The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Violent Future
The Democratic Republic of Congo lapses into ungovernability. President Kabila, in power for most of this century, continues to provide flimsy excuses for why the 2016 elections were postponed to late 2018. As a result of Kabila’s Fabian strategy of clinging to power, protests have spread throughout the country, with civilians killed by the DRC’s security forces. Kabila’s legitimacy is broken and his grasp over the country is weakening. It is easy to lose control of the DRC: it is 900 times the size of Luxembourg and has half as many miles of tarmacked road. As the state’s power declines, conflict becomes more common: separatist movements, local defence militias, remnants of the Congolese security forces and, perhaps in the future, organisations backed by the DRC’s neighbours, will start to fill the gaps of governance in the country.
This would represent a return to the state of ongoing low-level conflict which characterised the Second Congo War, in which millions of civilians perished from hunger and disease. Cholera and malnutrition have already returned in force. Furthermore the arrival of a new technology may lead to a further weakening of the heart of Africa.
The imminent arrival of the electric vehicle revolution, in which battery-powered cars and lorries supersede those powered by fossil fuels indirectly jeopardises the DRC. The batteries on which these electric vehicles will depend require rare minerals, including coltan and cobalt. At least 50% of the world’s coltan is found in the DRC. These minerals have been part of the DRC’s story for several decades (the popularity of Sony’s PlayStation consoles in the 90s drove up the price of coltan, which is considered a reason for violence in the country dragging on - rebel groups, the government and foreign powers all had reason to fight for control of coltan sources), but the need for coltan and cobalt is about to explode.
Foreign powers have become involved in the DRC frequently and violently, able to pursue their own interests in the Congo because it is so vast and weak. In the early 1990s the Rwandan army invaded the DRC in order to combat domestic enemies, triggering the First Congo War. During the Second Congo War, Zimbabwe and Angola intervened, keeping Kabila in power after his father, the first president Kabila, was assassinated.
The DRC’s neighbours have motive, means, opportunity and form for intervening on its sovereign territory. The motive is the DRC’s incredible mineral wealth, which will only increase in value. The means is the relative power of better governed countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Angola (almost every other country on the planet is better governed than the DRC). The opportunity is the DRC’s weakness, and the wider weakness of the international system to prevent such an intervention.
Firstly cobalt and coltan (along with gold, diamonds, copper and other valuable resources found in the DRC) will increase in value while remaining difficult to get: violence in mineral-rich regions, international restrictions on coltan mining and the Dodd-Frank Act, an American law intended to make mining “conflict coltan” harder for rebels, have shrunk the coltan economy, As demand increases and supply is strained, the DRC’s great wealth might prove tempting to its neighbours.
Now let us look at the DRC’s neighbours: Angola has a long history of overt and covert aggression with its northern neighbour. Its economy is overwhelmingly dependent on oil. Should batteries and coltan start to supersede oil, what would it take for Angola to start glancing covetously across the border? Relations between the two countries are already tense: the Angolan president’s son-in-law, who is Congolese, has been convicted in absentia for corruption in a move which is likely politically motivated punishment for Angola’s recent harder stance against the Kabila government for its various recent antidemocratic moves. Relatedly, refugees are fleeing the DRC’s Kasai province for safety in Angola.
Rwanda and Uganda are in similar positions: they share a border with the Ituri and Kivu regions in eastern Congo, of which Kabila has almost completely lost control. Congolese are fleeing across Lake Albert to avoid flaring violence between rebel groups and government security forces, bringing cholera into Uganda. Congolese and Rwandan soldiers have killed each other in Congo’s Virunga National Park, suggesting Rwandan forces are already operating in the DRC. Furthermore, Kagame of Rwanda and Museveni of Uganda have both personally ordered invasions of the DRC before. They have form.
These countries have the opportunity to intervene. Cross-border instability provides an adequate casus belli. Indeed, the Congolese in Kivu, Kasai and Ituri might be glad of Angolan, Ugandan and Rwandan intervention if it protects them from the depredations of various domestic factions. On the wider geopolitical stage, North Korea, the rise of China, the Syrian and Yemen wars, the frozen conflict in Ukraine and the slow motion fragmentation of the Trump presidency have all distracted and weakened the international system. If no one can control Syria, in the heart of Eurasia, surrounded by great powers, who is going to control the Congolese chaos? If the Kinshasa government ceases to govern parts of the DRC, who is going to stop intervention by, for example, Rwandan forces, especially if they have credible evidence of, for example, Congolese war crimes or Congolese violence spreading into Rwanda?
A hypothetical scenario: Kabila’s grip continues to loosen. He uses violence to maintain control in some of the cities but Kasai, Ituri and Kivu flare into open insurrection (as Kivu did before the first Congo War). Refugees and violence continue to cross into neighbouring countries. The UN mission in the DRC is reporting mass malnutrition and the spread of preventable disease. The price of coltan has increased (in reality, its price doubled over the last year) due to the proliferation of electric vehicles and the increasing difficulty of getting it out of the Congo. Uganda, Rwanda and Angola are already paying the price for the DRC’s instability, hosting tens of thousands of refugees and fighting border skirmishes. Motive, means, opportunity and form.
We know what might happen at this point, because it has happened in the DRC before: Angola’s (and Zimbabwe’s) intervention in the Second Congo War was motivated in part to protect its investments in DRC mineral wealth. More covertly, there are extensive reports of Rwandan military involvement with “artisanal” coltan mining in eastern Congo. Rebel groups were given support in exchange for promising access to mineral resources as a spoil of victory, including Kabila’s father. If parts of the DRC become ungoverned, who is going to stop this resuming? Are Uganda, Rwanda and Angola going to tolerate vacuums on their borders full of potential riches while Kabila’s control ossifies and the rest of the world is distracted by other issues.
In short, over the next several years, there is the risk of another scramble for the DRC. Foreign occupation and resource exploitation has been the tragic story of the Congo since the Belgian occupation. Its longest period of independence was guaranteed by the US during the Cold War. No one is guaranteeing the DRC’s independence like that anymore. Kabila has left his country almost up for grabs and there is money to be made. When this has been the case in the past, the country has been grabbed.