Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC or Congo) is the second largest country in Africa, it is located in central Africa and shares borders with nine other countries: The Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and Angola. Congo is rich in natural resources. It boasts vast deposits of industrial diamonds, cobalt, and copper; one of the largest forest reserves in Africa; and about half of the hydroelectric potential of the continent. These resources have contributed to a history of colonization, exploitation and violence, resulting in one of the most disastrous conflicts in the history of modern Africa.

King Leopold II of Belgium began colonizing the DRC in 1878 and established the Free State of Congo under his direct control. Leopold used the forced labor of Congolese to exploit ivory and rubber, thus accumulating a vast personal fortune. The brutality of the slave labor used during this period lead to the launch of the Congo Reform Association, one of the 20th century’s first international human rights campaigns, which lead Leopold to sell control of Congo to the Belgian state. It is estimated that the population of the Congo may have been reduced by as many as ten million during King Leopold’s reign and immediately after. There has been historical and historiographical debate about whether or not this constitutes a genocide.

The DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960 after anti-colonial riots in Kinshasa, the capital of the country. Following the country’s first elections, Joseph Kasavubu, who had earned prominence during pre-independence struggles, became President and Patrice Lumumba became as prime minister. Lumumba was removed months later and killed in circumstances that remain unclear while in the under the authority of Katangan authorities with involvement from US and Belgian authorities.

Kavasubu was removed from power in 1965, when Army Chief Joseph Desire Mobutu led a successful coup and proclaimed himself President. Mobutu was a nationalist leader, and in 1975 he changed the country’s name to Zaire. He gained support from the US government by siding with them during the Cold War, he established a one-party state and held a tight grasp on power until 1991. With the end of the cold war, former supporters on the international scene, such as the United States, France, and Belgium, pressed for democratic reforms, and Mobutu was forced to open up the country to multiparty democracy, he appointed a transitional government but remained president and held on to substantial powers.

The Rwandan crisis of 1993–94 afforded Mobutu an opportunity to mend his relationships with the Western powers, offering logistical and military support to the French and Belgian troops who intervened to support the Hutu-led Rwandan government, he also encouraged attacks against Zairians of Rwandan Tutsi origin living in the eastern part of the country. This ultimately led local Tutsi and the government of Rwanda to support rebels under Laurent Kabila and his Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, backed by the governments of Angola and Uganda. The rebels eventually took control and Mobutu fled the country.

In 1996, Kabila assumed the presidency and restored the country’s name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite having been his allies in removing Mobutu, Kabila soon demanded that his Rwandan army backers leave the country, he also removed all Tutsi from his government and whipped up anti-Tutsi sentiment to show his independence from Rwanda. Less than a week later, Rwandan and Ugandan armies invaded Congo, backing a hastily formed Congolese rebel group seeking to oust Kabila, starting a war in the country.

In 2001, the UN panel of experts on illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth of DR Congo published its first detailed report concluding that the Congo war had evolved into a conflict for access and control over minerals, coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt, and gold- were being exploited by foreign armies in the DRC in a “systematic and systemic” way. The report also indicated the private sector played a vital role in the exploitation of resources and the continuation of the war, and that a number of companies fueled the conflict directly by trading arms for natural resources. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), estimated that 3.9 million people died between 1998 and 2004, arguably making DR Congo the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II.

President Laurent Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2001, after days of uncertainty, his 29-year-old son Joseph took office. By 2016, the Kabila family had amassed a $750mn fortune, owned diamond permits covering 450 miles of territory and had racked up ownership in scores of companies in various sectors of the economy, including two airlines. Kabila continued with the Mobutu strategy of handing a free rein to his military, underpaying them, and letting them get away with crimes against civilians, exacerbating violence in the east and allowing widespread death from conflict, disease, hunger and forced labor.

With the army out of control, the rule of law non-existent and the rest of the world clamoring for a piece of Congo’s riches, eastern Congo became a warlords’ paradise, with many backed by neighboring countries and foreign profiteers. By 2008, an estimated 5.4 million people had died or been killed; over 1.8 million women raped and today, over 4.5 million people displaced nationwide.

The 2018 general election was the country’s first peaceful transition of power since independence, Kabila was succeeded as president by Félix Tshisekedi, who has served as president since. However, the political allies of former president Joseph Kabila, who stepped down in January 2019, maintained control of key ministries, the legislature, judiciary, and security services. Tshisekedi succeeded in strengthening his hold on power and gained the support of almost 400 out of 500 members of the National Assembly, the pro-Kabila speakers of both houses of parliament were forced out and in 2021 a new government was formed without Kabila’s supporters.

It has been estimated that more than 120 militias and armed groups are currently active in the eastern DRC and for more than 20 years these armed groups have exploited the weakness of state authority to perpetrate attacks against civilians. Civilians in North and South Kivu as well as Ituri remain at serious risk of atrocity crimes. Widespread violence in eastern DRC is indicative of the enduring challenge of building effective governance and stability. In 2021, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 5 million Congolese are currently internally displaced, including an estimated 3 million children, while more than 942,000 refugees have fled to neighboring countries, making this the largest displacement crisis in Africa. The World Food Program and UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that 27.3 million people are critically hungry.


Atrocities Watch Africa Monitor No 5, June 2022 Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA) is a non-partisan, civil society organisation that intends to provide continental leadership in matters pertaining to the prevention of mass atrocities within Africa, our strategies and...

Update June 2022

From Atrocities Watch Monitor N° 5, June 2022Read full newsletter here. Fighting continues in eastern Congo. Although ACLED reports fewer incidents and fatalities over the last four weeks than average over the past year,[1] new patterns of violence  –...


Atrocities Watch Africa Monitor No 4, May 2022 Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA) is a non-partisan, civil society organisation that intends to provide continental leadership in matters pertaining to the prevention of mass atrocities within Africa, our strategies and...

Update May 2022

From Atrocities Watch Monitor N° 4, May 2022Read full newsletter here. During the first week of April, governmental military forces regained control of several localities in Bwisha, North Kivu, previously in the hands of M23.[1] The group had resumed their...

Update April 2022

From Atrocities Watch Monitor No. 3 April 2022. Read full newsletter here ACLED recorded a total of 90 incidents of attacks against civilians by non-state actors in March.52 Kivu Security Tracker recorded 716 violent deaths, attributing 119 to the Allied...


Atrocities Watch Africa Monitor No 3, April 2022 Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA) is a non-partisan, civil society organisation that intends to provide continental leadership in matters pertaining to the prevention of mass atrocities within Africa, our strategies and...

Monitor March 2022

Atrocities Watch Africa MonitorNo 2, March 2022 Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA) is a non-partisan, civil society organisation that intends to provide continental leadership in matters pertaining to the prevention of mass atrocities within Africa, our strategies and...

Mutilation and brutality

One of the enduring images of the Free State was the severed hands which became "the most potent symbol of colonial brutality". The practice was comparatively common in colonial Africa (by the Portuguese in Cabinda, for example)[28] and originated in connection with...

King Leopold of Belgium in Congo

According to American writer, Adam Hochschold, King Leopold II of Belgium, like any other European power seeking new territory in Africa, carved for himself and took control of the vast un-exploited land on the banks of the River Congo in the present day...