M23 rebels. Photo: Public domain
M23 rebels. Photo: Public domain

Joe Fathallah, Socialist Party national committee

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Central Africa, is the stage of an ongoing armed conflict between state forces and the March 23 Movement (M23) guerrilla army, backed by the neighbouring state of Rwanda. The war has created the world’s second-largest current population-displacement crisis, after the war in Sudan, with around ten million people forced from their homes. More than half a million are currently living in refugee camps around the city of Goma in North Kivu province, the main stronghold of the paramilitaries.

DR Congo is already among the poorest countries in the world, with one of the lowest GDPs per capita on the planet, and the World Bank says that just under 75% of the population scrape out an existence on less than $2.15 a day. Malnutrition, disease, and gender-based violence are widespread. A huge humanitarian crisis looms.

In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium declared Congo his own private land and founded the ‘Congo Free State’. This regime enslaved the native population into rubber production and carried out horrific human rights abuses such as limb amputations and even executions for failure to meet production quotas.

Outrage at the King’s personal rule led to the Congo officially becoming a Belgian colony in 1908 and it achieved independence in 1960 under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, who attempted to use the country’s huge natural resources to increase the living standards of the mass of the population. He was assassinated in 1961, a murder organised by Belgian police and military officers with strong evidence of CIA involvement in his death. Since then, a series of oppressive and corrupt regimes has ruled the country, under various names.


Rwanda was also a Belgian colony from 1916 after Belgium defeated the previous German colonists. Belgian imperialism leant on the Tutsi ethnic group to maintain its rule, discriminating against the Hutus who comprise around 85% of the country’s population.

In 1959, a mass revolt of the Hutus broke out, with Rwanda winning independence from Belgium in 1962 under a pro-Hutu regime. In 1990, Tutsi militias linked to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) declared war on the government, and this conflict resulted in the genocide of 1994, with at least 500,000 and possibly as many as one million killed, predominantly on the Tutsi side. However, the RPF was able to eventually declare victory and has since then ruled Rwanda as an authoritarian Tutsi-minority government.

Rwanda borders DR Congo to the east, and the eastern parts of DR Congo are the home to the Tutsi communities on which the M23 forces are based. The recent 2023 US State Department review of human rights reports that M23 operates “in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with (Rwandan) government support and committed numerous human rights abuses including widespread civilian deaths or harm, enforced disappearances or abductions, forcible transfers of civilian populations, torture, physical abuses, and conflict-related sexual violence or punishment. The (Rwandan) government did not investigate and prosecute such abuses.”

The reason why the Rwandan state is financing and promoting the paramilitaries, is fear that Hutu influence in the Congolese state could overflow the border and threaten its dictatorship. As a result, Rwanda has found itself dragged into a proxy war in the eastern regions of DR Congo. DR Congo is surrounded by other unstable states such as Uganda and Burundi, both of which have forces on the ground in the conflict, and regional escalation is possible. The Congolese government has thus far mainly relied on support and military hardware from China and Romania. However, it is possible that it could attempt to lean on Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia to boost its forces. The legacy of imperialism looms large over central Africa and threatens to drag the region into widespread chaos.

DR Congo is extremely rich in terms of natural resources, especially raw minerals. But, having suffered from a long period of colonial rule under which its natural wealth was stolen, the modern country fares little better economically. It is still classed as a ‘least developed country’ by the United Nations, colonialist extraction replaced today with imperialist and corporate extraction. After the largest city Kinshasa, the second and third largest settlements, Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi, are both mining towns, and China received over half of DR Congo’s mineral exports in 2019. The end of formal colonialism in Africa has not meant that it has become possible to develop countries’ economies and increase living standards. On the contrary, the legacy of imperialism, in the form of ethnic tensions, political instability, corruption, and inadequate infrastructure, contributes to nightmarish living conditions.

Tradition of struggle

Despite this, the working class in DR Congo has a tradition of struggle. The mining industry saw the number of wage workers in the country grow to almost a million by the time of World War Two. The period after the war saw the first attempts at strike action. The mass movement for independence at the start of the 1960s coalesced around the radical nationalist leader Lumumba, and frightened the imperialist powers into taking action to assassinate him. Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary leader, also visited DR Congo in 1965.

The ruling elite, like its counterparts across the neocolonial world, is deeply corrupt, works hand-in-glove with the foreign capitalist exploiters, and has no programme or prospects for ending violent conflict, or lifting the mass of the population out of grinding poverty. This will require the building of mass forces of the working class, overcoming the ethnic and national divisions left in place by the colonial powers, leading to the ousting of the looters and the coming to power of a government based on the working class and oppressed. Only then will it be possible to develop society and raise the mass of the population out of poverty, in a socialist DR Congo and federation of the wider region, with public ownership and democratic control of the country’s massive natural wealth for the benefit of the majority, not a corrupt and privileged elite.