I dread attending meetings on Congo. At almost every one a Congolese will stand up and start to rail, then scream and weep. Some get very aggressive. The police were called to one meeting. For a while I was embarrassed and irritated. Now I think it is absolutely understandable, appropriate even.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, the vast heart of Africa, endowed with some of the richest ores and most fertile land on the planet, lies broken and ungoverned. Congo has the lowest GDP per capita in the world and lies at the very bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.

The rest of Africa is now doing better. More and more Africans have a better life than they did ten or 20 years ago. The wars are diminishing in number and ferocity; trade and investment, led by China, have revived its economies so that 11 of the world’s fastest growing economies are African. If the numbers are to be believed — and many have been revised drastically upwards recently — there are also improvements in health, education and general well-being.

But not in Congo, which is still stuck where most of Africa was a decade ago. It never was a real nation state, originally carved out as a personal estate at the end of the 19th century by King Leopold of Belgium, its first owner-ruler. For the first half of the 20th century it was ruled by the Belgian state, then for most of the second half by Mobutu Sese Seko, who treated it much as King Leopold had done. In the village where he was born he built five grotesquely grand palaces and an airport with a runway to accommodate Concorde so that he could take his family shopping in Paris or New York. Unsurprisingly he was a staunch anti-communist, which ensured he stayed in power until the Cold War ended.

The government in Kinshasa today is unpopular, corrupt and rapacious, incapable of establishing effective institutions, providing security or delivering basic services like health and education. For the past 16 years its eastern provinces, North and South Kivu, have been terrorised by hundreds of militias and gangs, creating a zone of lethal anarchy in which more than five million people are said to have died. That figure may be exaggerated but the gangs still kill and rape at will, despite a 19,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force costing $1.4 billion a year. It is a forgotten army. Eastern Congo is the biggest conflict of the 21st century so far but it has been largely ignored.

On 20 November the largest town in the region, Goma, was invaded by a rebel army known as M23. The Congolese army ran away and the UN force supposed to be protecting the town and its citizens stepped aside and let them pass. The rebels then threatened to march on the other strategic town in the region, Bukavu, but last weekend they were persuaded to withdraw from Goma. M23 — the Mouvement 23 Mai, named after the date of the last failed peace agreement — is not just another band of malcontents or a brigand gang. It is made up of fighters from a previous rebellion integrated into the Congolese army as part of an earlier peace agreement. That fell apart in April this year when the integrated troops were ordered to move to another part of the country. The M23 are well-trained and smartly dressed, but they are not interested in taking territory or making peace. They push their political demands by threatening havoc if they are ignored. Already there are reports of looting, rape and casual murder in Goma; 650,000 people are reported to be displaced.

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Some call this the second genocide in the region, the first being the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. And this war is not over yet. We in Britain are involved. These fighters are armed and supported by Congo’s neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda, UK allies in the region and recipients of some £140 million of UK aid last year. Recent revelations from Congo have created a dilemma for the donors. Rwanda spends aid money particularly well, ensuring it builds schools, roads and health clinics and does reach the people. But a recent UN report detailed Rwandan supplies of arms, ammunition, uniforms and communications equipment to M23. This week new evidence from the the UN emerged showing that some 1000 Rwandan troops helped the M23 seize Goma.

Guilt-ridden by the West’s failure to respond to the 1994 genocide, several British aid ministers have been close to the persuasive Rwandan ruler, Paul Kagame. On a plane journey with Clare Short in 2002 when she was international development secretary, I tried to argue that Kagame had questions to answer. The red haze descended and she threatened to have me thrown off the plane. Andrew Mitchell, the recently departed secretary of state and a Kagame fan, led Conservative party annual summer camps to Rwanda to take part in development. He established a close personal friendship with Kagame. His last act as international development secretary was to restore the £16 million he had recently suspended because of Rwanda’s role in eastern Congo. His successor, Justine Greening, has suspended it again.

The politics of East Africa’s Rift Valley are as complex, fractured and violent as the tectonic plates that rend the landscape and throw up volcanic eruptions. The latest conflict is not primarily a war over resources. Areas rich in gold, diamonds and coltan have not been particular targets. The M23 rebels’ seizure of Goma is yet another aftershock of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which itself was part of a conflict that goes back centuries. History matters here. It is a vast Götterdämmerung saga.

The two former kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi are a unique phenomenon. Two races, Hutu and Tutsi, became part of the same ethnic group from the 17th century. They live in the same space and society, speak the same language, worship the same gods, obey the same chiefs. The Hutu, a Bantu people, were farmers who moved into the area from about the 8th century. The Tutsi, a tall cattle-keeping people probably from the Horn of Africa, came later and settled in the same areas. They integrated their societies but maintained separate roles in complex but balanced power structures. But they did not, for the most part, intermarry.

These two peculiar kingdoms covered today’s Rwanda and Burundi as well as parts of southern Uganda and Kivu in eastern Congo. German and then Belgian imperialists decided that the tall, long-headed Tutsi were superior and gave them education and positions of power, making them the ruling class and destroying the delicately balanced status quo. But the Tutsis were a minority and independence in 1962 brought majority rule, which turned into a pogrom and drove them into exile. In Burundi the Tutsis retained power but Rwanda became a Hutu-ruled state, driving thousands of Tutsis into exile.

The children of those Tutsi refugees grew up in neighbouring Uganda and joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebellion, helping to put him in power in 1986. Four years later they took their weapons and invaded their own country. The war stalemated and in 1994 Hutu fanatics began a planned genocide. Some 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus who refused to join in the genocide were murdered. But the invading Tutsi army, commanded by Paul Kagame, won the war and drove the Rwandan army westwards into eastern Congo. More than a million or more terrified Hutus, fearful of retribution, went with them.

The 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, Congo’s tiny neighbour to the east, 89 times smaller than Congo, has also led to Congo’s current war. Two years later Kagame’s troops crossed the border, attacked the former Rwandan army and forced civilian refugees to return to Rwanda. Although almost 100,000 were locked up and investigated, the rest were resettled in Rwanda and given stern political re-education. Meanwhile Rwandan and Ugandan troops, and large numbers of Tutsis from eastern Congo, began to chase the remnant Rwandan army across Congo, killing them wherever they found them.

Mobutu, sick with cancer, was incapable of defending the country. He had played divide and rule, keeping the ruling class at odds with each other and making sure the country itself was divided, not linked by roads. This legacy, and its sheer size, make Congo almost ungovernable to this day. The distance between the capital Kinshasa and Goma is greater than the distance between London and Moscow. No road links them. But when the Rwandan army had cleared the camps in eastern Congo in 1996 they kept walking west. Twelve months and more than 1,000 miles later, they and their Ugandan allies and a host of disgruntled Congolese marched into the capital, Kinshasa, and installed an exiled opponent of Mobutu, Laurent Kabila, as president.

That looked like an end but Kabila began to turn against his backers and cut the strings. In 1998, the Rwandans invaded again to try to remove him. He called on his neighbours and seven African states sent their armies to protect him. Outgunned, the Rwandan and Ugandan armies were forced to retreat and then fell out with each other. They still got their man, however. Kabila was murdered by his boy-soldier bodyguards in 2001, almost certainly on Rwanda’s orders. He was replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila, a more
pliable character.

Back in the east, the Rwandans and Ugandans continued to worry that armed opposition movements were massing in the forests and mountains of Kivu, preparing to invade. They also want the extraordinary agricultural and mineral wealth of the Kivus to flow eastwards through their countries to the international markets. Many of their senior military men and politicians have become multi-millionaires through that trade. That part of eastern Congo was once part of the Rwandan Kingdom and some Rwandans claim it as their territory.

Meanwhile, to protect the trade and the security of Rwanda, its defence forces helped fellow Tutsis in eastern Congo form a militia with training, weapons and communications. This today is the M23 movement. But the trouble with puppets is that they don’t always jerk when you pull the strings. The eastern Congo Tutsis have their own agenda and Rwanda does not call all its shots. It even handed over one former leader, Laurent Nkunda, to the International Criminal Court. Their way of getting a share of power is to cause havoc if the government does not give them money and positions in the army. Now they have left Goma it is not clear whether they will once again be reintegrated as soldiers in the Congolese army or remain a separate disruptive force, protecting their own people and Rwandan interests in the region.

The outlook for Congo is not good. The failure to protect Goma has weakened President Kabila, a pleasant man who gives the impression that he enjoys the trappings of office without much thought for the future of Congo. His most effective adviser, Augustin Katumba Mwanke, was killed in a plane crash in February this year. Kabila is certainly no match for the aggressive Rwandans and Ugandans when it comes to diplomacy or military force. But if he is seen to make concessions to them he will become even more unpopular and may even be overthrown.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated