Opposition leader Félix Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) presidential elections held in late December 2018 and was inaugurated in January 2019. The transfer of power from former President Joseph Kabila, who ruled for eighteen years and had delayed elections multiple times, marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the DRC’s history. However, election results have since been questioned. Technical issues and irregularities, including a delay in voting for more than a million people, marred the election itself and polling data indicates that a different opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, may have actually won.
Tshisekedi inherited a number of crises across the DRC, including an Ebola outbreak in the east and ongoing violence across the country, particularly in the Ituri, Kasai, and Kivu regions. More than one hundred armed groups, such as the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces, are believed to operate in the eastern region of the DRC. Despite the presence of more than sixteen thousand UN peacekeepers, these groups continue to terrorize communities and control weakly governed areas. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the fighting: the United Nations estimates there are currently 4.5 million internally displaced persons in the DRC, and more than 800,000 DRC refugees in other nations.
The origins of the current violence in the DRC are in the massive refugee crisis and spillover from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After Hutu génocidaires fled to eastern DRC and formed armed groups, opposing Tutsi and other opportunistic rebel groups arose. The Congolese government was unable to control and defeat the various armed groups, some of which directly threatened populations in neighboring countries, and war eventually broke out.
From 1998 to 2003, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe fought rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda in what is known as the Second Congo War. While estimates vary greatly, the death toll may have reached over three million people. Despite a peace deal in 2002 and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, ongoing violence perpetrated by armed groups against civilians in the eastern region has continued, largely due to poor governance, weak institutions, and rampant corruption.
One of the most prominent rebel groups to emerge in the aftermath of the war was known as the March 23 Movement (M23), made up primarily of ethnic Tutsis who were allegedly supported by the Rwandan government. M23 rebelled against the Congolese government for supposedly reneging on a peace deal signed in 2009. The UN Security Council authorized an offensive brigade under the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to support the DRC state army in its fight against M23. The Congolese army and UN peacekeepers defeated the group in 2013, but other armed groups have since emerged.
The country’s massive resource wealth—estimated to include $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources—also fuels violence. The mineral trade provides financial means for groups to operate and buy arms. The United States passed legislation in 2010 to reduce the purchase of “conflict minerals” and prevent the funding of armed militias, but complex supply chains in the DRC mineral sale business have made it difficult for companies that purchase resources from secondhand buyers to obtain certification. As a result, multinational companies have stopped buying minerals from the DRC altogether, putting many miners out of work and even driving some to join armed groups to gain a source of livelihood.
Weak governance and the prevalence of many armed groups have subjected Congolese civilians to widespread rape and sexual violence, massive human rights violations, and extreme poverty. The African Union, United Nations, and neighboring countries have struggled to address threats posed by rebel groups and promote sustainable development. Continued violence in the DRC may eventually spill over into Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda—countries with longstanding ties with the United States.