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D uring his address to the United Nations General Assembly on 22 September, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi denounced Rwandan “aggression” and highlighted Rwandese military incursion into North Kivu on 23 March. The president alleged Rwandan government support for the March 23 Movement (M23) militant group – an anti-Congolese government rebel group destabilising eastern DRC – and called on the international community to support regional mediation efforts.

The precarious security situation in eastern DRC and the resurgence of the M23 is a result of longstanding regional rivalries dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide where many of the perpetrators of the violence fled to the DRC. The post-1994 Rwandan government then launched military operations to force the perpetrators’ repatriation to face justice. Rwanda believes that the DRC continues to provide refuge for Hutu génocidaires. These fugitives of justice have predominantly grouped together as Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) or FDLR, whose stated aim is the overthrow of the Rwandan government.

These historic low-level tensions erupted into a veritable crisis in November 2021 near the Uganda-Rwanda border and the crisis has worsened throughout 2022. The DRC has blamed Rwanda for reorganising and arming the M23, basing its claims on evidence from a report by United Nations Security Council experts. However, Rwanda has repeatedly denied these allegations. Both Rwanda and the DRC have claimed that the other is set on bringing down the other’s government.

In response, the East African Community (EAC) established a joint force in April under Kenyan command to restore stability to the regional bloc’s newest member. An agreement was signed between DRC and the EAC on 11 September that authorises the deployment of EAC troops to the eastern DRC to root out “negative forces” in the area. The force has a six-month mandate.

Commercial stakes

M23’s resurgence is cannot solely be viewed through a political prism. The arc extending from Bunagana on Uganda’s border, through Kanyabayonga, to Goma in the DRC, covers a lucrative mining belt which contains some of the world’s largest deposits of coltan used in almost every electronic device. The DRC produces more than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, a key ingredient in electric car batteries. It also holds 60 percent of global coltan resources and is the world’s fourth-biggest producer of copper. Copper and cobalt are strategic minerals which are critical in the success of a just transition to clean energy. Rwanda and the DRC also process significant production volumes of tungsten (3T), yet another critical mineral.

There is abundant evidence that rebel groups, including M23, control strategic informal supply chains running from mines in the Kivu region. Insurgents use proceeds from the illicit trade of coltan, diamonds and gold to buy weapons; recruit and control artisanal miners; and allegedly pay corrupt Congolese customs and border officials as well as security forces. These illicit operations are often laced with inter-group violence as rebels seek to control key mines and strategic transport routes. Several UN investigations indicate that Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda, export minerals that cannot be found within their borders; a report published by the UN Group of Experts on DR Congo on 10 June 2021, highlights how gold and coltan are smuggled across the border from the DRC to Rwanda. Smugglers take advantage of the more favourable tax regime, depriving the DRC of much-needed revenue and locking it in a cycle of under-development.

Navigating complexity

During former president Joseph Kaliba’s tenure, Kinshasa and Beijing signed a set of mining contracts now referred to as the “Chinese contracts” between 2007 and 2008. They paved the way for Chinese companies to build roads and hospitals in exchange for access to copper, cobalt and gold reserves. Infrastructure development delays prompted Tshisekedi in May 2021 to review some of these contracts.

Concerns of incidents of human rights abuses at Chinese-owned companies coupled with allegations that Chinese companies are engaged in illegal extraction and smuggling of mineral resources, especially in eastern DRC, strained bilateral relations. Chinese Ambassador to the DRC Zhu Jing has publicly spoken out against Chinese companies illegally exploiting local mineral resources. He has also agreed to work with the DRC government in its planned review and assessment of Chinese mining companies’ contracts.

Allegations levied against Chinese companies underscore the challenges facing Congolese regulatory authorities. In addition to trying to tackle illegal extraction and environmental, authorities are on the back-foot when it comes to preventing child labour and human rights abuses. In 2020, the DRC made moderate advancements towards eliminating the worst forms of child labour.  However, progress is slow and children are still used as armed combatants, sometimes through forcible recruitment or abduction by non-state armed groups.

Image of miners working in Democratic Republic of Congo mines.
Image sourced from: Capital and Main

An estimated 40,000 children work in inhumane conditions in the artisanal mining of cobalt alone, according to a 2016 report from Amnesty International and the Congolese Afterwatch. Although the government aims to “eradicate child labour in mining by 2025”, funding and capacity constraints make this a lofty goal. It does, however, place the onus on mining companies – Western and Chinese alike – to positively contribute to responsible supply chain management. Adoption of the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas provides a high degree of assurance and accountability.

Struggling to de-escalate

The latest tensions risk destabilising the region, disrupting trade routes and further entrenching exploitative militia groups in border areas. The EAC joint intervention is unavoidable but armed interventions in the region do not have a successful record. Furthermore, enlisting countries with strategic and economic interests along the Rwanda-DRC border could escalate an already volatile situation.

If left unchecked, there is a real prospect of war “if Rwanda’s provocation continues,” according to Tshisekedi. A bilateral war would quickly suck in regional neighbours and traditional allies of both states. In addition to widespread fatalities and economic disruption in allied countries, the war would disrupt cobalt, coltan and copper supplies. Companies and organisations operating in the border areas are advised to increase monitoring of the political situation, regularly update their risk assessments and revise responses to threats against personnel and physical assets.

In the medium term, the operating and security environment will be positively impacted by a series of multi-pronged confidence building measures initiated by regional mediators for the DRC and Rwanda’s benefit. The bilateral trade potential is downplayed but could become an important trust building tool in the medium term. The DRC, with a population of 90 million people, is Rwanda’s biggest regional trading partner. The latest World Bank report on Rwanda “Boosting regional trade integration in the post-Covid era” observed that DRC is a growing trade opportunity for Rwanda. Exports have grown in the last decade and Rwanda’s exports to the DRC are more than the combined EAC total. Precedent can be found in other parts of the world for using economic partnership to restore and improve diplomatic relations. The regional Doomsday Clock inches closer to midnight while Kinshasa and Kigali dawdle.