For a conflict that killed around 3.5 million civilians, give or take, the Second Congo War is remarkably unknown to the world. Chris Clarke has a good post about the coltan angle of the conflict, which is basically Johann Hari’s report with less fluff; it’s riddled with standard issue guilt-based arguments, but there are enough gems in the post that any sane person should be able to focus on its important parts.
The Second Congo War is basically what happens when you have an area whose political stability matches the geological stability of San Francisco. That Congo has ample supplies of coltan, which is used to produce tantalum, which is important in electronics, certainly didn’t help. It transformed an already brewing civil war into a painful resource extraction exercise. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that Congo wouldn’t have been much better off without coltan.
Congo-Kinshasa had never been blessed with good leadership. It used to be a colony of Belgium, possibly the worst colonial ruler any country could have in the imperial age; the King who at one point owned it personally, Leopold II, was especially ruthless. When it became independent, a Cold War conflict in southern Africa involving Angola’s communist government, Che Guevara, and CIA-backed Cuban exiles caused the US to unconditionally back an authoritarian Congolese ruler named Mobutu.
Fast forward to 1996, when Mobutu had ruled for 31 years without holding a single free election and failed to engage in any kind of economic development. Mobutu’s grip on power was finally weakening, after running out of money to pay salaries to public officials. A rebel leader named Kabila who had the army and the backing of several surrounding African countries managed to overthrow Mobutu and establish himself as the President of Zaire, renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
By 1998, Kabila found himself in opposition to the countries that had put him in power. Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated government had persistent troubles with the fact that the Interhamwe, the Hutu group that committed the Rwandan genocide back in 1994, was now based in the Congo. When Kabila replaced his Rwandan chief of staff with a Congolese one and booted Rwandan and Ugandan advisors from the country, things started deteriorating.
Ethnic Tutsis living in eastern Congo were alarmed, and Rwanda and Uganda used a mutiny as a pretext for an invasion. It was supposed to be a blitzkrieg, but turned into a protracted war. Kabila had his own backers: the Angolan government believed Kabila would be better for its own internal power struggles with rebels than a new President, while Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Namibia’s Nujoma had personal stakes in Congolese mining operations. The US supported him for various business-related reasons, most of which boil down to diamonds.
What followed was five years of war that quickly became all-against-all. The factions’ interests ranged from cracking down on some rebel group (Kabile) to natural resources (Rwanda) to genocide (Interhamwe). Due to both the factions’ control of coltan mining operations and the government’s abject weakness, militia groups were and still are able to pay workers far better than any legitimate group.
Officially, the war is over. People are certainly not being killed or raped at the same rate they were six years ago. But the Transitional Government established in 2003 is closer to a darker version of the Palestinian government, complete with violent clashes between parties, than to a stable government. As late as 9/2004, a thousand civilians were killed in clashes every day. And the rapes still continue, though the main problem has become what to do about the hundreds of thousands of rape victims, whose families shun them.