funding is a major challenge in assisting Congolese people facing hunger, starvation and humanitarian crises.
The author is a researcher at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.
- The conflict in the DRC dates back to the 1990s when it went through two civil wars in 1996 and 1998.
- The prominent rebel groups besides M23 include the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Cooperative for Development of the Congo (CODECO).
- Following the Rwandan genocide, around two million Hutu refugees crossed Rwanda into North Kivu and South Kivu provinces of DRC.