Beneath the canopies of the wild, mountainous provinces of North and South Kivu in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) lie mineral rich seams containing large gold and coltan deposits which have long been at the heart of conflicts with neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.
In recent months, the resurgence of long-simmering rivalries has sparked a crisis between Kinshasa and Kigali, with the DRC accusing Rwanda of backing rebels who are profiting from extraction of the area’s mineral riches. No swift end is in sight as it is in the interests of both sides to play for time, say experts.
Since May the DRC army has been locked in clashes with the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23), who have been waging a fresh offensive on strategic towns on the Ugandan border after seizing vast swathes of territory in a 2012-13 insurrection. The violence has killed more than 800 people and displaced more than 160,000 people so far this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“There is absolutely no doubt Rwanda is backing the March 23rd Movement,” DRC President Felix Tshisekedi alleged in an interview with the Financial Times on 5 July.
The conflict comes almost a decade after a peace deal was sealed between the DRC and M23, and more than two decades after Rwanda and Uganda first intervened the DRC in support of allied military groups, spurring a string of conflicts that came to be known as “Africa’s World War”. The wars drew in several African countries and spawned an assortment of armed militias, each seeking access to resources.
Tshisekedi has warned that the new wave of conflict could lead to all-out war with Rwanda: “This possibility cannot be ruled out. If Rwanda’s provocation continues, we will not sit and do nothing about it. We are not weak,” he said on 5 July.
Time is of the essence – and so are politics
“Time is an important factor for both sides. It is important for Félix Tshisekedi who faces general elections [in the DRC] next year,” says Jean Pierre Okenda, a Congolese lawyer and senior analyst at Brussels-based advocacy group Resource Matters.
The DRC is ill prepared for a war with Rwanda, according to Okenda, and the president’s speeches may be little more than posturing ahead of his re-election bid.
“When you look at the budget of the Democratic Republic of Congo and how much funding the government has allocated for the army, I don’t see any evidence of preparing for war,” says Okenda.
“I believe these statements [by Tshisekedi] are political posturing ahead of the general elections next year. It is very nationalist speech that says to the Congolese, yeah, we’re ready and capable of handling Rwanda.”
Tshisekedi took office three years ago despite widespread accusations of fraud, including an FT analysis of two voting databases that showed his opponent Martin Fayulu had won the presidential election. Tshisekedi is expected to stand for re-election next year and may have to work hard to earn votes.
“You can see on social media that people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are unhappy with the president, the way he has managed the crisis and the country. Making a hostile speech against Rwanda allows him to improve his image and he knows that,” says Okenda.
One challenge faced by Tshisekedi is the implementation of an agreement in 2019 with M23 and another in 2021 with Rwanda, the latter of which protects investments between the two countries, avoids double taxation and the avoidance of taxes, and addresses concerns over gold mining. The president is now struggling to implement these agreements.
“The regional diplomacy of the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo is objectively leading us towards a prolongation and aggravation of the instability,” said Congolese doctor and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege on 20 July.
In fact, by design or not, Tshisekedi’s “diplomacy” is contributing to “worsening instability” he said.
Recent history indicates that Tshisekedi may be no stranger to political theatrics. Earlier this year, his government alleged that a rival had plotted a coup, but a mysterious lack of information raised suspicions of foul play.
On the other side, Rwanda has a vested interest in dragging its feet in efforts to mend relations with the DRC.
“From Rwanda’s perspective, the normalisation of relations will generate less profit for them. The longer it delays the process, the longer it continues to benefit,” says Okenda.
“Normalisation” refers to the 2021 agreement between the DRC and Rwanda, which includes bringing more traceability to mineral supply chains and revenue sharing between the two countries. The DRC is rich in minerals and traceability takes aim at the rampant smuggling of these resources, in which Rwanda has long been believed to play a role.
The US Treasury said in March that “more than 90% of DRC gold is smuggled to regional states, including Uganda and Rwanda, where it is then often refined and exported to international markets, particularly the UAE.”
It added that in the eastern DRC where “there are approximately 130 active armed groups, the gold trade is a major driver of conflict”.
Similarly, the NGO Global Witness published a study in April finding that as much as 90% of coltan (the main source of tantalum), tin and tungsten – three minerals known as “3T minerals” – exported by Rwanda are illegally introduced from the DRC.
The question of resources puts much at stake for both the DRC and Rwanda. The Kibali mine in the DRC was Africa’s second biggest producer of gold by volume last year. Its output of 191,000 ounces of gold has become all the more valuable as the price of gold has soared.
The other mineral is coltan, of which the DRC is estimated to be the world’s largest producer with an output of 700 tonnes last year. Used in the production of tantalum capacitors which in turn are used in the manufacture of electronic devices like phones, it is another highly valuable commodity.
Another less tangible resource is land and political leverage. The conflict could give Rwanda a strong bargaining chip in negotiations with the DRC.
Beyond borders and resources
The conflict reaches beyond Kivu province and Congo, as countries across the developed world look to Africa for minerals like gold and coltan.
The strong language used by Tshisekedi could very well be a signal to allies in the developed world, like the US, as well as the people of the DRC.
“It is no secret that the US is a strong ally of President Tshisekedi and, of course, they have expectations vis-à-vis his regime,” says a source who wishes to remain anonymous. His strong language may be “partially to demonstrate that he is fulfilling his part of this mandate.”
Statements from Tshisekedi like “we are not weak” could also send a message to other African nations according to the source.
Despite the conflict, the economies of both the DRC and Rwanda are expected to grow significantly this year. The IMF predicts GDP growth of 6.4% in both countries. Growth in the DRC is expected to continue to be bolstered by increased international demand for minerals like cobalt and copper.
With support from the IMF and World Bank, Rwanda has made economic reforms in recent years and now aspires to middle-income status by 2035.
By contrast, the DRC is among the five poorest nations in the world, according to the World Bank. However, the country has made some strides of its own, including joining the East African Community in March, which should unlock significant economic opportunities for the eastern part of the vast country.
Reserves in the central bank jumped from $800m in 2020 to $3.3bn in October 2021, thanks to increased payments from Chinese buyers and $1.4bn worth of IMF special drawing rights (SDRs).