Ending the Curse in the DRC: A Game of Thrones, Mines and Militias
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in a continuous state of violence since its independence in 1960. For most, the problems of the DRC are multifaceted. These problems include weak democratic traditions and political representation, poor infrastructure, low standards of living, rampant corrupt, and the famed resource curse. Further, few explanations have been as pervasive as the argument that historical tribal enmities are the true scourge in the Congo. Ethnicity and identity however, are often exploited by warlords to increase recruitment and feign legitimacy, rather than a driving factor. This has been rightly referred to by Wendy Isaacs-Martin, an African scholar and professor with the University of South Africa, as "opportunistic associations of convenience”.
In truth, the various diagnoses above are all correct but such issues do not appear in a vacuum. They all stem from a single critical deficiency: the DRC has been unable to monopolize the violence within its borders. This failure converges with conflict minerals as a driver, cause, and consequence of continued warlordism which exacerbates all other shortcomings. Central Asia is another region which has suffered these same deficiencies including resource-induced warlordism and a Soviet-colonial legacy, and yet these republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) have emerged as comparatively ordered and prosperous societies. Why have they succeeded where the DRC has failed?
This paper will endeavor to answer this question by using Tajikistan as a case study. It will then examine the conflicts and warlords undermining state authority in the DRC, the resources which fund their insurgencies, and determine how the model for Tajikistan's success can be replicated in the DRC by providing specific policy recommendations.
Tajikistan: Monopolization of Violence Through Centralization of Resource
Central Asian states left independent by the downfall of the Soviet Union bear a striking resemblance to the African states left independent by the end of Western colonialism. Both were in dire economic straits and yet also expected to assume Post-Westphalian nation-state governance in adherence to the Western liberal order despite having few, if any, liberal, Western, or Westphalian traditions. Both regions also became victims of their immediate neighbors’ instability with Central Asia beset by drug traffickers and extremists emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with the DRC facing incursions from militias originating in Sudan and the Central African Republic. More critically, both regions found themselves plagued with a resource curse which has allowed independent warlords to challenge state authority. Order in these circumstances requires a single warlord to be in control of both the violence and the resource, where centralizing the latter grants him a monopoly on the former. In the DRC, it is "conflict minerals". In Central Asia, the valuable drug trafficking routes are the cursed resource over which state authorities were forced to fight competing centers of power.
As Afghanistan ramped up opioid production following the U.S. invasion in 2001, drugs flowed through Central Asia. Detailed in David Lewis' High Times on the Silk Road, by 2010 nearly 25% of Afghani narcotics were exported through the Central Asian republics. Yet as trafficking increased, and the routes therefore became more valuable, there was security and stability where one might expect chaos and disorder: "Drug gangs in Tajikistan do not shoot down police helicopters, as they did recently in Rio. In fact, as the volume and value of heroin transported through the region has risen, the level of drug-related crime has fallen" (Lewis, 40).
Although much of the region exerts some level of state control over drug trafficking routes, the exemplar of the Central Asian case study is Tajikistan. The 1992-1997 Tajik civil war was fueled by the revenue brought in from drug trafficking. To help bring the violence to an end, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, a warlord in his own right, received extremely pragmatic Russian support. International peacekeepers were replaced by the Russian 201st MotorRifle Division and the 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade, while Tajikistan's army was led by Russian officers (Laruelle 14, 2008). A peace accord with the UTO, the largest opposition party, was signed in 1997 which incorporated some of their fighters into the Tajik military and other government positions[i] and disarmed the rest. Top administrative posts were handed out to UTO representatives as bribes for pacification (Olimov 50, 2016). By 2002 Rahmon had defeated the remaining warlords and regained control over Tajikistan's southern border with Afghanistan (Laruelle 14, 2008). A tactic they eventually replicated with success in Chechnya, Russia paid off opposition leaders, allowed others to exile themselves from the country, and eliminated the more uncooperative elements leaving Rahmon as the sole purveyor of violence and in absolute control over the drug trafficking routes.
Tajikistan has been rightly labeled by many as a narco-state:
"The opiate trade is so important economically that it is central to the political system… in which leaders of the most powerful trafficking groups occupy high-ranking government positions… this superimposition has led to the emergence and consolidation of relatively large and integrated drug trafficking enterprises controlling an increasing share of the drug-trafficking market" (Paoli, et. al. 952, 2007).
The largest traffickers in Tajikistan are current and former members of Rahmon's regime and the UTO, which was integrated into the government in 1997 (Paoli, et. al. 969, 2007). The relative absence of competition in the drug trade has led to the absence of violence. The result has been a comparatively secure and stable environment which has enticed investment in Tajik gas exploration and hydropower, decreased unemployment, and improved economic relations with Russia and India (Matveeva 49-50, 2007).
Tajikistan is a poor example of honest governance and accountability, but that does not negate the fact that centralizing power and wealth around a "presidential warlord" has worked to end a decade of violence. The government remains corrupt and, despite economic improvements, opportunity for Tajiks is still low. But progress must not be measured in absolute terms. Relative to the chaos of the 1990's, Tajikistan today is ordered and prosperous. From this case study, a way forward starts to emerge for ending the DRC's resource curse and setting it on a path towards security and stability.
A Game of Thrones, Mines and Militias
After his investigation into the DRC and conflict minerals, VICE News reporter Alison Suroosh Alvi concluded his report saying, "Congo is one of the most underreported stories in the world, and now we understand why. It's so insanely complicated that it's hard to know where to start". Indeed, this paper only provides a very shallow examination of the major conflicts in the DRC. For the purposes of this paper, the ideal starting date is May 16, 1997 when the 32-year dictatorship of General Joseph Mobutu ended after "an invasion by a coalition of neighboring countries’ armies, with the consent and support of the United States" (Dizolele 145, 2010). It was hoped that the DRC would become a shining beacon of African democracy. Instead, the state monopoly on violence disintegrated and a series of wars followed which claimed at least five-hundred thousand lives between 1998 and 2007 (Coghlan, et. al. 16, 2007).
Following the downfall of Mobutu, rebel leader Laurent Désiré Kabila took over and promptly suspended the DRC's constitution as he tried to restore state authority. Laurent Kabila had been supported by Uganda and Rwanda, but when he kicked their troops out of the country, Rwanda and Uganda gave their support to the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and orchestrated Laurent Kabila's assassination in 2001. What exactly happened next remains unclear but ten days after his death, Laurent Kabila's son, Major-General Joseph Kabila (hereafter referred to as "Kabila"), took control of the presidency.
Under international pressure in 2002, the belligerents in the "Second Congo War" signed the Sun City Agreement. This established a transitional government in which Kabila remained its president with an incredible four vice-presidents beneath him, one from each of the major militia groups. This split the government between four different factions who were unable to consolidate any real political authority. The Congolese people affectionately nicknamed this new arrangement the "one plus four equals zero” government (Dizolele 147-148, 2010). This transitional government came to an end with democratic elections in 2006, which Kabila won.
The majority of the DRC's recent history is colored by failed attempts to consolidate state legitimacy in politics and violence. In Tajikistan, a single opposition party (the UTO) was incorporated into a government system which was effectively controlled by a single warlord. In the Sun City Agreement there were five competing centers of power, each with their own armies, agendas, and resources. It is perhaps in consideration of this, among other less honorable concerns, that Kabila has opted to remain in power despite his Presidential term ending in 2016. This move has spurred protests and emboldened existing militias. Indeed, Kabila may have realized that not all movements are deserving of representation in government and that in the DRC mineral wealth provides the incentive and ability for numerous competing poles of power to challenge state authority; thus, order under one is better than disorder under many.
The DRC is one of the most resource-rich countries on the planet. Within its borders lie major deposits of gold, tin, cobalt, copper, and the majority of the world's coltan, and the eastern Congo is particularly abundant (Alvi, 2011). The International Peace Information Service (IPIS) has mapped 2,400 "artisanal" mines in this region alone. These smaller mines allow local warlords to finance militias and exert control over their immediate region. They employ or enslave locals to work the mines, including women and children - the former of which are often abused while the latter are often conscripted into a militia. Some of the artisanal mines are "community mines" which are overseen by local chiefs, and others are owned by foreign mining firms. Regardless of who is in control, the resources from this region are being siphoned away from the state and into quasi-independent power holders.
According to its website, Gécamine (the DRC's state-owned mining company) only owns seven mines, of which only two are operational and under contract with foreign mining firms. Gécamine does no mining of its own, opting instead to lease out mining licenses at a discount and investing in other corporation's mining projects (Kazeem, 2017). The DRC government also owns majority shares in domestic mining companies like Societé Minière de Bakwanga, which mines diamonds in the southern province of Kasai. Much of this revenue goes towards Kabila's personal enrichment, the maintenance of his patronage network, and his 10,000-strong personal army, the Republican Guard. In a country rife with warlords it is important to remember that Kabila himself is a warlord, albeit one under greater international scrutiny. Putting on airs of Western liberal free-market legitimacy has harmed Kabila's efforts to "out warlord" the competition. However, if he were given the latitude to fully assume this role and take direct control over the DRC's mines, as the Central Asian "presidential warlords" have done with their drug trafficking routes, he would find the opportunity to enrich both himself and the state. Given what the people of the DRC have gone through, this would be far from a worst-case scenario. To accomplish this future of security and stability, Kabila must confront the primary insurgencies wracking the DRC and seize the minerals fueling the conflict.
The Eastern Congo: Kivu, and the Ituri Insurgency
There are at least 130 armed militias exercising control in North and South Kivu (KIVU). Some of these armed groups are independent, but many are either allied or branches of larger movements. According to IPIS, there are 328 artisanal mines currently active in this region. Of these, 85 are controlled by armed militias or "indisciplined" members of the DRC military (See, Map of Artisanal Mining Exploitation in Eastern DRC)[ii]. Two notable and troublesome militias are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the mai mai Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS)[iii].
Exemplifying the theory that identity and ethnic rivalries are merely tools used by warlords for recruitment and legitimacy is the cooperation between the mai mai APCLS and the FDLR. Mai mai is a term used to describe native Congolese militias who claim to be fighting against foreign invaders such as the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia. By all rights, the APCLS and the FDLR should be mortal enemies, yet the two groups cooperate in route security and in combating the Congolese state forces. When VICE News sought to interview General Janvier Karairi, leader of the APCLS, it was the FDLR who escorted the news team into the camp. Once on camera, Karairi was quick to deny any cooperation. When pressed about the United Nation's determination that they were indeed working together, Karairi said: "We are not working with the FDLR. How did the UN find out that we are being helped by the FLDR? … All they do is sit inside a hole like this, waiting for their salaries. That's it! They have nothing to do" (Alvi, 2011).
The APCLS receives its funding from gold and cassiterite mines, as well as from the North Kivu Vice-Governor Lutaichirwa Feller (Global Security (APCLS) / PARECO-Hunde, 2012). Feller is a member of a political party[iv] which traces its roots to a militia which fought to violently oust Kabila in the Second Congo War. This arrangement effectively makes the APCLS an armed proxy of a political party which has seats in the Congolese National Assembly.
The FDLR has a storied history in the eastern Congo. Its original members fled Rwanda after taking part in the Rwandan Genocide and its leader, Sylvestre Mudacumura, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The FDLR has a large stake in the illegal mining of coltan, cassiterite, gold, and diamonds (PVC FDLR, 2015). Although the FDLR's stated goal is to return ethnic Hutus to power in Rwanda, IPIS notes that "it is probably more attractive to continue these business activities than to return to Rwanda" (Mapping Conflict Motives: Eastern DRC, 2008).
North of Kivu lies the region of Ituri, whose insurgency often overlaps with the Kivu conflict. One of the more notable opposition groups operating today is the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI). In 2003, the European Union conducted Operation Artemis to enforce peace in the region - the E.U.'s first ever combat operation. Artemis eventually forced several key militias to disband, but the FRPI rejected the disarmament agreement and remain active[v] (Nantulya 5, 2017). The European Union deemed Artemis a success, handed off control to the U.N., and promptly left the region after just four months. Since the end of Artemis, which also forced the FRPI's main enemy to disband, the goals of the militia are ostensibly financial in nature. Led by Baudouin Adirodo, the group is deeply involved in gold mining and trafficking. Mostly located in Orientale and Walendu Bindi, it maintains a permanent presence in three different gold mines where its members conduct the excavation themselves, likely using slave labor (Weyns, et. al. 4, 44, 2016).
The Eastern Congo is also home to the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). An 18,000 strong international force, it is the most expensive U.N. operation in history. Among MONUSCO's many achievements is the undermining of the very security it is charged with creating. A 2008 BBC investigation found that Indian peacekeepers were dealing with the FDLR and that they "traded gold, bought drugs from the militias and flew a UN helicopter into the Virunga National Park, where they exchanged ammunition for ivory" (BBC, 2008). Meanwhile, Pakistani peacekeepers reportedly rearmed other militias so that they could guard the gold mines for Pakistani smugglers. The Pakistanis were also "allowing traders to use U.N. aircraft to fly into the town" (BBC, 2008). MONUSCO has two directives: protect the local population from armed groups and oversee the transition of power from Kabila to an elected representative. It has unquestionably failed at both tasks.
Kasai: A New Problem Turning Old
The Kasai rebellion is the most recent conflict in the DRC. In Kasai, local leaders traditionally aligned with the government which was supposed to recognize their legitimacy as chiefs. That changed in 2014 when the central government refused to recognize Jean-Pierre Mpandi as the new tribal leader. In response, Mpandi launched a rebellion and in August 2016 was killed in a firefight with DRC state forces (Nantulya 2, 2017). With the death of Mpandi, an organized rebellion devolved into a leaderless insurgency (called Kamwina Nsapu) which inevitably splintered into various groups who fight each other as often as they fight the Congolese state.
Hoping to ease relations, Kabila's government recognized Jacques Kabeya Ntumba as the new chief of the region, but Ntumba has not been able to centralize the leadership of Kamwina Nsapu. When the movement fractured, a slew of new warlords[vi] emerged. These included, General Gaylord Tshimbala who claims to be bulletproof, and "Tshisungu" who gives his followers magic potions that supposedly make them invincible (FRI, 2017). To crush the rebellion, Kabila redirected troops from the east and allied with a new militia, the Bana Mura. Bana Mura has destroyed several villages in Kasai and committed numerous atrocities (Global Security Bana Mura, 2017). For its part, Kamwina Nsapu has recruited children into its ranks and slaughtered anyone it encounters who carries a government electoral card or does not speak its native language (Freytas-Tamura, 2017).
The diamond rich area of central Kasai has long been an opposition stronghold and home to diamond traffickers. Mpandi himself was convicted of diamond trafficking before he assumed the role of Kasai's chief. Now in revolt, skirmishes are occurring as individual warlords vie for control of the lucrative mines. As they've taken over the rural mines, many miners have fled to the city - one miner reported to Agence France-Presse that "many militiamen are scattered through the diamond mines" (AFP, 2017). As Kamwina Nsapu is a comparatively young insurgency, there is a dearth of reliable information available. From the trickling news reports and videos captured in the region, it is clear that Kasai has started to mirror the eastern Congo with competing warlords resourced by local artisanal mines. As they begin to profit, they are likely to abandon their ethnic and political causes in favor of the gains to be made from conflict minerals in a chaos-rich environment
Let's Get Physical
As the above analysis reveals, more traditional international efforts have been tried and failed in the DRC. Following threats of economic sanctions by the Trump administration, Joseph Kabila has agreed to not seek a third term in office. He has instead endorsed Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary who ran security for Kabila’s political party and has had a hand in the brutal response to the insurgency in Kasai. Assuming Shadary wins the “free and fair elections” in December, it is likely that Kabila will remain active in the running of the Congolese state. Be it Shadary or one of the other contenders – many of whom are former or active rebels and militia leaders - they must end the resource curse and thereby end the funding of violence that competes with DRC state power. The West should do its part to empower Kabila’s replacement to become the sole warlord with absolute control in the DRC. In this pursuit, this paper makes the following policy recommendations:
Simplify the Problem
The largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, the sheer size of the DRC is often overlooked. North and South Kivu combined is larger than North Korea. South of the two Kivus lies Katanga which is roughly the size of Spain, as is the Orientale province. The region of Kasai (which includes Kasai-Oriental and Kasai-Occidental) is larger than Italy. Further compounding its troubles, the DRC has nine neighboring states each with equally questionable border security. This is all to say that the DRC is too large and has too many hostile and insecure neighbors for one warlord to control. The DRC does not have the manpower or infrastructure to enforce central governance over such a vast and unstable area. It is with this consideration that this paper makes its most radical recommendation: as is the right of any sovereign nation so long as no aggressive war is taken, the DRC should re-draw its borders.
Katanga should be abandoned entirely, this will immediately remove Zambia as a neighbor, reduce the shared border with Angola and Tanzania, and remove the Katanga insurgency (a fifty-year old rebellion home to several anti-government militias) entirely. From the Orientale province, Bas-Uele, Haut-Uele, and Ituri should be ceded to local authorities. This would remove Sudan as a neighbor and reduce the shared border with the Central African Republic. In North Kivu, 80% of the operating mines contain an armed militia presence, and non-state actors are far more active in this region than in South Kivu (Weyns, et. al. 2016, 26-27). South Kivu[vii] also contains the greatest number of DRC-controlled gold mines. For these reasons, North Kivu should be abandoned. This will likely cause armed groups in South Kivu to either migrate to the free north or attract greater fighting in the South as they hope to replicate the success. This latter effect can be mitigated with effective use of state force, as will be detailed shortly. By abandoning North Kivu, the DRC loses the troublesome Uganda as a neighbor and decreases its shared border with Rwanda. All told, ceding these regions would reduce the territory the DRC state needs to control by 332,000 square miles - an area roughly the size of Pakistan.
Ceding sovereignty over territory does not mean that the DRC cannot remain as a majority shareholder in companies which mine in the region - Russia has done the same thing with oil and gas in the Central Asian republics. In this way, the DRC can still benefit from the vast deposits of minerals while only needing to provide security for the minerals themselves instead of the region at large. By redrawing the borders of the DRC, the state would be able to consolidate its forces and allow it to quickly respond to renewed threats and reduce the size of the area it needs to police. Moreover, as revenue comes in the DRC will be more able to build up sustainable infrastructure over a smaller area.
Take the Rocks, Take the Lumber
The newly-drawn DRC would still be left with a considerable quantity of resources, including 300 million hectares of forest area. Presently, state-controlled corporations are engaged in little mining or lumbering activity, preferring instead to reap the harvest of auctioned licenses today than the profits of industrialized extraction tomorrow. It is not an entirely unwarranted approach given the DRC’s intimate relationship with deposed and assassinated rulers. But in this new DRC, Kabila’s replacement should view himself as the long-term leader of a country that needs greater revenue to fund economic development and infrastructure. The Presidential-Warlord in question would also personally benefit by assuming direct control over the extraction process.
During his tenure as President, Kabila has taken steps towards centralizing the operations, abrogating half of previously-issued lumbering contracts and revising mining codes. His replacement should go further and aim to have the mines directly controlled, employed, and overseen by state administrators. Extraction and refining should be done on state-owned territory, employed by state workers, protected by state forces, and by firms in which the state owns a majority share. This will reduce the immediate gains from selling licenses, but the long-term profit will be substantial, and it will deny would-be warlords a crucial source of funding. Further, this would provide opportunities to young men who would otherwise seek employment with a militia. The DRC should also embark on deforestation-through-lumbering campaign. Not only will this serve to employ even more disarmed youths, but by clearing out the dense forests they will deny opposition militias the ability to retreat into the bush and mask their movements.
Employ the Professionals and Secure the Borders
The modern Private Military Company (PMC) was arguably birthed in Africa by a South African group of former special operators known as Executive Outcomes. Throughout the 1990's, Executive Outcomes helped central governments in Sierra Leone and Angola secure valuable mines and defeat insurgent rebel groups with incredible efficiency (Spearin 1102-1103, 2009). More recently, Executive Outcomes' successor company, STTEP International, was contracted by the Nigerian government in 2014 to train its forces and combat Boko Haram. After just one month of operations, the STTEP-led Nigerian military "recaptured a landmass larger than Belgium" from the terrorist group (Barlow, 2017). Western loans should be made available to the DRC to employ companies like STTEP to train and buttress the DRC's state military. By hiring Western PMC's with Western loans, these operators would be beholden to Western standards of behavior. This should work to reduce human rights violations and help instill these standards into the forces they train. Aided by these contractors, the DRC needs to launch an offensive to finally crush the Kasai rebellion and drive the warlords out of South Kivu.
Corrupt the System
Some have argued that "a focus on strengthening the central state risks reproducing the exclusionary dynamics between capital and peripheral regions which sustained conflict in the past," but the Tajikistan case study proves that the exclusionary factor can be mitigated through proper use of corruption (Beswick 334, 2009). If those excluded are unable to resource an insurrection or if their local leaders have been bought and paid for with government posts, then a renewed conflict will either be averted or so politically and materially weak that it may be more easily suppressed.
Kabila’s replacement should therefore find the most pliable and powerful mai mai militia to provide his military with soldiers, transfer their resources into his control, and appoint Ntumba (the newly recognized chief of Kasai) to a government position. These leaders should be given administrative posts that place them directly under the supervision of a party loyalist, but with enough power to satisfy their need for personal enrichment. Essentially, the DRC should not bother making peace with so many enemies and should instead find the Congolese version of the Tajik UTO to help consolidate power.
What Can We Do?
The West has rarely been comfortable with leaving Africa alone – as many Africans will surely attest to. Rather than intervening to construct a new African state modeled on the traditions of the liberal world order, the West should instead focus on helping the new regime in the DRC to implement law and order free of international distractions. Armed rebel groups who remain opposed to the government should be declared and recognized as criminal-terrorist organizations. This would serve to legitimize them as targets and relieve pressure on the DRC for violent measures taken against said groups. This would not be a hard sell to democratic voters given that most of these militias are involved in some form of trafficking (in people, minerals, ivory, or arms), and most have committed some sort of atrocity. The West should reject any disarmament or peace agreement purposed by MONUSCO officials, and indeed put forth measures to change its mandate from the security of the Congo to the security of the newly independent and ceded regions.
The inherent paradox in peace creation in such a violent and corrupt environment is that it requires violence and corruption to accomplish. The levels of which both must be employed may be unconscionable in the utopic image of liberal governance, but in such conflict-ridden states, mirroring this Western image should not be the immediate objective. Instead, measures should be directed at securing a peaceful state through all means available. Once a state is secure, it may stabilize. Once it is stabilized, it may prosper. As it prospers, progress towards freedom can be made and once a state is secure, stable, prosperous and free, democracy will inevitably follow. This is a complicated, and fragile journey for any nation, but it starts with control over the resources that can either facilitate a never-ending conflict or finance an immutable security.
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[i] For instance, Mirzo Ziyoev, a drug trafficker and opposition warlord with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, became Minister of Emergency Situations. In 2009, after Rahmon had further consolidated his power base, Ziyoev was gunned down in his home town of Tavildara by Tajik security forces.
[ii] These "indisciplined" units are typically militia groups who have been folded into the state apparatus as part of a peace agreement in which they retain control over their mineral exploits.
[iii] Two other groups not detailed in this paper, the Raïa Mutomboki and the NDC-Rénové, oversee an estimated 13,000 and 12,000 miners, respectively (Weyns, et. al. 20, 2016).
[iv] Feller is a member of the RCD-Kisangani-Movement for Liberation (RCD-KML), an offshoot of the anti-Kabila RCD.
[v] Artemis also claims to have forced the UPC to disband, though it is unclear whether the UPC remains active or not.
[vi] Many of these are witch doctors-turned-warlords. Witch doctors run Tshiotas where militiamen are baptized for combat. Once rarely used, the insurgency has revived the tradition (Rolley 1, 2017).
[vii] South Kivu should also be abandoned but given the wealth available and current DRC control it is unlikely Kabila’s replacement would be willing to leave the region entirely.