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Five reasons why you might be confused about Congo

Col. Sultani Makenga of the rebel forces formerly known as M23, now the Congolese Revolutionary Army.
Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
Flickr, dag

Congo makes a lot of people feel like the hapless Mr. Jones in Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man:

“You know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is.”

For example:

The news today out of Congo is that the Rwandan-backed rebels  — known either as M23 or the Congolese Revolutionary Army, who have been fighting with the official (non-revolutionary) Congolese Army and against other militias made up of Rwandans who years ago fled to Congo during the genocide — have decided not to withdraw from the city of Goma.  As the AP reports:

The delay raises the possibility that the M23 rebels don’t intend to leave the city they seized last week, giving credence to a U.N. expert report that says neighboring Rwanda is using the rebels as a proxy to annex territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo.

UN peacekeepers evacuate children from Goma, Congo

One thing that’s fairly safe to predict when it comes to these chronic conflicts in the eastern provinces of DR Congo (the ‘DR’ now perhaps standing for Destructively Repetitious as opposed to Democratic Republic) is that the players there almost never do what they say they’re going to do and whatever they report to outsiders is such a house-of-mirrors they could work for Congress.

So, I have decided to prepare a list of key points to keep in mind when reading about conflict in the Congo.

Full disclosure. I’ve been to that part of the world, but I’m certainly no expert. I’m doing this to try to make sense of this thing for myself. Maybe it will help others. Or not.

I’m labeling my list of five reasons as factoids because undisputed facts are in short supply when it comes to conflict in Congo. Appropriately enough, the meaning of the word ‘factoid‘ itself is disputed.

The three main players in this on-again-off-again war, Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, long ago learned how to confuse the narrative and keep pesky outsiders from identifying the primary source of conflict – let alone how to help resolve it. Sometimes people benefit from conflict and don’t want it resolved. Keeping the dialogue confused is one way to control what happens.

So here are my five reasons why most of us feel like Mr. Jones when it comes to Congo:

1. It’s difficult to say who is fighting who. This is the weirdest part of this fight. Rwanda has consistently claimed it is not involved even though it is, by most accounts, running the rebellion. Recently, Rwanda claims to have fought off a different Congo-based Rwandan militia that invaded its turf. I should point out that this is not the militia, known either as M23 or the Congolese Revolutionary Army, that almost everyone except Rwanda agrees Rwanda is directing. No, these are the Congo-based Hutu Rwandans that the mostly Tutsi Rwandans are fighting, in Congo — but the Hutu force denies the fighting happened anyway.

2. The ‘cycle of violence’ in Congo goes way back, and includes the United States. I’ve seen a number of stories that try to explain what caused this recent eruption of fighting. They often get bogged down with trying to explain (as in Factoid 1) the many different ethnic and cross-border disputes in this neck of central and east Africa. Here’s a good, typical example of an explainer news article from Reuters with a nice graphic map as well.


The map implies Congo’s problems are mostly internal and date back only a few decades. That’s misleading.

The news article is not bad — going back to the infamous, almost unbelievable abuses Congo suffered as a colony of Belgium under King Leopold and other deep historical wounds. It also makes brief mention of Congo as “a Cold War battleground fought over by rebels and mercenaries, CIA agents and Cuban guerrillas… (which) led to the long crippling kleptocracy of U.S.-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seku.”

Neglected here is that Mobutu was put in place after the CIA helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the elected president of Congo who favored more independence from the West. Also neglected is how much of the conflict there is externally supported by illicit trade in so-called blood minerals — which Western corporations need to make our cell phones and computers. Congo’s cycle of violence started as and has remained, to some extent, a cycle driven by external forces.

3. When the rebels say they will withdraw, nobody ever says where to. If the rebels known as M23 just pull out of Goma, so what? Rwandan President Paul Kagame continues to deny that the rebels are largely supported and run by his military, so where will they go if they withdraw? If this is, as Kagame contends, an internal matter and civil war, how does moving from one place to another within Congo solve anything? Talk of withdrawal seems to be implicit confirmation that the soldiers are foreign.

4. There appears to be little functioning government, or Congolese military, in the eastern half of Congo. The government of DR Congo is no great shakes even without conflict. It’s almost MIA in eastern Congo in part, as Jason Stearns explains in Foreign Policy, due to the turbulent history of this region and the weird backroom deals between Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and others — including a lot of complicity on the part of the U.S. and other Western governments.

But there is some kind of an infrastructure. The city of Goma is headquarters for hundreds of aid organizations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) as well a border city to Rwanda where much of the licit and illicit trade in so-called blood minerals takes place. The reason we’ve heard more about the invasion of Goma — as compared to other DRC towns attacked and overrun by the M23 — is it has a heavy Western presence. That’s probably why it’s gotten some media attention this time.

5. The real victims are seldom the focus of the news stories. As CNN notes, the American media in general (though not uniformly) and much of the world has tended to ignore the war in Congo. Part of this has to do with the fact that many just expect Congo to sporadically erupt and, frankly, it’s usually not at a scale during any one incident that gets our attention. Yet as Africa’s World War, it’s been a horrific calamity that has cost millions of lives. In this latest outbreak of fighting, something like 150,000 Congolese have been displaced, untold numbers of people have been killed or injured and the damage to this already wounded region will only make life much harder.

It’s tough being Dylan’s Mr. Jones, who the balladeer chastises to the point of ordering him to wear earphones(?)

But there is something big going on in Congo and we’d all do well to try to understand what it is.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.