Congo’s M23 conflict: Rebellion or resource war? (Op-Ed)
Instability, lawlessness and violence are nothing new to those who live in the troubled eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An estimated 6.9 million Congolese have perished since 1996 in a spate of ceaseless military conflicts that have long gripped this severely-overlooked and underreported region. In late November 2012, members of the M23 rebel group invaded and took control of Goma, a strategic provincial capital in North Kivu state with a population of 1 million people, with the declared purpose of marching to the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, to depose the ruling government.
M23's president, Jean Marie Runiga, later agreed to withdraw only if the ruling President Joseph Kabila listened to the group's grievances and adhered to their demands. Rebel leaders have threatened to abandon peace talks unless Kinshasa signs an official ceasefire, a demand the government dismissed as unnecessary.
Kinshasa called on M23 to respect previous agreements to withdraw 20km outside of Goma in a move to prevent the region falling back into war after two decades of conflict, fought largely over the DRC’s vast wealth of copper, cobalt diamonds, gold and coltan.
The United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in DR Congo has come under fire for allowing M23 to take Goma without firing a single shot, despite the presence of 19,000 UN troops in the country. The UN’s Congo mission is its largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation, costing over US$1 billion a year. UN forces recently announced they would introduce the use of surveillance drones over the DRC, in addition to imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga and Lt. Col. Eric Badege.
A confidential 44-page report issued by a United Nations panel accused the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of supporting M23 with weapons, ammunition and Rwandan military personnel. Despite both nations denying these accusations, the governments of the United States, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands have publicly suspended military aid and developmental assistance to Rwanda. The governments of both Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Paul Kagame and President Yoweri Museveni respectively, have long been staunch American allies and the recipients of millions in military aid.
M23 President Jean-Marie Runiga (2nd R) arrives to address the media in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
The DRC has suffered immensely during its history of foreign plunder and colonial occupation; it maintains the second-lowest GDP per capita despite possessingan estimated $24 trillion in untapped raw minerals deposits.
During the Congo Wars of the 1996 to 2003, the United States provided training and arms to Rwandan and Ugandan militias who later invaded the Congo’s eastern provinces where M23 are currently active. In addition to enriching various Western multinational corporations, the regimes of Kagame in Rwanda and Museveni in Uganda both profited immensely from the plunder of Congolese conflict minerals such as cassiterite, wolframite, coltan (from which niobium and tantalum are derived) and gold; the DRC holds more than 30 per cent of the world's diamond reserves and 80 per cent of the world's coltan.
In 1990, civil war raged between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups in neighboring Rwanda; Washington sought to overthrow the 20-year reign of then-President Juvénal Habyarimana (a Hutu) by installing a Tutsi client regime. At the time, prior to the outbreak of the Rwandan civil war, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), led by the current president, was part of Uganda’s United People's Defense Forces (UPDF).
Kagame, who received training at the US Army Command and Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, invaded Rwanda in 1990 from Uganda under the pretext of liberating the Tutsi population from Hutu subjugation. Kagame’s forces defeated the Hutu government in Kigali and installed himself as head of a minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, prompting the exodus of 2 million Hutu refugees (many of whom took part in the genocide) to UN-run camps in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces.
Following Kagame’s consolidation of power in Rwanda, a large invasion force of Rwandan Tutsis arrived in North and South Kivu in 1996 under the pretext of pursuing Hutu militant groups, such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Under the banner of safeguarding Rwandan national security, troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi invaded Congo and ripped through Hutu refugee camps, slaughtering thousands of Rwandan and Congolese Hutu civilians, including many women and children.
US Special Forces trained Rwandan and Ugandan troops at Fort Bragg in the United States and supported Congolese rebels, who brought down Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko – they claimed he was giving refuge to the leaders of the genocide.
After deposing Mobutu and seizing control in Kinshasa, a new regime led by Laurent Kabila, father of the current president, was installed. Kabila was quickly regarded as an equally despotic leader, eradicating all opposition to his rule; he turned away from his Rwandan backers and called on Congolese civilians to violently purge the nation of Rwandans, prompting Rwandan forces to regroup in Goma.
Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 at the hands of a member of his security staff, allowing his son, Joseph, to usurp the presidency. The younger Kabila derives his legitimacy from the support of foreign heads of state and the international business community, primarily for his ability to comply with foreign plunder.
During the Congo’s general elections in November 2011, the international community and the UN remained silent regarding the mass irregularities observed by the electoral committee. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has faced frequent allegations of corruption, prompting opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, who is currently under house arrest, to call for the UN mission to end its deliberate efforts to maintain the system of international plundering and to appoint someone “less corrupt and more credible” to head UN operations.
MONUSCO has been plagued with frequent cases of peacekeeping troops caught smuggling minerals such as cassiterite and dealing weapons to militia groups. Kabila is seen by many to be self-serving in his weak oversight of the central government in Kinshasa. M23 rebels have demanded the liberation of all political prisoners, including opposition leader Étienne Tshisikedi, and the dissolution of the current electoral commission that was in charge 2011’s elections, widely perceived to be fraudulent.
Displaced civilians from Walikale arrive at Magunga III camp outside of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.(Reuters / Alissa Everett)
Role of US in Rwanda’s M23 backing
M23, or The March 23 Movement, takes its name from peace accords held on March 23, 2009, which allowed members of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), an earlier incarnation of today’s M23, to integrate into the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and be recognized as an official political party.
The CNDP was an entirely Rwandan creation, and was led by figures such as Bosco Ntaganda. In accordance to the deal reached in 2009, the Congolese government agreed to integrate 6,000 CNDP combatants into the FARDC, giving Ntaganda, a Rwandan Tutsi and former member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, a senior position in the integrated force.
The current M23 offensive began in April 2012, when around 300 former CNDP personnel led by Ntaganda defected from FARDC, citing poor working conditions and the government's unwillingness to meaningfully implement the 23 March 2009 peace deal.
According to UN reports, Ntaganda controls several mining operations in the region and has derived enormous profits from mineral exploitation in eastern Congo, in addition to gaining large revenues from taxation levied by Rwandan-backed “mining police.” Bosco Ntaganda appears to be assisting Rwanda’s Tutsi government in plundering eastern Congo’s natural resources, which has gone on since Kagame came to power in 1994; M23 is basically paid for with the money from tin, tungsten and tantalum smuggled from Congolese mines.
UN reports detail Rwanda's deep involvement by even naming Rwandan personnel involved; Ntaganda takes direct military orders from Rwandan Chief of Defense Staff General Charles Kayonga, who in turn acts on instructions from Minster of Defense General James Kabarebe. Both Britain and France reportedly found the UN report to be "credible and compelling."
Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, finds herself mired in scandal yet again; Rice has come under fire for suppressing information on Rwanda’s role in the ongoing resource looting and rebellion in eastern Congo. Rice delayed the publication of a UN Group of Experts report detailing Rwandan and Ugandan depredations in Congo, while simultaneously subverting efforts within the State Department to rein in Kagame and Museveni.
Rice, in her role as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1997 under the Clinton administration, tacitly approved Rwanda and Uganda’s invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo and was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “…they [Kagame & Museveni] know how to deal with that, the only thing we have to do is look the other way.”
Another article published in the New York Times by Helen Cooper detailed Rice’s business connections to the Rwandan government:
“Ms. Rice has been at the forefront of trying to shield the Rwandan government, and Mr. Kagame in particular, from international censure, even as several United Nations reports have laid the blame for the violence in Congo at Mr. Kagame’s door… Aides to Ms. Rice acknowledge that she is close to Mr. Kagame and that Mr. Kagame’s government was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington… After delaying for weeks the publication of a United Nations report denouncing Rwanda’s support for the M23 and opposing any direct references to Rwanda in United Nations statements and resolutions on the crisis, Ms. Rice intervened to water down a Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the M23 for widespread rape, summary executions and recruitment of child soldiers. The resolution expressed ‘deep concern’ about external actors supporting the M23. But Ms. Rice prevailed in preventing the resolution from explicitly naming Rwanda when it was passed on Nov. 20.”
M23 rebel fighters walk as they withdraw near the town of Sake, some 42 km (26 miles) west of Goma.(Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)
Geopolitics of plunder
It must be recognized that Kagame controls a vastly wealthy and mineral-rich area of eastern Congo – an area that has long been integrated into Rwanda’s economy – with total complicity from the United States.
As Washington prepares to escalate its military presence throughout the African continent with AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, what long-term objectives does Uncle Sam have in the Congo, considered the world’s most resource-rich nation?
Washington is crusading against China's export restrictions on minerals that are crucial components in the production of consumer electronics such as flat-screen televisions, smart phones, laptop batteries, and a host of other products. The US sees these Chinese export policies as a means of Beijing attempting to monopolize the mineral and rare earth market.
In a 2010 white paper entitled “Critical Raw Materials for the EU,” the European Commission cites the immediate need for reserve supplies of tantalum, cobalt, niobium, and tungsten among others; the US Department of Energy 2010 white paper “Critical Mineral Strategy” also acknowledged the strategic importance of these key components.
In 1980, Pentagon documents acknowledged shortages of cobalt, titanium, chromium, tantalum, beryllium, and nickel. The US Congressional Budget Office’s 1982 report “Cobalt: Policy Options for a Strategic Mineral” notes that cobalt alloys are critical to the aerospace and weapons industries and that 64 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves lay in the Katanga Copper Belt, running from southeastern Congo into northern Zambia.
Additionally, the sole piece of legislation authored by President Obama during his time as a Senator was SB 2125, the “Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006”. In the legislation, Obama acknowledges Congo as a long-term interest to the United States and further alludes to the threat of Hutu militias as an apparent pretext for continued interference in the region; Section 201(6) of the bill specifically calls for the protection of natural resources in the eastern DRC.
The United States does not like the fact that President Kabila in Kinshasa has become very comfortable with Beijing, and worries that Congo will drift into Chinese economic orbit. Under the current regime in Congo, Chinese commercial activities have significantly increased not only in the mining sector, but also considerably in the telecommunications field.
In 2000, the Chinese ZTE Corporation finalized a $12.6 million deal with the Congolese government to establish the first Sino-Congolese telecommunications company; furthermore, the DRC exported $1.4 billion worth of cobalt between 2007 and 2008. The majority of Congolese raw materials like cobalt, copper ore and a variety of hardwoods are exported to China for further processing and 90 per cent of the processing plants in resource rich southeastern Katanga province are owned by Chinese nationals.
In 2008, a consortium of Chinese companies were granted the rights to mining operations in Katanga in exchange for US$6 billion in infrastructure investments, including the construction of two hospitals, four universities and a hydroelectric power project.
In 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded renegotiation of the deal, arguing that the agreement between China and the DRC violated the foreign debt relief program for so-called HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) nations.
“This act instantly transformed Kabila from an unreliable friend to an enemy. The US and China have been madly scrambling for Africa’s immense wealth of raw materials, and Kabila’s new alliance with China was too much for the US to bear. Kabila further inflamed his former allies by demanding that the international corporations exploiting the Congo’s precious metals have their super-profit contracts re-negotiated, so that the country might actually receive some benefit from its riches.”
During a diplomatic tour of Africa in 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself has irresponsibly insinuated China’s guilt in perpetuating a creeping “new colonialism.” China annually invests an estimated $5.5 billion in Africa, with only 29 per cent of direct investment in the mining sector in 2009 – while more than half was directed toward domestic manufacturing, finance, and construction industries. China has further committed $10 billion in concessional loans to Africa between 2009 and 2012.
As Africa’s largest trading partner, China imports 1.5 million barrels of oil from Africa per day, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of its total imports. Over the past decade, 750,000 Chinese nationals have settled in Africa; China’s deepening economic engagement in Africa and its crucial role in developing the mineral sector, telecommunications industry and much needed infrastructural projects iscreating "deep nervousness" in the West, according to David Shinn, the former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
Too big to fail, or too big to succeed?
In December 2012, Dr J Peter Pham published a bizarre Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, “To Save Congo, Let It Fall Apart.” Pham is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center and is a frequent guest lecturer on the US Army War College, the Joint Special Operations University, and other US Government affiliated educational institutions; he is a Washington insider, and understanding his rationale is important, as his opinion may very well shape US policy in Congo. Pham argues that Congo is an “artificial entity” that is “too big to succeed,” and therefore, the policy direction taken by the US should be one of promoting balkanization:
“Rather than nation-building, what is needed to end Congo’s violence is the opposite: breaking up a chronically failed state into smaller organic units whose members share broad agreement or at least have common interests in personal and community security… If Congo were permitted to break up into smaller entities, the international community could devote its increasingly scarce resources to humanitarian relief and development, rather than trying, as the United Nations Security Council has pledged, to preserve the ‘sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity’ of a fictional state that is of value only to the political elites who have clawed their way to the top in order to plunder Congo’s resources and fund the patronage networks that ensure that they will remain in power.”
What Pham is suggesting is policy to bring out the collapse of the Congolese nation by creating tiny ethno-nationalist entities too small to stand up to multinational corporations. The success of M23 must surely have shaken President Kabila, whose father came to power with the backing of the Ugandan and Rwandan regimes in 1996, employing the same strategies that M23 is using today.
If Kabila wants to stay in power, he needs the capability of exercising authority over the entire country. Sanctions should be imposed on top-level Rwandan and Ugandan officials and all military aid should be withheld; additionally, Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame should be investigated and removed from his position. Kambale Musavuli, of the Washington DC-based NGO, Friends of Congo, has it right when he says:
“People need to be clear who we are fighting in the Congo… We are fighting Western powers, the United States and the United Kingdom, who are arming, training and equipping the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries.”
M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.(Reuters / James Akena)
Nile Bowie for RT