Central articles

Great Lakes Region: Conflicts for resources

Jordi Palou i Loverdos
Conflict Mediator and Lawyer at the International Criminal Court
Jordi Palou

Jordi Palou

Many international experts explain the armed conflicts in the Great Lakes region as conflicts of a tribal nature between ethnicities that loathe each other, with little or accidental external or international intervention. On in-depth examination of these violent conflicts, old human passions may be observed under new forms of war and exploitation. It is no coincidence that eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo – which has been scene of one of the most tragic military conflicts of recent decades – is one of the of the planet's richest areas in terms of valuable natural resources: minerals of vital strategic importance, such as coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt, gold, tin, zinc, manganese and timber, to name but a few.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 a strategy was drawn up to take control of the most important resources of eastern Zaire using a variety of instruments, including military ones. In achieving these goals it was deemed more appropriate not to do through direct involvement: it was preferable to undertake this in stages, step-by-step. Rwanda was first. As a direct result of the events of 1994 in that country (known as "the" Genocide, when tutsi, hutu and twa community members were violently eliminated), many people abandoned their homes and land for camps for internally displaced persons and more than a million Rwandans – mainly from the Hutu ethnicity – fled their country and established themselves in refugee camps, the great majority of which were in the country then known as Zaire (currently the Democratic Republic of Congo) and other countries bordering Rwanda. The great majority of the refugee camps in Zaire were in the eastern part of the country, many of them in areas that rich with mineral deposits.

Although from that time until the present day – without exception – the Rwandan regime has expressed its concern about the security of its border with the then Zaire, objectively the reality is that control over this strategic area and its valuable mineral resources has proved to be at the heart of two wars that have left a huge number of victims. While some of these have been Rwandans, the majority have been Congolese. The wars have also involved various state actors from Central Africa and their armies, as well as key non-state actors, some military and logistical, some involved in the extraction, transportation and distribution of valuable natural resources.  In the years 1996 and 1997, the RPA/FPR (Armée Patriotique Rwandaise/Front Patriotique Rwandais, from now on Rwanda Patriotic Army) proceeded to systematically attack the Hutu refugee camps in the east of the then Zaire, killing hundreds of thousands of Rwandans and Congolese, and organized the pillage of mineral resources such as diamonds, coltan and gold, amongst other things. It set up a complex web of operations, directed by the 'Congo Desk', the Directorate of Military Intelligence, the External Security Office (military-intelligence services deployed outside Rwanda), and Rwandan companies aided by multinationals and Western powers, continuing these activities in a second military invasion from 1998 onwards. Massacres and pillage in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have continued until the present day.

United Nations Secretary-General nominated Panels of Experts and these prepared several conclusive reports showing in detail that it was largely the APR/FPR and the Ugandan army, as well as other military groups, that were responsible for the pillage of strategic minerals during the last two wars: that of 1996-1997, and that which started in 1998 and has still yet to finish.

The first report of the United Nations Panel of Experts states that:

25. The illegal exploitation of resources by Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda took different forms, including confiscation, extraction, forced monopoly and price-fixing. Of these, the first two reached proportions that made the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a very lucrative business.
26. Illegal exploitation by foreigners aided by the Congolese began with the first "war of liberation" in 1996. The AFDL rebels, backed by Angolan, Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers conquered eastern and south-eastern Zaire. As they were advancing, the then ADFL leader, the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila, signed contracts with a number of foreign companies. Numerous accounts and documents suggest that by 1997 a first wave of "new businessmen" speaking only English, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili had commenced operations in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Theft of livestock, coffee beans and other resources began to be reported with frequency. By the time the August 1998 war broke out, Rwandans and Ugandans (top officers and their associates) had a strong sense of the potential of the natural resources and their locations in the eastern the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [...]
The experts reports also make it clear that Western multinationals have been responsible for the pillage and illegal exploitation of those resources. These actions have served to finance the war, as well as perpetrating the perpetration of crimes against humanity and systematic human rights violations. Some of these companies are multinationals and others operate at the national and local levels.

Several factors have caused unprecedented humanitarian crises in Central Africa, including: the handling of these wars and violent conflicts by state actors, non-state actors, the international community in general, international institutions, regional institutions, multinational corporations, along with the mercenaries, the plundering on a huge scale, and the international trafficking of various resources and people. The impact of the unstoppable and destructive boomerang that its effects constitute is still very much being felt throughout Africa and, in the context of a globalized world, is expanding beyond the continent's borders.