African Studies Congo Wars
Harry Verhoeven
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0218


Following the global upsurge in conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no confrontation turned out to be more devastating than the Great African War, which led to mass excess mortality with estimates ranging between 2.7 million and 5.4 million people dead in the 1998–2007 period. Unlike the First World War, with which it is often compared because of the multitude of states which battled each other on Congolese territory, Africa’s Great War cannot be defined by unambiguous start and end dates. The violence since the 1990s is perhaps more usefully thought of in analogy with Europe’s Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century or, as some historians argue, the cataclysmic conflict centered on Eurasia that encompassed both World Wars, separated only by a failing truce between 1919 and 1937. With not only alliances changing regularly in the Great African War but also a whole cast of participants joining and leaving the battlefield and the frontlines gradually blurring to the point of becoming virtually indefinable, many scholars prefer using “Congo Wars” to refer to a series of regularly interlinked but sometimes also clearly distinct conflicts—local, national, regional—waged on the territory of what was formerly known as Zaire and now as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Thus, while a narrow definition separates out a “First Congo War” (beginning in September or October 1996 [once again, depending on one’s definition!] and ending on 17 May 1997) from the “Second Congo War” (the Great African War “proper,” from 2 August 1998 to 17 December 2002), other perspectives date the start of the conflict(s) back to the Rwandan genocide and argue that the Congo Wars, in parts of the territory like North and South Kivu and Ituri, are still ongoing. This bibliography takes a relatively expansive view of the conflagration, focusing publications analyzing the central events between 1996 and 2002, but acknowledging the impressive body of scholarship that not only scrutinizes the consequences of six years of catastrophic violence but also traces ongoing localized and/or transnational conflict in the DRC. At the time of writing (summer 2019), some optimism is taking hold after the peaceful (if controversial) handover of presidential power by Joseph Kabila to Felix Tshisekedi in January 2019 following elections in December 2018; violent confrontations among militias and between rebel groups, the MONUC/MONUSCO UN force, and the state still occur regularly, but not since 2013 have insurgents (i.e., the M23 rebellion) credibly threatened to take over an entire province, let alone seek to oust the president in Kinshasa: progress by Congolese standards. Although foreign actors still meddle in Congo’s politics, they do not do so as overtly and probably also not as profusely and effectively in the 2000s. The task will fall to historians a generation from now to assess whether the Congo Wars really have been coming to an end, twenty-five years after they began raging, or whether the current moment merely turned out to be a relatively peaceful interlude separating one set of violent outbursts from another.

Historical Overview of the Conflict(s)

Several authors have provided a historical overview of and/or advanced a major theoretical argument that accounts for the spectacular escalation of violence by state and nonstate actors on the Congolese territory from the mid-1990s onward. To understand these works and publications focused on subdimensions of the conflict(s) discussed later in this article, it is worth recalling the basic chronology and sequence of events. On 18 October 1996, the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (AFDL) declared war on the regime of Mobutu Seso Seko, who had ruled Congo-Zaire since his successful coup d’état in 1965. Within seven months, AFDL recruits marched 1,500 km from Goma and Bukavu to Kinshasa, a campaign that struggled more with logistics than with resistance from the crumbling Mobutist state. Behind the AFDL stood the firepower, crack troops, and diplomatic counsel of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), and Angola’s Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) but also that of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and Burundese and Tanzanian governments. The members of this coalition of liberation movements each had their own motives for wanting to topple Mobutu; their conspiracy sealed the fate of Congo’s long-reigning dictator. Laurent-Désiré Kabila announced in May 1997, from Lubumbashi, that he was assuming the presidency of the republic. While he held the political leadership, military matters remained, as during the campaign, in the hands of the RPF’s star officer, James Kabarebe, who was appointed as Chief of Staff of the Congolese Armed Forces. The revolutionary euphoria, however, was barely able to veil already mounting tensions and fault lines. The violence across and within ethno-political networks that had been intensifying leading up to 1996 did not end with the rise to power of the AFDL. In Eastern Congo, massacres, insurgencies, and counterinsurgency followed quickly from one another. In the equatorial rainforest, RPF forces hunted their enemies and killed tens of thousands—mostly génocidaires according to Kigali, many civilians according to Congolese bystanders and aid workers. Moreover, things did not go well between the comrades who had overthrown Mobutu: by July 1998, relations between Kabila and his foreign backers were so bad that the president expelled Kabarebe and the remaining Rwandese soldiers. The rupture of the alliance also ended the new regional order Congo was supposed to be the linchpin of. On 2 August 1998, army units across Eastern DRC rebelled, backed by foreign forces. Kabarebe led an air raid on Bas Congo seeking to overpower his former comrade in a surprise attack. As Ugandan forces backed the RPF and the mutineers Zimbabwean, and Namibian troops scrambled to rescue the Congolese president. However, it was Angolan muscle that thwarted Kabarebe from capturing Kinshasa, with thousands perishing in urban combat. As the rebels and Rwandese soldiers retreated eastward, the conflict slowed down. This was less to do with the ineffective observers—later peacekeepers—of the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo (MONUC), who deployed to the Congolese territory in a bid at stopping the hemorrhage, than it was the result of changes in actors, motives for fighting, and military strategies. In subsequent years, most of the north was overrun by the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) insurgents of Jean-Pierre Bemba, who drew support from Kampala and old Mobutist networks, while also joining the war in Central African Republic. The RPF backed a rival rebel group, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), which controlled parts of Eastern and Southern Congo, but quickly splintered into different factions, each more concerned with protecting ethnic kin and exploiting the land’s rich resources than with marching on Kinshasa. The RPF itself tried repeatedly to force a breakthrough and compel concessions from Kabila, leading to ferocious confrontations around Kindu in 1998, Mbuji-Mayi in 1999, and Pweto in 2000. However, Ugandan-Rwandan competition intensified simultaneously, bringing them to the brink of open war after clashes in Kisangani in 1999 and 2000. The split between the RPF and NRM all but assured that Kabila (senior first, and then, after the former’s assassination, Joseph) could continue ruling Western Congo and (most of) Katanga while his Zimbabwean allies allowed themselves to be paid in diamonds and other valuable minerals. Blitzkrieg had turned into impasse, until the South Africa–mediated Sun City agreements of 2002 marked the end of the international conflict, leading to the formal withdrawal of all foreign armies from Congo and a transition government in which incumbent and former rebels shared power. “The 1+4” system, in which Joseph Kabila worked together with four vice presidents, generated hopes that Congo’s neighbors would stop meddling in its internal affairs, but proved illusory. In the Kivus, Rwandese génocidaires and anti-RPF combatants continued to pursue their dream of fighting their way back home, allying with myriad local networks who resented the RPF, the RCD, and/or local Tutsi economic interests. In Province Orientale, Ituri had collapsed into ethnic cleansing as the elites of the two dominant ethnic groups, Hema and Lendu, fought each other and relied on external assistance to confiscate land and property; the conflict was so bad (casualty estimates were north of 50,000 killed) that the European Union launched Operation Artemis in 2003 to pacify the region. Ugandan rebels—foremost the Lord’s Resistance Army and Allied Democratic Forces—were present in Province Orientale as well, as were Sudanese intelligence officers, Chadian mercenaries, smuggling networks of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement, and other armed groups—not to mention hundreds of thousands of displaced Congolese, Burundese, Rwandese, Sudanese, and Ugandan citizens. These security challenges were further compounded by a long line of defections from the supposedly integrated Congolese armed forces (Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo, or FARDC): Jules Mutebesi’s renegade troops who captured Bukavu (2004); Laurent Nkunda and his Conseil National et Démocratique du Peuple (CNDP), which seized Goma and swathes of North Kivu and threatened to march on Kinshasa (2007–2009); and the M-23 insurgency of Bosco Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga, which once again captured Goma from the UN-FARDC (2012–2013). All of these were homegrown but also supported by Kigali and Kampala, where Presidents Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni claimed to be responding to Kabila’s long-standing support for Rwandese and Ugandan insurgents. Meanwhile, mostly across Eastern Congo but occasionally also in Katanga, Equateur, and Kasai, scores of other Congolese army units occasionally rebelled, sold their weapons to various insurgent forces (foreign and domestic), cohabited with nonstate (often ethnically recruited) militias, and joined them in terrorizing local populations. To the extent that news of this seemingly never-ending violence reached the outside world, it was mostly as graphic descriptions of gender-based atrocities, earning Congo the reputation of “rape capital of the world,” as Margot Wallstrom, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, told the Security Council in 2010.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.