There lies a very simple answer to why some of Africa’s bloodiest, most brutal wars never seem to end.  They are not really wars in the conventional view. The combatants are often not motivated by a clear ideology and they don’t have clear goals. They are not interested in conquering and taking over capital cities or major cities – in fact, they prefer the deep bush, where it is far easier to carry out activities which are less military than criminal in nature. Today’s African rebels seem uninterested in converting recruits for the greater cause; instead, they steal other people’s children,(2) stick AK-47s or machetes in the childrens’ hands and make them do the killing. Look closely at some of the continent’s most notorious recent conflicts, from the rebel-rich areas of the Niger Delta to the inferno in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and these are the common factors to be found in most rebel-incited conflicts.

Africa is bearing witness to the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else, something wilder and more violent. What is currently witnessed in terms of guerrilla conflict across Africa is actually opportunistic, heavily armed banditry.

Removing leaders to end conflicts

Combat has now moved away from the conventional soldier-versus-soldier-type confrontation between two national armies on the battlefield. More common is the infusion of collateral damage in conflicts, so the incident might be described as soldier versus civilian. Most of today’s African fighters are not rebels pursuing a cause, but they might be seen as predators unleashing violence to profit from the chaos. This is being witnessed in the stunning atrocities like the rape epidemic in the eastern part of the DRC,(3) where armed groups in recent years have sexually assaulted hundreds of thousands of women, often so sadistically that the victims are left incontinent for life. There is a military and political objective to such abuse. The need is to create the anarchy in which terrorism thrives and government control cannot exist. Such voids benefit outside forces which financially sponsor and thus enable guerrilla groups in the DRC to operate without oversight or restrictions. The goal of these nefarious outside groups, who have been tentatively identified as neighbouring countries and South African business interests, is to profit from the DRC’s resources by using rebel groups as police forces in reverse – creating disorder rather than maintaining order.

Nearly half of the continent’s 54 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one.  More than 5.4 million have died in Congo alone since 1998.

Nearly half of the continent’s 54 countries are home to an active conflict or a recently ended one.  More than 5.4 million have died in Congo alone since 1998.(4)  Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle stronghold and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They do not want to run government ministries, enjoy ambassadorial posts or government sinecures, or own tracts of land. Their armies are often traumatised children, with experience and skills (if one can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns and the anarchic freedom to rampage. Having all three of the conditions they most covet, what is their motivation to negotiate?

The only way to stop today’s rebels for real is to capture or kill their leaders. Many are uniquely devious characters whose organisations would likely disappear as soon as they do. That’s what happened in Angola when the diamond-smuggling rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, was shot,(5) bringing a sudden end to one of the Cold War’s most intense conflicts. In Liberia, the moment that warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was arrested in 2006,(6) was the same moment that the curtain dropped on the gruesome circus of 10-year-old killers wearing Halloween masks. Countless dollars, hours and lives have been wasted on fruitless rounds of talks that will never culminate in such clear-cut results. The same could be said of indictments of rebel leaders for crimes against humanity by The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC). With the prospect of more prosecution of war criminals looming, those fighting are sure never to give up.

Yesteryear’s African rebels had a bit more class. They were fighting against colonialism, tyranny, or Apartheid. The winning insurgencies often came with a charming, intelligent leader wielding persuasive rhetoric. These were men like John Garang, who led the rebellion in southern Sudan with his Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). He pulled off what few guerrilla leaders anywhere have done, winning his people their own country.(7)

The economics of war

At the end of trying to figure out what is causing this conflict in Africa, the answer boils down to the two main reasons that have motivated war since the beginning of mankind, religion and money.(8) Minerals have represented the backbone of Congo’s economy ever since the vast area was commanded by colonial power Belgium. Discovery of massive mineral deposits paved the way for industrialised extraction, which went along with traditional production – all taxed and exported by Belgian authorities. Among the various minerals on Congolese soils, diamonds have turned increasingly vital for the national economy. While the DRC was ranked as the world’s fourth largest producer of diamonds in 1999,(9) most of its diamonds are of medium quality and have been used for industrial purposes.(10) At independence, the country provided 80% of the United States’ (US) industrial diamonds, and, by the early 1970s, it made up more than a third of the world’s total production. From 1967 to 1974, the DRC was one of Africa’s main economic powers, a position largely deduced from mineral revenue. From 1974, however, mining production fell drastically with the spike of oil and the collapse of mineral prices, the eruption of war in neighbouring Angola and the transfer of foreign-owned mining enterprises to members of the president’s entourage. TheZaïrisation policy forced skilled foreigners to give way to locals who, due to a variety of reasons, failed to keep productivity active. This contributed to the growth of an informal economy and fuelled large-scale corruption. Economic crises intensified when taxes on mineral exports soared, a move that spurred smuggling and deviation of trade to neighbouring countries. As production and income crumbled, the state eventually did as well. Rule was solidified in the hands of an emerging class of elites.

Over 50% of the mines in the eastern DRC are controlled by armed groups (11) who demand taxes, bribes or other payments for the minerals extracted from the mines. Although it is extremely difficult to know the amount of funding with certainty, one estimate from the Enough Project, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) leading a campaign focused on crimes against humanity, places the figure at US$ 140-225 million in 2008.(12) The contribution of eastern DRC mineral resources in funding the conflict, and the need to end this link, has been widely discussed by a range of organisations and governments.

Over 50% of the mines in the eastern DRC are controlled by armed groups who demand taxes, bribes or other payments for the minerals extracted from the mines.

Although much of the public focus has been on the use of conflict minerals in the electronics industry, African conflict minerals feed a range of complex supply chains. Raw materials are utilised for component parts in everything from cell phones and cutting tools to jet engines and jewellery. NGO campaigners, development organisations, governments, industry working groups and others are attempting to address the link between minerals and the conflict in a variety of ways. The electronics and tin industries have been among the most active in identifying approaches to prevent conflict minerals from entering product supply chains, while recent NGO efforts have focused on raising awareness about the connections between conflict minerals and the jewellery and auto industries.(13)

Congo has in varying degrees every mineral resource known to man.(14) Coltan (Columbite-Tantalite), to name one of the rare minerals found in the DRC, is utilised in the production of most electronic products. Coltan has caused a blood-mineral epidemic to form in the DRC. Many international conglomerates capitalise on the DRC’s control-free mining, but only for as long as the country is in conflict and not in a position to enact controls, pursue regulations and ensure that the mining of minerals is done legally. Once minerals are produced legally, their price will sky-rocket, putting pressure on the electronics companies to find an alternative way to manufacture their products, and in the end it will see a marked decline in the profit margins of the mass-producing giants.

The continued effort of the UN to bring order

Although many attempts have been made to cure the conflict in the eastern DRC, much remains to be done to stop the predatory actions carried out by the armed groupings.  The UN has actively been involved in the eastern DRC using a variety of means, including peacekeeping, research into the conflict, and peacebuilding efforts.(15)  Since 2001, the UN has recommended measures to address conflict minerals in the DRC, ranging from an embargo on select conflict minerals, to softer measures, such as a tracing system for mineral supply-chains or due diligence requirements for companies buying minerals from the region.

Significant progress has been achieved in the DRC since the establishment of the UN peacekeeping operation there. Although the situation in many regions of the country has generally stabilised, the eastern part continues to be troubled by recurrent waves of conflict, chronic humanitarian crises and human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence. Contributions to the violence have been the continued presence of Congolese and foreign armed groupings taking advantage of power and security vacuums in the eastern part of the country, the illegal exploitation of resources, interference by neighbouring countries, inter-communal feuds, and the weak capacity of the national army and police to effectively protect civilians and the national territory and ensure law and order. The recurrence of such cycles of violence, as exemplified by the major crisis in North Kivu and started in April 2012, continues to be an obstacle to peace in the DRC and threatens the overall stability and development of the Great Lakes region.

The mission follows 13 years of peacekeeping attempts by the UN, which have not secured peace in the eastern DRC.

In what seems to be a last ‘big push’, the UN adopted Resolution 2098 (2013) (16) and created a specialised ‘intervention brigade’ to strengthen the peacekeeping operation. The resolution strongly condemned the 23 March Movement (M23), the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and all other armed groups and their continuing violence and abuses of human rights.(17) The new brigade will carry out offensive operations, either unilaterally or jointly with the Congolese armed forces, in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner to disrupt the activities of those groups.

The mission follows 13 years of peacekeeping attempts by the UN, which have not secured peace in the eastern DRC.(18) UN soldiers being sent to the region will be expected to abide by rules of engagement laid down by the Geneva Convention. Their opponents will have no such compunction to follow Geneva Convention protocols. While the DRC’s armed rebel groups remain disdainful of civilised rules of engagement, they have embraced modernity in one respect: they have now advanced towards the high-tech, both in terms of weaponry, as well as in their utilisation of social media and technology gateways to air their views,(19) opinions and statements. The advanced weaponry and systems they possess are acquired from ‘silent’ international investors. The UN peacekeepers are not fighting a force of limited capabilities. Rather, UN troops face a force that is conventional in structure but guerrilla in tactics.

Power vacuums must be filled

The circumstances of armed conflict in the DRC reflect the wider rebel-led conflicts elsewhere in Africa. This type of warfare suspends the norms of sovereignty and democracy, and thus creates a governance and law enforcement vacuum, which is used, albeit cynically and lethally, by both internal and external entities (20) to justify and facilitate the excessive exploitation of people and natural resources. In turn, wartime exploitation seems to inspire belligerents to intensify their economic activities as they realise that resources are good for more than funding the war. In other words, the DRC’s rebel conflicts represent the 21st century’s most successful effort to produce a perpetual-motion machine.

Since the legal exploitation of an area demands the area’s stability through some sort of military presence, economic stakes that are created and nurtured by conflict end up assisting the interests of the adversaries in conflict for the purpose of perpetuating war on the ground. The case of the DRC shows that groups seeking gain through chaos end up sharing a common aim in sustaining rebellion against the hand of a governing power.

The case of the DRC shows that groups seeking gain through chaos end up sharing a common aim in sustaining rebellion against the hand of a governing power.

With both sides profiting from conflict in the eastern DRC and special interests unwilling to surrender the benefits created by warfare, opposing sides need each other to exist rather than have each other vanquished. The old phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has been perverted in the DRC not just to ‘my enemy is my friend’ but one step further to ‘the enemy of my enemy (e.g. UN peacekeepers) is my enemy’. Such is the through-the-looking-glass logic engendered by the DRC’s intractable conflict.

This article is extracted from the July 2013 edition of CAI’s Africa Conflict Monthly Monitor (ACMM) – the brainchild of award-winning journalist and columnist, James Hall. The 87 page report dissects conflict trends within the African continent, with articles authored by ACMM’s team of African conflict experts. 

Cover Image by Julien Harneis


(1) Sandile Lukhele is a senior analyst with CAI’s Africa Conflict Monthly Monitor (ACMM) as well as a consultant and journalist widely published in Southern Africa. Contact Sandile through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict & Terrorism Unit ( Edited by Dominique Gilbert.
(2) Gettleman, J., ‘The perfect weapon for the meanest wars’, The New York Times, 29 April 2007.
(3) ‘How can we explain the rape epidemic in Congo?’, Foreign Policy, 11 May 2011.
(4) ‘Chronicle of death ignored’, The Economist, 28 April 2011.
(5) ‘Jonas Malheiro Savimbi, a despoiler of Angola, died on February 22nd, aged 67’, The Economist, 28 February 2002.
(6)  Timberg, C., ‘Liberia’s Taylor found and arrested’, The Washington Post, 30 March 2006.
(7) Flint, J., ‘Obituary: John Garang’, The Guardian, 3 August, 2005.
(8) Lurie. A., ‘Is religion the cause of most wars?’, Huffington Post, 10 April 2012.
(9) ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’, Revenue Watch Institute,
(10) ‘Value of DRC diamonds disappointing despite high volume’, Rough and Polished, 1 October 2012.
(11) Chase, M., ‘Conflict minerals and the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Business for Social Responsibility, 12 May 2012.
(12) ‘Democratic Republic of Congo – Roots of the crisis’, Enough Project, 2009.
(13) ‘Automotive industry accelerates conflict minerals transparency’, Automotive Industry Action Group, 6 September 2012.
(14) Chase, M., ‘Conflict minerals and the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Business for Social Responsibility, 12 May 2012.
(15) ‘UN Peacekeepers Day commemorated without pomp at Kisangani’, United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC, 31 May 2012.
(16) ‘The UN Resolution 2098 to strengthen UN mission in Congo,’ Brussels Diplomatique, 28 March 2013.
(17) ‘UK welcomes UN Security Council adaption of resolution renewing MONESCO’, UK Government, 28 March 2013.
(18) ‘M-23 rebels will take on UN special force if attacked’, EuroNews, 12 April 2013.
(19) Jones, P., ‘M-23 rebels in DRC prepare for battle with new UN force’, The Guardian, 5 May 2013.
(20) Rwagatare, J., ‘Who benefits from the conflict in DRC?’, New Times, 12 June 2012.