Updated: Nov 3, 2022
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been subject to constant conflict majorly because of the unequal access to natural resources in the area. This has led to constant wars among the tribes and exclusion of certain tribes from accessing land or other basic resources. Eventually, people started utilizing the mineral-rich area for making arms and ammunition. The area also became a hub of illegal trading as well. As a result of this, there has been a constant displacement of people. Several armed groups have been financing their military campaigns via the exploitation of natural resources. There have also been instances of government soldiers running illegal mining operations in the area. Even though there are countries and governments involved, however, they have almost negligible effect when it comes to tackling such issues since the major power of control remains with the local mafias.
In the month of July this year, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) members participated in the Arria-Formula meeting which was titled “the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Great Lakes Region: how to translate the ongoing positive regional momentum into new options for conflict prevention, management and reform”. An Arria-formula meeting is a confidential, informal meeting held by the UNSC members to have a frank and private exchange of views within a procedural framework. It was so named after Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela who started this initiative in 1992.
The main aim of this year’s meeting was to emphasize the need for a holistic and futuristic approach to end the regional conflict and illegal exploitation of the natural resources of the Great Lakes Region. There have also been past efforts with respect to the improvement of mineral tracing in the region but implementation has constantly been an area of concern. Furthermore, the concept note of the meeting has mentioned the probability of an opportunity of achieving “peace-building, conflict prevention and economic development” of the area. The President of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Felix Tshisekedi, has been credited with trying to maintain friendly and cordial relations with its neighboring countries in order to promote peace in the region. Furthermore, DRC’s relationships with the IMF and UN have also improved. Several international players like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank Group and the African Development Bank have also been involved in such several meetings of natural resource management in the area. There was also a special mission formed by the UN specifically for the Great Lakes Region- UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). MONUSCO has been credited with providing relative general stability in the region over the past few years.
A brief history of conflict in the region
In 2016, DRC surpassed Syria in the no. of people displaced from their countries thereby generating one of the largest population movements. Tanganyika, Kivu and Kasai provinces have been the most affected because of the continuous violence emanating in these areas. The conflicts are usually inter-ethnic ones. The two major ethnicities of the region have been the Twa and the Bantu groups. They have been at constant war with each other. The Twa, who are also called “pygmies”, have been constantly excluded by the Bantu groups from various decision-making processes and access to land and natural resources. This had led to discontent and hatred amongst the pygmies against the Bantus. Ever since then, the two groups have constantly been fighting, and these groups have thwarted any efforts of peace because of the lack of trust between them. Self-defence militia groups have been formed by them which are financed by illegal mining and exploitation of the natural resources in the area. MONUSCO, the UN Mission in Congo, which is supported by the Congolese Armed Forces have been trying to pacify and bring about peace in the province. Furthermore, every time anyone of the people of either of the groups is held responsible for the illegal exploitation or his involvement in any murder or any heinous crime, the groups accuse the government of bias. This further hampers any possibility of talks in order to stop this continuous conflict and bringing about peace in the region. However, MONUSCO to some extent has managed to resolve disputes in some areas by sending most of the inhabitants to their original villages where they belong and have also set up several displacement camps. However, the locals have constantly been raising their concerns over the excessive use of power by the armed forces. Over the years the armed forces have been accused of over-stepping and misusing their power and shooting people, thereby further escalating violence in the region.
Despite the fact that MONUSCO has been trying hard to maintain peace in the area, the allegations of the armed forces using excessive violence are going against the mission’s vision of the area. It has also been found that the U.N. peacekeeping troops have been resorting to violence in the eastern Kivu province by forcing people to return home. The UN’s outgoing Special Envoy of the African Great Lakes Region has been stating that “peace has now been largely restored”, and that any allegations to the contrary threaten the maintainability of peace and cordial relations in the region. The fact that U.N. Envoy’s speech and the locals’ version of the story do not match is something to be looked into. It raises questions if people are being literally silenced for the depiction of peace in the region. This not only questions the transparency but also the accountability on the part of the U.N. Furthermore, MONUSCO was established pursuant to MONUC (another UN peacekeeping mission) in 2010 and since 2013, vide several resolutions it kept being extended for a period of one year until 2019. The 2019 resolution extended the tenure of MONUSCO up until December 2020. The Arria-Formula meeting needs to reflect properly whether the aims and objectives for which MONUSCO was formed, has been achieved only on paper or whether they got to see the light of the day or not. Even though there is relatively less violence now in the region, the fact that whether it can be attributed to MONUSCO and the armed forces or not, should be carefully scrutinized. Furthermore, the question of whether the Congolese government has been actually funding the militia or not needs to be investigated since there is no smoke without fire. Such an investigation shall bring out the truth and will further help in strengthening the cordial relations that have been achieved in the area. Investigating such allegations shall also help in raising the issue among the higher appropriate authorities. These authorities might then help in deciding on the further course of action to deal with them if the statements turn out to be true. All of this eventually should help decide whether the extension of MONUSCO’s tenure should be considered or not. Even though the parties have been preparing for its exit, a strategy is still needed to make sure the rule of law is upheld and that only the government has the required control and power in the region. Hence, it is imperative that such a strategy should focus on ways to stop illegal mining and exploitation of resources in the area. Perhaps, including third-country governance or aid in the area could be considered until peace and order are regained in the region. When this happens, then subsequently, the reins of governance could be handed down back to the Congolese government.
The fact that the displaced people were sent back to their original villages and displacement camps where set-up is a concern that should be looked into. Sending displaced people back shows a blatant disregard for human lives in an area wrought with conflict. Instead, even if the displaced people were to be sent back, adequate protection should have been given to them against the threat of the rival group. The region has seen one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and people are still living under the constant fear of gender-based and sex-based violence. All these things should call for a more humane and responsible action on the part of the decision-making authorities. Therefore, in order to bring peace in the area, both the victims and the oppressor need to be understood and given a fair distribution or allocation of resources in accordance with the principles of equity. Efforts should be taken not only to educate children but the elder and grown-up people too. Steps need to be taken to end the Twa and Bantu conflict once and for all by focusing on uniting them rather than resorting to further violence. Unless all these goals have been considered and achieved to the maximum, it is imperative that MONUSCO’s workings be analyzed and scrutinized. These steps should be kept in mind while formulating a strategy for the region in the absence of MONUSCO. While focusing on ending the illegal exploitation in the region, simultaneous and continuous humanitarian efforts should be made and continued till the region becomes self-sufficient.