How did the 1st Congo War end?

Domestic conflicts

Nadine Ansorg

Nadine Ansorg is currently working as a post-doctoral student at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, UK, and is also a member of the Conflict Analysis Research Center (CARC). Before that she worked as a project coordinator and researcher in the project "Institutions for Sustainable Peace" at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg (2012-2015) and as a substitute for the junior professorship for development policy and African politics at the University of Bayreuth. Her research interests lie in the field of institutional reforms in post-war countries, in particular security sector reforms and the role of international actors in the reform process, as well as the establishment of peace in divided and post-war societies. Her regional focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

After the change of power in January 2019, the former President Kabila continues to pull the strings. The new President Tshisekedi, who only came to power by manipulating the election results, is trying to emancipate himself from Kabila and work towards political reforms.

Ballot box with ballot papers and election workers in a school in Kinshasa. The election on December 30, 2018 was preceded by two years of uncertainty, protests and instability. (& copy picture-alliance, | Stefan Kleinowitz)

Current conflict situation

In January 2019, the new Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi was sworn into office. This marked the first peaceful takeover since Congo gained independence. However, there are still doubts about the integrity of the process and the outcome of the election. The election on December 30, 2018 was preceded by two years of uncertainty, protests and instability. The previous President Joseph Kabila should have officially resigned at the end of his term on December 19, 2016. However, he had made repeated attempts to amend the constitution in his favor in order to be able to run for a further term. These attempts repeatedly led to massive opposition protests in Kinshasa and other major cities.

Kabila finally gave in to pressure from the population as well as regional organizations and international donors and appointed Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as his successor. Shadary ran for the party alliance "Front commun pour le Congo" (FCC), in which Kabila's "Parti du Peuple pour la Reconstruction et la Démocratie" (PPRD) is represented. The main opposing candidates were Félix Tshisekedi from the coalition party "Cap pour le Changement" (CACH) and the popular Martin Fayulu from the opposition party "Engagement pour la citoyenneté et le développement" (ECiDé).

Election observers from home and abroad see the election as manipulated. The Council of Churches of the Congo (Conference Episcopale Nationale du Congo - CENCO) and election results leaked to the media confirmed Fayulu as the winner. But the National Electoral Commission (Commission electorale nationale et independante - CENI) announced Tshisekedi as the winner.

Nevertheless, with a mixture of resignation and hope, the population accepted the result. After years of conflict over Kabila's retention of power, the decisive factor was that it was not Kabila himself or his chosen successor, but another candidate who took over the presidency.

The Congo is now led from a coalition between Kabilas FCC and Tshisekedis CACH. Apparently, the appointment of Tshisekedi was a coup by Kabila, who by participating in the coalition wanted to secure control of the legislature, the security sector and income from the country's economic resources even after his departure. He now seems to have succeeded: Kabila's party alliance FCC controls 340 of the 500 seats in the national parliament as well as large parts of the governing coalition. The Republican Guard also remains under Kabila's control.

But as it turns out, Tshisekedi is anything but a puppet of Kabila. Within the limits of his office, he works towards reforms and the liberalization of the country. In this way he allowed the political parties to resume their work without restrictions. Political prisoners have been released and the powers of the dreaded security service Agence Nationale de Renseignements (ANR) have been restricted. Tshisekedi also promised to introduce free primary education and improve the health system. The new president has also managed to consolidate relations with international donors such as the International Monetary Fund and the governments in Brussels, Paris and Washington.

This policy meets resistance in the government coalition, which is still dominated by Kabila's FCC. According to the constitution, the president is forced to come to terms with the majority in parliament and the prime minister it provides. There are repeated disputes between President Tshisekedi and Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga about the direction of the policy.

This situation is made more difficult by the consequences of the corona pandemic. In addition to the health risks for the population, the pandemic also poses a threat to the resource depletion on which the Congo is so dependent. For example, copper prices fell 25% at the start of the pandemic, causing the country to lose $ 5 billion in revenue.

One of Tshisekedi's election promises was to improve security in eastern Congo as well. In particular, he has worked to improve relations with its political neighbors, Rwanda and Angola, which is a key to regional stability in the Great Lakes region. To this end, the three states signed a peace and security agreement.

Ex-President Kabila, who as a "Senator for life" is protected from possible criminal prosecution, has no interest in the success of these measures. On the one hand, he, his family and political allies benefit from illegal economic activities in eastern Congo, which are only made possible by the instability. On the other hand, with a view to the next elections, he and his supporters want to prevent Tshisekedis from gaining further popularity.

Meanwhile, particularly in the east and south of the country, non-state violence groups still operate, such as the Mai Mai militias in the east [1], militias in Ituri or Kamuina Nsapu in Karzai, who are fighting for control of valuable resources in the region.

Causes and Background

The conflict in the DR Congo is only against the background of the colonial exploitation by the Belgian King Leopold II (1888-1908) [2] and Belgium (1910-1960 as well as the more than 30-year-old regime of the dictator Mobutu (1965-1997 In the Congo there was never a functioning state, let alone trust in state institutions such as the police, the military, the judiciary or political parties. King Leopold II and Mobutu made massive gains from the country's natural resources, while at the same time the state and the administrative system systematically subordinated to their pursuit of profit and exploited, oppressed and starved the population.

With the end of the Cold War, international pressure also increased on Mobutu to reform the political system in Congo / Zaire. In the wake of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (1994) and the flight of those responsible and hundreds of thousands of Hutus to the Congo and other neighboring states, the crisis assumed an almost unmanageable extent. The country sank into chaos. In 1997 Mobutu was overthrown by an alliance between the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Liberation du Congo (AFDL) [3] with the participation of the armed forces of several neighboring countries.

Since then, the power vacuum has not been adequately filled and a stable political and social order has not been established. The lack of state structures and the lack of will of the political elite made reconstruction and pacification of the country difficult. Despite the economic growth of the past few years, which is mainly due to the exploitation of rich natural resources, the development and modernization of state structures is making slow progress. There are institutions such as parliament, the police and the military, but these are affected to a considerable extent by corruption and nepotism and are often themselves the originators of violence against the civilian population.

The chronic weakness of the state meant that rebel groups spread and in turn could benefit from the exploitation of the rich natural resources. To this day, a flourishing war economy ensures lucrative income for the constantly changing rebel groups. In addition, there are hardly any economic alternatives, especially for the residents in the east of the country, which is part of the main catchment area of ​​the rebel groups. Many see participation in the war as the only option. There is now a whole generation of young people who have only come to know war, flight and violence.

There are repeated land disputes between the various population groups, which are exacerbated by the presence of refugees from neighboring countries. It is particularly controversial whether the population groups who speak Kinyarwanda [4] are citizens of the Congolese state and are therefore entitled to land ownership. Many of them were brought to the Congo as plantation workers by the Belgians during colonial times, but never received civil rights there. Tensions between Banyarwanda and other communities have increased after the genocide in Rwanda and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda in 1994.

As a result of cross-border rebel movements between Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Angola and the Central African Republic, the conflict had become strongly regionalized over the past 20 years. Rwanda and Uganda took the ongoing regional insecurity as an opportunity to intervene several times in the Congo to neutralize rebel groups operating there. They also used their military presence to gain control over local mineral resources, such as gold or coltan, and their global exploitation.

Processing and solution approaches

From a Western and UN perspective, the establishment of a state based on the Western model is desirable in the DR Congo. This includes the creation of security, the development of democratic structures and an independent judiciary as well as the guarantee of tax and financial sovereignty across the country. This also includes building a modern health and education system.

The presence of the UN mission MONUSCO is intended to guarantee security and stability in order to enable further reforms. The peacekeeping force was dispatched in 1999 under the name MONUC to pacify the country. The mandate has been extended several times. It is the basis for the numerically largest UN peacekeeping force. Since March 2013 the UN intervention brigade has been part of MONUSCO with the explicit "robust" mandate to take military action against rebel groups if necessary. Under President Tshisekedi, the continuation of the mission is no longer in question. The Congolese authorities are also ready to work more closely with MONUSCO in their efforts to improve the security situation.

Tshisekedi's cooperation with its regional neighbors Uganda, Rwanda and Angola is also an important step towards resolving the conflict. Tshisekedi announced joint military operations to take action against the numerous national and supra-regional violent actors. However, this caused resentment among the population, as a return of foreign troops to Eastern Congo is viewed very critically, especially with a view to recent history in the population. So Tshisekedi rowed back and assured that there would be no further interventions by foreign troops.

The ongoing violence emanating from both non-state violent actors and the Congolese military shows the limits of international peacekeeping. The results are also unsatisfactory at the local level. The old elites still have the say, who have often lost touch with the local population and are more interested in personal enrichment. A new, complementary approach should therefore enable peace work and projects at local level to a greater extent. Working with traditional local authorities is so important because land disputes and a lack of employment opportunities are largely of local origin.

The legal processing of war crimes in the Congo began with the Hague tribunals against the rebel leaders Thomas Lubanga, Jean-Pierre Bemba and Bosco Ntaganda. Jean-Pierre Bemba has now been sentenced by the International Criminal Court to 18 years and Thomas Lubanga to 14 years in prison. But here, too, there is the problem that the reappraisal does not reach the local people who were and are most affected by the crimes. A local approach to the crimes and consequences of the war that involves more than just the leaders is therefore urgently needed.

History of the conflict

The Mobutu regime was overthrown in 1997 by an alliance between the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Liberation du Congo (AFDL) and Rwanda, Uganda and Angola (First Congo War, 1996–97). Laurent-Désiré Kabila became the new president. However, he failed to initiate a fresh start and eventually turned his allies against him. The east of the country in particular was marked by ongoing violence by rival rebel groups who profited from the plundering of natural resources. Anti-government rebel groups also repeatedly withdrew to Congolese territory from the neighboring states of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola.

In 1998, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi forged an alliance and attacked the Congo to fight the rebel groups and contain regional insecurity. For his part, President Kabila sought the support of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Sudan to defend themselves against the intervention. The states received concessions for resource extraction in the Congo. Due to the participation of many African states, the Second Congo War (1998-2003) is also known as the "First African World War".

Despite the largest international peace mission MONUC (from 1999) and the efforts of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the first ceasefire agreement failed (Lusaka 1999). In 2002, thanks to the mediation of South Africa, the Pretoria Peace Agreement was reached. It was also made possible by Joseph Kabila's assumption of power after the murder of his father.


Autesserre, S. (2010): The trouble with the Congo: local violence and the failure of international peacebuilding, Cambridge studies in international relations, New York Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berwouts, Kris (2017): Congo's Violent Peace. Conflict and Struggle Since the Great African War, London: Zed Books.

Prunier, G. (2009): Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reyntjens, F. (2007): Statehood in the region of the Great Lakes of Africa, in: Weiss, S., Schmierer, J. (Ed.): Prekäre Statlichkeit and International Order, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, p. 279– 294

Wolters, Stefanie (2019): Opportunities and challenges in the DRC. Institute for Security Studies.


Reports and analyzes by the Congo Research Group

Article on Spiegel-Online about the DR Congo

Contributions by Deutsche Welle on developments in the DR Congo and Central Africa

Reports and analyzes of the International Crisis Group on the DR Congo

Contributions to the Congo in Le Monde Diplomatique

Contributions to the Congo in the Guardian

115 years ago: The Maji-Maji uprising, online dossier "(Post-) colonialism and global history" August 26, 2020.

Atlantic Council resources