By Hunter Graff, Staff Writer

For those that know Rwanda only from its 1994 genocide, the idea that its government would go on to willingly create a situation potentially worse than its own traumatic experience seems far-fetched. And yet not only is this true, but it has been true for almost a quarter century.

 In 1996, Rwanda invaded the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire, in pursuit of the Hutu genocidaires that fled there following the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the Rwandan Civil War. Under the leadership of Paul Kagame, currently the President of Rwanda, the mostly-Tutsi RPF had overthrown the extremist Hutu government of the time and ended the genocide in July of 1994. Rwanda and its co-invader Uganda, began to organize and arm Tutsi proxy groups during their advance, and the invasion quickly snowballed into a general rebellion against the President of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. A coalition force succeeded in overthrowing Mobutu and replacing him with more Rwanda-friendly rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila in 1997. Kabila’s government renamed Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and promptly expelled the foreign nationals that helped bring him to power. Rwanda cut its losses and withdrew from the country shortly thereafter, focusing instead on the international tribunal set to begin in 1998. 

But when Rwandan forces and officials were operating on behalf of the Kabila government, they developed a taste for the abundant mineral resources located in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country. In terms of resource wealth, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the wealthiest country on earth. It holds tremendous reserves of untapped gold, cobalt, nickel, and high-grade copper. It is the second-largest producer of industrial diamonds in the world. It also produces most of the world’s cobalt and coltan, minerals critical for the kind of advanced battery technology used in smart devices and electric vehicles. In total, its mineral wealth is estimated to be in the tens of trillions of dollars. Rwanda almost certainly had this in mind when it was forced out by Kabila, because Kagame and his staff immediately began plotting to return. Rwanda maintained its connections to the rebel groups it sponsored in the first invasion as a base of support for a second invasion, which began in 1998 and sparked a multi-year, multi-state conflict known as the Second Congo War, or the ‘African World War’. From 1997 until its official end in 2003, total excess deaths from the war numbered between 2.5 and 5 million, making it by far the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. 

Midway through the war at a UN-mediated negotiation, a panel presented their findings of resource theft undertaken by Rwanda, Uganda, and to a lesser extent Burundi, all in partnership with different rebel groups. At some point during their earliest contact with rebel groups in the east of the country, Rwanda and Uganda realized that they had a unique opportunity to access the valuable minerals that would normally travel westward for export. Their exploitation began in 1998, with wholesale looting of factories and mines in the east. This was often accompanied by acts of violence and mass rape. Records indicate that both Rwanda and Uganda used these minerals to increase government revenue and eliminate the deficits created by their expanded military activities. The panel testified that in pursuit of securing the region for themselves, the national armies of Rwanda and Uganda had Balkanized the entire DRC, pitting cultural and ethnic groups against each other and creating local violence where there previously had been none. This violence between neighbors and rebel groups was horrific, taking the form of calculated massacres, civilian assassinations, deportations, torture, rape, and the deliberate spreading of HIV/AIDS, all of which directly affected approximately 16 million Congolese people.

In 2003, the belligerents, officially only the DRC and the rebel groups in the East, signed the Global and All-Inclusive Agreement, which created the framework necessary to implement a transitional government. The agreement exists on paper, and the fighting has lessened in some parts, but violence is still explosive. In the east, while mineral wealth fuels the fighting, it remains driven by a real and palpable fear of ethnic annihilation. In the northern region of Ituri, on the DRC-Uganda border, the pastoralist Hema and agrarian Lendu groups have been murdering each other with machetes and garden tools, causing the ongoing displacement of 350,000 people. 

In the Kivu region that borders Rwanda and Burundi, the situation is more complex. In 2012, the M23 emerged there, capturing large swathes of the region, including the largest city, Goma. In 2013, a joint UN-DRC force began an offensive against the rebellion, capturing Goma and essentially eradicating any foothold it once held in Kivu. 

It was during this rebellion that international observers of legitimate authority officially linked the Rwandan government to the M23 rebel group. Prior to this point, the support that Rwanda provided to rebel groups in the DRC was widely accepted but difficult to confirm. Now, a UN report put forth a complete case: not only had Rwanda “provided military support to M23 through permanent troop reinforcements and clandestine support through special forces units” and “furnished the rebels with weapons, facilitated the evacuation of casualties to Rwanda and shared communication equipment with M23”, they had also “created the political branch and government of M23 and provided political advice of the armed forces stationed alongside the Congolese armed forces”. Furthermore, the report found that “M23 continues to be commanded by Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a sanctioned individual who operates under the orders and guidance of Rwandan officials.” This new evidence caused international donors to shy away from giving Rwanda development aid, and even spurred President Obama to call Kagame over the issue and threaten to cut back military assistance. By coincidence, it was also around this time that Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank act came into effect, which requires all U.S. companies to demonstrate to the Security and Exchanges Commission that any minerals sourced from the DRC or its neighbors that they use in production are certified as conflict-free. 

Following the exposure of their M23 sponsorship, Rwanda seemed to make attempts to limit its culpability in the conflict and the mineral smuggling trade. Yet as of 2019, the miserable abuse of human rights propped up by the artisanal mines in the DRC continues largely unabated. The general suspicion is that the brazen smuggling operations carried out by Rwanda during the Congo Wars have been replaced by a less overt system of miners, business figures, and mid-tier Rwandan government officials. Suspicious developments, such as the opening of large gold processing facilities in Kigali and inconsistent import-export records for minerals leaving the country, suggest that the volume of minerals moving through Rwanda has actually increased. Not helping the matter is a 2015 DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision that deemed it unconstitutional for Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank act to require companies to label their products as “not been found to be DRC conflict free”.

There are at least two reasons why the U.S and the U.S. public should have an interest in the fate of the DRC:

  1. The large outflows of displaced people from the conflict can create instability and windows of opportunity for various political actors with global ramifications, i.e., politicians in Europe using refugees as a fear mongering pretense to abandon liberal values, democratic norms, and traditional allies.
  2. The minerals present in the DRC are not only valuable but also vital to the modern and high-value-added economy of the United States and maintaining easy access to them may be crucial for continued prosperity.

Additionally, it is not too idealistic to propose moral concern as a point of interest for the United States in the DRC. The United States, as a large market for conflict minerals and the products that use them, bears significant responsibility for the global demand that has fueled the conflict so far. Given this responsibility, as well as its tremendous military power and its dominant economic position, the United States failing to try and mitigate this conflict not only appears morally lethargic to the rest of the world but is also entirely negligent. 

Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers 

The risks of doing nothing in the DRC only grow more damaging the longer a state of conflict persists. Conflict is also heavily contingent on foreign support, particularly for Rwanda. I therefore propose the following series of measures that the U.S. might take to mitigate risk to itself and to its interests: 

  1. Increase the depth of investigations by the Security and Exchange Commission into U.S. companies and their supply chains and significantly increase the consequences of noncompliance for U.S. companies with Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank act.
  2. Negotiate an international agreement on the sourcing of conflict minerals, using existing Chinese and European Union efforts as a platform for a comprehensive regime.
  3. Offer regulatory cooperation to the Rwandan government for purposes of minimizing the risk of illicit mineral smuggling taking place within their borders.
  4. Increase monitoring of Rwandan activity in the DRC and impose significantly damaging sanctions on both Rwandan individuals and the Rwandan government if they are found to be supporting militias in the DRC materially or financially.
  5. Where possible, direct U.S. agencies to cooperate with states neighboring the DRC to ensure the stability and security of refugee populations in these countries, including actively opposing the otherization of refugees in popular rhetoric for the purpose of political advantage.

Hunter Graff is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in U.S. Foreign Policy and Africa. He holds a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.