Across a huge swath of Africa — from Sudan in the north to South Africa in the south — governments and individuals have a stake in what happens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The concerns range from the continuing violence and resulting floods of Congolese refugees to designs on Congo's storehouse of strategic minerals.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki said flatly, “There cannot be a new Africa without a new Congo.”
“The country is the region's vortex. When it has failed in the past, its neighbors have often gone down with it,” wrote academics Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills, in a controversial March 2009 Foreign Policy article entitled, “There Is No Congo.”
Indeed, powerful nations have repeatedly intervened in Congo, drawn by its vast resources and strategic location in the heart of Africa. At the height of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), for instance, eight African countries had deployed armies on Congolese soil, while more than two dozen rebel groups in Congo were pursuing ever-changing business interests and political allegiances.
Many were part of the centuries-old international effort to exploit Congo's resources, including timber, ivory, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold — mostly located in the relatively peaceful central and western regions. But the trade in ores that produce tin, tantalum and tungsten — highly prized strategic resources known as conflict minerals — is concentrated in eastern Congo, where it triggers and finances continuing violence and brutality against the local population.
During the Second Congo War, a six-member expert panel appointed by the U.N. Security Council alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Congolese minerals and natural resources had been plundered by armed groups, corporations and foreign governments — namely Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda — engaged in “massive and illegal exploitation” of Congo's wealth.
Since they were run out of Uganda, members of the Ugandan paramilitary group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) have been hiding out in northeastern Congo, committing atrocities against civilians in DRC, Uganda, southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. (Getty Images/Sam Farmar)
“Plundering, looting, racketeering and the emergence of criminal cartels in the occupied territories now represent a serious security problem in the region,” panel chairwoman Safiatou Ba-N'Daw told a press conference as she released the panel's report. “Proceeds of that illegal activity went to the foreign armies and other forces within the country,” including several companies that fueled the conflict by trading arms for natural resources.
African countries with geopolitical, security and financial interests in the DRC include:
Rwanda — While primarily interested in wiping out the Hutu rebels hiding in eastern Congo who perpetrated Rwanda's 1994 genocide, Rwanda also has historic ties to the people of eastern Congo, many of whom are linguistically and culturally linked to the Rwandan population. As the U.N. report found, Rwandan leaders also were involved in exploiting Congo's resources during the war, and its soldiers ran a well-organized campaign to kill elephants in DRC's national parks for ivory.
Uganda — Located on Congo's northeastern border just north of Rwanda, Uganda has economic interests in the gold and timber found in the Rwenzori Mountains, and in newly discovered oil fields along Lake Albert, which stretches across both Congo and Uganda. During the war, Ugandan troops also killed thousands of elephants in the area of the DRC they controlled, presumably for ivory.
South Africa — Africa's economic and political powerhouse has long had interests in Congo, including investing heavily in the DRC's Grand Inga Dam, a gigantic hydroelectric project proposed for the Congo River at Inga. If built, it could supply up to 500 million Africans with electricity. The $80 billion project, which could generate nearly 40,000 megawatts, is a “presidential priority” for the governments of Congo and South Africa.
Zimbabwe — A stalwart ally of Congo over the years, Zimbabwe has offered military support for Congo for concessions in the country's copper, cobalt and diamond mines. The U.N. report said several Zimbabwean businessmen close to President Robert Mugabe owned some of Congo's biggest mines. Zimbabwe also sees Congo as a vast market for Zimbabwean goods.
Angola — Situated on Congo's southwest flank, Angola has diamonds and vast petroleum reserves, but the oil is mostly located off the coast of Cabinda Province, an Angolan enclave separated from the rest of the country by a narrow sliver of western Congo. The two countries recently have argued over the ownership of some of those offshore reserves. During the Second Congo War, Angola supported the government of Congo, fearing that insecure regions across the border in Congo could be used by Angolan rebels as a base to launch an attack on Angola.
Sudan — Bordering Congo on the north, Sudan has long had strategic interests in Congo. Neighboring Uganda has long supported secessionist South Sudanese rebels against the Khartoum government in northern Sudan. But now that South Sudan has voted to secede from the north, Sudan could retaliate against Uganda by supporting the anti-Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, which terrorizes the populations on both sides of the Uganda-Congo border.
Libya — As a self-proclaimed leader of the current pan-African movement, Libya's embattled leader Muammar Qaddafi has meddled in the affairs of many African states over the years. During the Second Congo War he ferried planes and soldiers into Congo through neighboring Chad.
Zambia — Due to its proximity to Congo and Africa's copper belt, Zambia has had a special relationship with Congo dating back to the 17th-century Luba and Lunda empires. Textile and copper trading between the two countries continue to thrive, and the southern Congolese city of Lubumbashi has at times fallen under Zambia's security sphere. During the Second Congo War, tens of thousands of Congolese refugees fled into Zambia, straining local resources.
— Josh Kron