Congo’s land conflicts prolong warfare in east

Congolese military police are deployed near the state broadcaster, which was briefly seized during unrest this week in Kinshasa, the capital.
(AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For nearly two decades, warfare in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has resulted in millions of deaths and cast the resource-rich region as the world capital of rape and crimes against humanity.

One reason for the epidemic of violence is the greed that goes along with the gold, tin and coltan mined from its steep, green hillsides. An additional factor is the military interference by neighbors to the east, Rwanda and Uganda.

Yet there’s also an underlying cause that is rarely addressed: land rights, and conflicts over it, problems as enduring as the soil under one’s feet, analysts say, complicated by factors present in so many of Africa’s conflicts: years of chaos, fighting and displacement.


In the slices of arable land beneath the misty volcanoes and emerald hills where cattle roam and banana trees blossom, intractable conflicts have spawned militias and set neighboring ethnic groups against one another.

The recent defeat of the rebel group M23 removed one dangerous faction, but is a far cry from peace.

The latest rounds of warfare began when Hutu extremists who carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide against Tutsis fled into eastern Congo, triggering an exodus of Congolese Tutsis into Rwanda. Rwanda has since armed and funded a string of proxy militias in eastern Congo, including M23, to protect its interests and those of Congolese Tutsis while denying involvement.

“There is an increased recognition that land issues are a key driver and sustaining factor of conflict in eastern DRC,” analyst Koen Vlassenroot of the Brussels-based Egmont Institute wrote in June. “Land issues are closely connected to dynamics of violence and conflict. The poor governance of land allocation and transfers has been a source of structural violence in the entire country, but it is mainly in the Kivu provinces and Ituri (in eastern DRC) that this has led to massive violence.”

Dozens of militias that have mushroomed over the years often have mobilized support around land grievances, Vlassenroot said. And some powerful groups that have seized land have an interest in continued chaos and uncertainty.

There is no effective government in the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, no dependable security, no credible justice system, police force, or body to appeal to for resolving conflicts over land and other issues.

“Different parts of the Kivus have different land issues, but one of the things is that there isn’t a central land register, so it’s almost impossible to say definitively who owns what land. So it’s not really clear what authority you appeal to, to then arbitrate that dispute,” said Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

“Many of these disputes go way back, but on top of that now people have been displaced many times. And particularly with the Congolese refugees who are in Rwanda, what land do they return to?”

Exacerbating the land issue is the location of the land: about 1,000 miles, over remote hinterlands, from the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, on Congo’s western border.

Goma, the capital of North Kivu, is a distant speck, physically and psychologically, out beyond the end of the river transport system and the last decent road. Congo’s transportation system is so poor that the west of the country remains all but divorced from the east.

Perhaps as a consequence, President Joseph Kabila has exhibited a chronic lack of will to effectively govern the Kivu region.

“Kabila has to show the political will to deal with the east and I’m not convinced he’s going to do that,” Wolters said. “He’s had opportunities to do that in the past and he hasn’t really seized on them. It’s not a functional government, it’s not a government that is transparent and that governs well and governs in the interests of its people.”

Many disputes in eastern Congo go back generations and involve tension between farmers and herders or between ethnic groups or clans. Posing a more regional danger are conflicts between indigenous Congolese and Rwandan-speaking migrants, seen by many Congolese as “foreigners.” The future return of more than 60,000 Rwandan-speaking refugees from camps in Rwanda is a potential tinderbox, analysts say.

In 2010, then-U.N. official Margot Wallstrom called the region the “rape capital of the world,” after 387 people were raped over a few days by a militia. In 2012, the United Nations ranked Congo as the worst place to be a woman.

Despite widespread pessimism over prospects for peace, international diplomats are pressing regional leaders to take at least the first baby steps. One of the first tasks is for Congolese and U.N. forces to get rid of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, an ethnic Hutu militia that includes some leaders of the Rwandan genocide, and then remove other militias.

M23 was defeated in November by Congolese troops assisted by U.N. peacekeeping forces who were granted the authority to move offensively against the rebels. It was the first time the Congolese army has managed to crush a powerful Rwandan-backed militia, a move that has gained Kabila popularity in Kinshasa.

But analysts say instability will remain in the east until he grapples with entrenched problems such as security, governance, corruption, looting of resources and the challenge of building credible state institutions.

After the M23 rebellion nearly two years ago, 2.2 million people fled their homes in eastern Congo and there are more than 400,000 Congolese refugees outside the country, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

A 2010 report by Fidel Bafilemba of the Enough Project on Congolese Tutsis who had returned said tension was fueled by rumors that they weren’t genuine refugees. Communities saw the arrivals as a plot by M23’s predecessor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, to create Tutsi settlements in order to control land and shift the demographics of the region for the sake of political power.

“Well-armed self-professed returning refugees from Rwanda bring with them large herds of cattle, sparking conflict with local farmers who resent the imposition of what are locally known as ‘cows without borders’ on their crops,” Bafilemba wrote.

“Yet another source of land conflict is occurring when displaced persons and refugees return to the villages, only to find their lands sold by relatives or occupied by armed groups,” he wrote.

Competition by powerful political and military elites, or rebel militias both foreign and local, to grab land and loot the region’s rich resources is another source of instability, with the Congolese army too weak to police the border or prevent groups from taking up arms, plundering resources or imposing their own taxes.

If Kabila fails to exert control and eastern Congo continues to spiral out of control, warned Wolters, Rwanda or Uganda could use the instability to plant a new rebel movement.

“I think the chronic instability that has been there for decades isn’t going to go away tomorrow,” she said.