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A nation must think before it acts.
The ongoing conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has cost approximately six million lives since 1996, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. Ethnic and geopolitical competition among DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and various non-state armed groups fuel the fighting. This conflict has displaced over five million Congolese, fueling a cycle of poverty and militarization.
Kenya, the United States, and its allies must work with DRC and its neighbors to resolve the conflict and establish the basis for a peaceful future for the region. The current conflict in eastern DRC could act as a tinderbox, igniting a Great Lakes conflagration that could engulf Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Ignoring this conflict today could lead to massive instability in Central and East Africa in the future, providing an avenue for Chinese or Russian involvement or Islamic State expansion.
Congo’s Conflict-Scarred Past and Present
How did DRC reach this endless state of conflict? Since the Rwandan Genocide of 1993–1994, eastern DRC has been plagued by conflict amongst a variety of armed factions. The factions represent different ethnic and religious groups. The genocide has fueled much of this conflict, as genocidaires and victims have both fled Rwanda at different times, leading to large refugee populations inhabiting eastern DRC to this day. These refugee populations reacted to a lack of strong governance in this remote section of DRC by building militias. DRC’s government has neither been able to solve the governance issue of administering a subcontinent, nor the numerous ethnic and tribal tensions that have resulted from this large refugee movement.
Eastern DRC is home to several displaced populations, who are themselves related to several of the key non-state actors involved in conflict today. Such non-state armed groups include M23, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, and the Allied Democratic Forces, as refugees have joined these groups in hopes of economic gain or due to ideological fervor. Such groups have been supported by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi at various points, acting as proxies for each state’s interests in the region. Rwanda has been accused of supporting M23 by DRC officials; Rwanda accused Uganda, DRC, and Burundi of supporting the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda; Burundi accused Rwanda of supporting RED-Tabara; and Uganda accuses Rwanda of supporting the Allied Democratic Forces.
In this way, neighbors Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda compete for economic control over Congo’s lucrative resources, military influence, and geopolitical fiefdoms within DRC. However, this dynamic of instability could lead to escalation and a larger regional conflict. The Great Lakes region, comprising Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and DRC have seen significant interstate conflict, genocide and civil war, and refugee movements since the 1990s. It is also one of the most densely populated areas of the world with approximately 107 million inhabitants. At least 3.3 million people in the region have been forcibly displaced. Conflict in this region could fuel instability, leading to the expansion of Islamist extremist groups, resulting in expanded connections with Russia and China, and increasing African fragility within the context of a continent beset by coups, skyrocketing food prices, and accelerating climate change.
Conflict in the DRC provides an avenue for economic exploitation for all parties involved, which can only exist while such parties are actively engaged in military operations. Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and their proxy groups have carved out their own economic fiefdom, eschewing DRC state control. Should the violence cease and the Congolese state regain formal state control, the state and private partners would control the mines, infrastructure projects, and oil wells that provide strong cash flows to the parties involved.
This begs the question: Why has the Congolese state not cracked down on such violence? Stearns argues that, despite President Felix Tshisikedi’s recent attempts at eliminating corruption from the military, DRC’s army is plagued by low pay and a lack of interest in conflict disengagement. Generals are earning the vast majority of their salaries through lucrative economic concessions, bribery, and informal security contracts in eastern DRC, meaning that there is little incentive for behavioral change nor a military interest in ending this conflict.
The Congolese Tinderbox
The Great Lakes states are engaged in such a protracted conflict within eastern DRC because this region is home to a variety of natural resources, including gold, diamonds, oil, and other precious metals. DRC is the world’s third largest diamond producer at 23 percent of global supply, the largest producer of cobalt at 70 percent, an essential rare earth element in the green technology revolution, and a significant producer of gold, copper, and tin. Many experts have categorized DRC as being “resource-cursed” because its natural bounty has invited outside intervention. Today, the top exports of Rwanda and Uganda are believed to have originated in DRC, particularly gold and tin, which have been allegedly smuggled into the other two countries for export. UN experts have also noted that Rwandan and Ugandan military expenditures included significant profits from resource exploitation in DRC.
Given its bountiful resources and weak governance, eastern DRC has seen low-scale conflict and outside competition for its bountiful resources for decades. This conflict presents a host of long-term issues, yet the bottom line is millions of deaths and widespread civilian suffering, while the elites on each side benefit from resource extraction. Still, as DRC expert and founder of the Congo Research Group Jason Stearns points out, the status quo of low-level, long-term conflict currently benefits state and non-state actors involved, but unexpected changes could lead to a greater conflagration.
In late 2021, Ugandan forces entered DRC to fight an armed group, the Allied Democratic Forces, based in northeastern DRC, leading to renewed border clashes between Congolese and Rwandan troops. Meanwhile, Rwanda has been accused of supporting M23, another armed group with ethnic connections to Rwanda’s government. Stearns argues that Rwanda wishes to maintain and build its own sphere of influence in DRC, just as Uganda and Burundi have done while fighting non-state actors with the consent of DRC’s government. To the Rwandan government, Congolese hostility toward Rwandan security assistance puts it at a disadvantage relative to Burundi and Uganda, its regional competitors for influence in eastern DRC.
An even greater conflagration in the Great Lakes region could ignite given the proper fuse. Several factors could lead to escalation. Should border skirmishes continue between DRC and Rwanda, a formal declaration of war could follow. This could also occur if heavy weapons, equipment, or high-ranking, uniformed officers were seen crossing into DRC from one of its neighbors. Further, Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundi forces could be caught up in firefights within DRC, leading to further political tensions should soldiers from any of these states be killed. After a DRC soldier crossed into Rwanda and was killed after firing at Rwandans, tensions ratcheted up in June of this year. Such events are sparkplug moments for greater military action.
Rwanda and Uganda have a long history of proxy warfare against each other, including supporting disparate elements of M23 today. Interstate conflict is never completely off the table, as both countries see competition in eastern DRC as a zero-sum game with a single winner. Should such a conflict occur, the consequences could threaten governments and populations across the Great Lakes region, likely contributing to further insecurity, refugee movements, and the multiplication and growth of non-state military groups.
Kenya, a regional leader based on economic size, population, and political footprint has thrown its hat into the ring as well, albeit as a peacemaker. With DRC’s recent accession to the East African Community, which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania, Kenya now has a political stake in the outcome of such conflicts and an interest in limiting greater warfare among East African Community members. The Kenyan government has already begun hosting talks between the parties involved, yet it has demurred to include M23, a key actor and potential spoiler, harming the efficacy of such diplomacy. Furthermore, the East African Community has agreed to deploy a Kenyan-led peacekeeping force to eastern DRC, although only Burundian forces have yet deployed. Initial results are less than promising, as Burundian troops appear to be mainly bolstering their country’s interests in the region.
Ongoing election issues and eventual results in Kenya may limit the country’s long-term involvement, as expected victor William Ruto or opposition leader Raila Odinga may develop foreign policy differences relative to former president Uhurra Kenyatta.
Other international actors have their own interests to consider at several levels of this conflict. Western states, particularly France, Belgium, and the United States, need to consider DRC’s significant refugee problems. DRC hosts 5.4 million internally displaced people due to conflict, a truly stunning number despite the country’s size. The DRC is also home to cobalt mines, which is a key metal used in evolving green technology. Cobalt is a key component in durable electric car batteries, and DRC’s massive reserves have drawn economic competition from US and Chinese companies seeking to break into a new, lucrative market. These humanitarian and economic concerns should fuel efforts to resolve the conflict to create a durable and lasting peace.
The United States and its allies should also pay attention to the activities of China, Russia, and extremist groups in the DRC and the Great Lakes region. Chinese companies have a significant economic role to play in DRC, including copper and cobalt concessions that are worth billions of dollars. In the event of a broader regional conflict, Chinese companies or the Chinese state may choose to call in private military contractors to protect their interests, as has already occurred in neighboring Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, and Zambia. This represents a potential spoiler for any peace process and another power broker in the region.
Russian proxies may also attempt to embed themselves in DRC. As seen in CAR and Mali, Wagner Group and other Russian private military contractors prefer to trade mineral concessions for security work, often accelerating the direct military relationship between the Russian state and the host country. Such a scenario could unfold in DRC as well, either in support of DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, or Burundi in the context of each state’s operations against non-state actors. Indeed, Victor Tokmakov, who worked to build relations between the Russian state, Wagner Group, and CAR, now holds a high rank in Russia’s embassy in Kinshasa and has offered Russian military equipment to bolster DRC’s military. This development could aggravate conflict in the country and create a security relationship against Western interests.
An expanded conflict in the Great Lakes could provide an opportunity for terrorist groups—specifically, the Islamic State—to recruit new members, conduct operations, and plan for activities around the continent. Although certain Islamist groups in eastern DRC, including the Allied Democratic Forces, have already pledged themselves in support of the Islamic State, actual connections between these parties are weak at present. Should conflict expand, this could certainly change, particularly given the proximity to Islamic State affiliates in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique.
Although elites in DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi reap the economic gains of emergency-style rule in eastern DRC, the status quo in the Great Lakes region could change at a moment’s notice. Simple missteps such as accidental firefights could trigger massive escalation on the part of any of these four players. The recent flare-up between DRC and Rwanda provides a stark reminder that the nature of warfare can change instantly.
Kenya, France, the United States, and other concerned parties should work to defuse these tensions and help establish formal political and economic control in eastern DRC. International commitment to a long-term peace process and a codification of legal economic and political relations in DRC are essential elements to prevent long-term political and economic instability in the Great Lakes region. The status quo—instability in exchange for economic gain—cannot continue forever. Chinese, Russian, or extremist involvement could occur should the status quo continue. Outside actors must address and mitigate this conflict as soon as possible.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.