The Democratic Republic of the Congo has suffered two wars since 1996. At its height, the second war involved the armies from seven African nations and multiple rebel groups. According to the International Rescue Committee, an estimated 5.4 million people died between 1998 and 2008, most from preventable diseases as a result of the collapse of infrastructure, lack of food security, displacement, and destroyed health-care systems. The formal conclusion of the war in 2003 did not bring an end to conflict in the region.
The dense jungles of eastern Congo remain home to numerous rebel organizations, which have complex histories and agendas. Responsible for perpetrating mass atrocities against civilians, including massacres, rapes, and abductions, three rebel groups stand out as having caused the greatest destruction and suffering in recent years. These are the FDLR, CNDP, and LRA. At times, each organization has received government support from different countries in the region, and many of the rebels have profited generously from the continued exploitation of the DRC’s abundant natural resources. All prey on the civilian population.
Spread thinly across northeastern Congo, the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world (MONUC) is largely unable to halt attacks. The Congolese Armed Forces, themselves responsible for committing widespread atrocities in 2009, is increasingly an impediment to achieving peace and security in the region.
What follows are background summaries for the FDLR, CNDP, and LRA. We hope they will help extend an understanding of what can appear to be, at first glance, a hopelessly complicated situation. Please follow the links to learn more.
National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP): A rebel group in the Kivu Provinces of eastern Congo, the CNDP was formally established by Laurent Nkunda in December 2006. A familiar figure in the region, Nkunda has been leading various rebel factions as early as December 2003.
Ostensibly dedicated to defending the rights of Tutsi civilians in North Kivu and Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda, militias associated with Nkunda clashed with the Congolese army early after the DRC’s first multi-party elections in 2006. In a peace process facilitated by Rwanda, Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Nkunda negotiated the integration of Nkunda’s men into five brigades within the national army through a process known locally as mixage. The agreement ultimately collapsed in May 2007 under opposition from both CNDP and Congolese government hardliners. This led to a new escalation in violence as rebel loyalists in the new brigades helped strengthen Nkunda’s control over the region.
As the Congolese army struggled to defeat the CNDP and recapture authority over the mixed brigades, the CNDP dedicated itself to the eradication of the FDLR. The CNDP considered the FDLR – a powerful rebel group in eastern Congo that at times operated in collaboration with the Congolese army — to be preparing another genocide against Tutsi. Stoking the situation, Rwandan President Kagame credited Nkunda with legitimate grievances. Although Kagame denied involvement with Nkunda, the UN Security Council released a report in December 2008 that found evidence that Rwandan authorities were complicit in the recruitment of CNDP soldiers, including children; facilitated the supply of military equipment; and sent officers and units from the Rwandan armed forces to the Congo in support of the CNDP.
The atrocities perpetrated by men under Nkunda’s command over the past decade are also well documented: the massacre of several hundred deserters in Kisangani in 2002; days of pillage in Bukavu after it was seized by the CNDP in 2004; and, in November 2008, the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in Kiwanja, a tiny village northeast of Goma, during fighting to seize control of North Kivu.
After aborted peace agreements and fresh clashes in 2007 and 2008, increased international pressure finally compelled the DRC and Rwanda to address the deteriorating situation together. Rwanda agreed to withdraw its support from the CNDP, while the DRC agreed to a joint military operation with the Rwandan army against the FDLR. On January 23, 2009, Rwandan forces arrested Nkunda as he was fleeing into Rwanda from an attack on his base in Bunagana. Furthering the disintegration of the CNDP, Bosco Ntaganda, Nkunda’s chief of staff, announced he had taken control of nearly half of the CNDP forces. Agreeing to integrate his faction into the Congolese army, Ntaganda was given a position as deputy commander of the joint military offensive, despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes. On March 23, the remaining CNDP faction signed a peace treaty with the government, agreeing to become a political party in exchange for amnesty.
Undoubtedly signifying an improvement in the political relationship between the two nations, the operation itself was a humanitarian disaster. It provoked revenge killings and rapes from FDLR rebels and drove more than 900,000 people from their homes. The Congolese government struggled to incorporate at least 12,000 former CNDP rebels into the Congolese military. With its ranks swollen by the rapid integration of former rebels, the Congolese army came under heavy criticism for attacking, burning, and looting villages, and killing and raping civilians.
Although the CNDP is no longer a cohesive organization, former rebels take advantage of extensive illicit networks anchored in neighboring countries and the chaos of continued violence in eastern Congo to exploit natural resources. A UN report in November 2009 described how former CNDP officers, now integrated into the Congolese army, continue to profit from their deployment in areas in the east.