Join us

Become a member and discover where geography can take you.

Join us

November 2011

5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996, making "Congo Wars" the world's most lethal conflict since 1945.

Events have impacted on the economic development of some of the poorest states in central Africa, pushing millions of displaced people into poverty or refugee status.

At the heart of the conflict lies a range of geographical factors including natural resources and ethnic rivalries.

Many young geographers will not appreciate the scale of this tragic conflict: because it is so seldom reported on in the mainstream media outside of Africa.


What is the geographical basis for conflict in DR Congo?

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has been mired in conflict for over a decade now, with devastating effects on its civilian population. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has documented the humanitarian impact of war and conflict in DR Congo in a series of studies. The IRC estimates 5.4 million lives have already been lost, making this the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II.

Known as Zaire until 1997, DR Congo has an eventful and often unpleasant history. Colonised by Belgium in the late 1800s, the country regained its independence in 1960. The region is rich in natural resources that include copper, cobalt and diamonds as well as rare earths including coltan and niobium. It also benefits from fertile soils and an abundance of timber and rubber, although the lack of any coastline (aside from one very short stretch) could be viewed as a physical development challenge. Thirty years ago, eminent geographers such as Michael Chisholm were still forecasting a bright future for Zaire (as it was then known) on account of its physical resource endowments.


Today, DR Congo is ranked 156th in the Human Development Index. Life expectancy is just 46 and gross national income (GNI) per capita is a mere $150. Most people live on less than $1.25 a day (the absolute poverty line). A mere 0.3% of people have internet access and there is one doctor per 10,000 people (New Statesman, 29 November 2010). This is a place where greater progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals is desperately needed. So why is there a lack of correlation between resource availability and economic development in DR Congo?

Resource curse

The answer, some analysts would argue, lies in an understanding of resource curse theory.

While it might at first glance seem reasonable to suggest that natural resources will aid development within a country, the opposite has also often been found true: this is known as the "resource curse". In fact, in central and western Africa, natural resources have come to be associated with malingering poverty and oppressive government. This is because too often:

The scramble for control of natural resource revenues results in corruption and even civil war or invasion by another sovereign state (you may be familiar with the story of Sierra Leone’s ‘blood diamonds’ conflict).

Natural resource wealth does not "trickle-down" to the poorest people.

The discovery of natural resources may lead to other industrial enterprises being abandoned, lessening prospects for sustainable economic development.

The timeline below describes and analyses DR Congo’s complicated and bloody past. The 5.4 million death toll between 1998 and 2007 has been calculated by the aid agency International Rescue Committee. This figure includes lives lost directly on account of fighting and also indirectly through disease and famine in refugee camps (some critics of the IRC report believe that many of the non-conflict deaths between would have occurred even without conflict and that an inflated figure of 5.4 million has been used to justify increasing the number of UN peacekeepers stationed in the region).

DR Congo’s troubles are part of an even bigger picture though. The majority of its 10 neighbour countries have recently experienced civil wars or conflicts of their own. Eight of these countries have invaded DR Congo in recent times: border skirmishes over territory and resources – or in pursuit of fugitive groups – have become commonplace. Central Africa is one of the least politically stable regions in the world.


DR Congo Timeline


Development  &  conflict phases


Phase 1:  Colonised by Belgium






  • Belgian King Leopold II prepares to colonise Kongo.  In 1885, Leopold establishes the Congo Free State, headed by himself.

  • Millions of Congolese are said to have been killed or worked to death during Leopold's control of the territory.


  • Raw materials drew Europeans to the Kongo region (the name is an ancient one, describing a region originally centered in what is now modern northern Angola and also includes extreme western Congo).  Timber, rubber and gold made the region an important prize.

Phase 2:  Independence as Zaire








  • Congo Free State becomes independent following rioting against Belgian rule.  New Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba adopts an anti-western stance but is soon murdered. Joseph Mobutu later seizes power.

  • Mobuto renames the country Zaire.  He creates a difficult regime for TNCs to operate in, while amassing a $4 billion fortune for himself.   Zaire eventually defaults on loans from Belgium, resulting in a cancellation of development programmes and a deterioration of its economy.


  • Following de-colonisation, the country’s leaders viewed the free market Western world with suspicion.

  • The assassination of Patrice Lumumba was linked with post-colonial activities carried out by Belgium and the USA during the Cold War (when the USA and the Soviet Union were opposing world superpowers).

  • Aid and loans designed to help alleviate poverty in the region were sometimes siphoned off by corrupt politicians while leaving ordinary people with debt.

Phase 3:  Regime change , name change & conflict























  • Many Congolese want the corrupt Mobutu removed from power.  Neighbour states of Uganda and Rwanda assist a rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, who becomes president in 1997;  he re-names Zaire as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

  • Kabila expels his Rwandan and Ugandan allies.  They turn on him and re-invade, only to find that other neighbours - Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia - have now sent troops to side with Kabila.  The six-nation war begins.

  • The six African countries sign a ceasefire but fighting continues between government forces, rebels, Rwandans and Ugandans.     The UN Security Council mobilises what will become its largest ever peace-keeping force.

  • President Laurent Kabila is assassinated. Joseph Kabila succeeds his father and re-builds diplomatic bridges with Uganda and Rwanda, who withdraw troops very slowly.

  • The fact that some Rwandans and some Congolese are from the same ethnic groups (a legacy of colonialism) is an important reason why the conflict came to involve more than one nation.  Conflict in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda has spilled over into Zaire / DR Congo  on many occasions since 1996.

  • Raw materials once again proved to be a source of prolonged conflict.  The United Nations believes that many occupying forces were partly motivated by a desire to gain access to DR Congo’s resources.  They were not simply trying to challenge or lend support to Mobuto.  One UN panel alleged that the warring parties deliberately prolonged the conflict in order to plunder gold, diamonds, timber and coltan (used in the making of mobile phones).

  • Poverty rose due to the displacement of many people in conflict zones; millions died, even after the main period of war officially ended in 2002.


Phase 4:  Attempts at conflict resolution














  • International Court of Justice rules that Uganda must compensate DR Congo for the plundering of resources.

  • Outbreaks of violence continue as army troops clash with Rwandan and rebel groups in the east of the country.  UN peacekeepers attempt to support Congolese army troops.

  • Ugandan troops re-enter DR Congo in search of a murderous Ugandan militia group called the Lord's Resistance Army.

  • Kabila offers an amnesty to rebel groups.

  • $8 billion debt relief deal approved by World Bank and IMF.  But mass rapes and bloodshed continue to be reported in some provinces.

  • Refugee movements continued to be generated by conflict, especially in the east of the country.  Displacement of people from their land by armed militia groups increased famine-related deaths.

  • The first arrests of people on suspicion of war crimes began in eastern DR Congo.  This began to bring the still on-going conflict into the global media spotlight.  One UN report has stated that ‘crimes of genocide’ may have taken place.

  • The need for debt relief indicates that poverty still remains a major factor in the continuing conflict in DR Congo.



Reasons for instability and conflict in DR Congo

The timeline shows that DR Congo has suffered from a long-lasting civil war in which armies from neighbour states have also played a major role. Why is this part of the world so prone to instability and conflict? In a large part, regional instability is attributable to the hasty and poorly thought-out way in which African territory was divided when covetous colonial powers that included Britain, France and Belgium invaded and occupied the continent in the past.

New territorial borders were drawn with scant regard to the existing cultural and linguistic regions that indigenous Africans themselves recognised. Problems were inevitable.

For instance, the ethnic Tutsi people of modern Rwanda are also found in DR Congo. The transnational identity of ethnic groups such as the Tutsi is a root cause of widespread African regional instability and a trigger for many territorial skirmishes. Conflict between Tutsi people and another Rwandan group, the Hutu people, spread into neighbouring DR Congo during the 1990s. Rwandan Tutsi troops have been deployed across the border on numerous occasions in pursuit of Hutu militia groups accused of attacking the ethnic Tutsis who live in eastern Congo.

In summary, key reasons for the enormous scale and bloody nature of the conflict in DR Congo have included:

Colonisation: The Belgians introduced a precedent of oppression of the weak by the strong; some commentators would argue that this mind-set is still echoed today (New Statesman, 29 September 2010). More widely, Belgian rule was simply ruinous for the country. There were only a tiny number of trained graduates living there when it gained independence in 1960 – leaving the country with a highly damaging skills shortage across economic and political spheres of activity.

Ethnic diversity: The state of DR Congo is home to 240 ethnic groups and is severely lacking cultural coherence. In the absence of shared wealth or a strong state, such diversity poses a major challenge to unity and has become a major contributing factor to conflict. Additional factors have further exacerbated this failure to unite. Capital city Kinshasa is a megacity positioned on the extreme western border. Groups living in eastern territories, such as Nord-Kivu, are both spatially and socially distanced from the centre of decision-making and power. 37 years of misrule by President Mobutu also bred much resentment amongst some ethnic groups and exploded into rebellion during the late 1990s.

Resource curse: Neighbouring countries’ armies, including those of Uganda and Rwanda have repeatedly entered DR Congo, ostensibly in support of either government forces or rebel groups. However, once on Congolese soil, there is strong evidence that these armies have in fact been more concerned with staging a resource grab for themselves (notably of diamonds, for instance in the town of Mbuji-Mayi). Rebel groups sometimes forced farmers and their families to leave their agricultural land if valuable resources were suspected to lie beneath – or worse pressed them into forced labour as miners. These are serious charges that the Hague Criminal Court has since levelled at both Rwandan and Ugandan leaders.

Militia groups: In 2009 as many as 400,000 people fled their homes in DR Congo due to attacks from an armed militia group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA come from Uganda, showing once again that conflict in DR Congo is rooted in a wider, regional, set of issues. Militia groups and crime networks flourish across central Africa - where used Kalashnikov assault rifles can be purchased for as little as $10. The persistence of a "war economy" (where some people keep fighting simply because it has become a way of life that brings them money and resources) is also an important reason for continuing conflict.

Poverty: People living in DR Congo lack resilience due to poverty. When displaced from their land by anticipated or actual conflict, they find it hard to gain access to vital food supplies or medical care. Hunger and treatable illnesses become killers. Estimates suggest that of the 5.4 million who died, only one million died directly from the conflict. The remaining 4.4 million were deaths linked with poverty. Many were caused by preventable or treatable conditions including malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Most of the victims were non-combatants or civilians who died as a result of the breakdown of economic, social and health infrastructures, or from hunger. Some even died from insect and snake bites or attacks by wild animals while hiding from militia groups such as the LRA.

"Colonialism established a system of mineral exploitation that consisted of extracting raw materials for export, with little or no productive investment in the country from which they were extracted, and little or no effort to protect the environment. This system has remained intact since independence as a national curse, in that DR Congo’s enormous wealth attracts numerous outsiders who eventually find local collaborators to help them loot the country’s natural resources. As in Leopold’s day, the national wealth is monopolised by Congo’s rulers and their foreign business partners to the detriment of the mass of the people, who remain among the poorest of the global poor. This is the real scandal of the Congo."

Source: Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja (Professor of African Studies at the University of North Carolina, USA)


What is the impact of conflict on development in DR Congo?

The Congo Wars led to mass forced migrations, a complete collapse of already inadequate health systems and fatal food shortages. Although a formal peace accord was signed between warring factions in December 2002, several residual conflicts continue to this day in the country’s eastern provinces. These remain a major cause of mortality amongst local populations.

As a result of conflict, DR Congo is unlikely to meet its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets. Instead, the nation is one of a handful of African states where progress has been lost rather than made in recent years. For instance:

Mortality rates: DR Congo’s national crude death rate (CDR) of 26 deaths per 1,000 people per year is 50% higher than the average rate for sub-Saharan Africa. This rate is unchanged since 2004. The majority of deaths have been due to infectious diseases and malnutrition. Increased rates of disease are linked with disturbances caused by conflict, including disruption of health services, poor food security, deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure and large-scale population displacement. Children are particularly susceptible to these easily preventable conditions. No progress has been made since 1990 towards the MDG target for improving under-five mortality rate. The percentage of the population with access to safe drinking water has actually fallen over the same time period.

Gender equality: While gender equality is sought by the MDGs, DR Congo is a place where the majority of women in conflict zones have experienced some kind of sexual assault. Rape has been used as a weapon of war.

Primary schooling: Increased primary schooling is a very important MDG – it links with the pressing need to develop the human resources of the world’s poorest countries But in DR Congo, tens of thousands of children were forced to become soldiers. Some as young as ten were forced to murder adults. Many have suffered trauma as a result. Combined with interrupted schooling, they may have difficulty finding anything other than menial work in the future. International investors may also be deterred from bringing jobs to DR Congo if they feel that too many young people are psychologically scarred and lack workplace skills.


The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight specific goals to be  met by 2015 that aim to combat  extreme poverty across the world. 

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

  • Achieve universal primary education

  • Promote gender equality and empower women

  • Reduce child mortality

  • Improve maternal health

  • Combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases

  • Ensure environmental sustainability

  • Develop a global partnership for development

These goals were created at the UN Millennium Summit in New York in 2000. The Millennium Declaration, adopted by the world leaders, promised to: ‘free all men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.’  The declaration was adopted by 189 nations and signed by 147 heads of state.


Environmental impacts

How do you think the conflict may have impacted on the physical environment in Congo? Possible themes to investigate might include: abandonment of farmland and the re-growth of secondary forest. Loss of vegetation cover in and around refugee camps is a common problem due to trampling. Transmission of diseases is a physical problem that can take root in the refugee camps especially if there is poor sanitation and raw sewerage contaminates water supplies (a problem exacerbated by heavy tropical rainfall). As a homework assignment, students could investigate these themes further. Synoptic links can be drawn – for instance between the concept of vegetation succession and farm abandonment.


Why has more not been done to end this conflict?

"There are various explanations for the neglect. Perhaps the global reservoir of wealth and goodwill runs only so deep. Perhaps the attention and outrage directed toward another African tragedy, the genocide in Darfur, have left the world too exhausted to take on Congo's." (Time magazine, 2006)

Some commentators have been critical of the way the world’s media has given plenty of coverage to events in Iraq and Afghanistan but less to conflict in DR Congo.

This phenomenon of conflict reporting bias was first identified by Noam Chomsky in his analysis of the Indonesian army’s activities in East Timor during the 1970s. By some estimates, one million died in that conflict yet few "column inches" were devoted to the story in western newspapers. Chomsky did more than merely assert that a reporting bias existed. In the book Manufacturing Consent (1988), he carried out a quantitative study of the reporting of journalists in the mainstream US media. He compared newspaper reporting on Indonesia's military invasion and occupation of East Timor with reporting on the atrocities simultaneously carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

The severity of both conflicts – measured in terms of mortality – was roughly equivalent. However, as Chomsky showed, the New York Times devoted 1,000 column inches to Cambodia and about 70 column inches to East Timor. Chomsky has argued this is because Indonesia was heavily supported by US military and economic aid around this time – so reports of any atrocities were downplayed in the American media.

More generally, conflict reporting may reflect the perceptions of newspaper editors who believe, rightly or wrongly, that their readers have limited interest in events in DR Congo. Take the case of the UK media, for example. DR Congo is not an ex-British territory and no UK peacekeepers are stationed there. The roots of the conflict are complex and there are also no easy solutions on offer (see Table 1). All of which perhaps makes it less likely that British newspaper editors will regularly commission stories covering events there. 


The lack of attention given to DR Congo in the media is also echoed in the current UK school curriculum. Conduct a survey of people in your year group: ask if any of them learned about "the deadliest conflict since World War 2" in history, citizenship, geography, religious studies or any other curriculum area (and at any Key Stage). The answer will often be "no".

However, awareness of the Congo Wars has risen in recent years across a range of media:

The Hague war crimes trials of people involved in the Congo Wars have received plenty of recent coverage. Thomas Lubanga, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, is accused of conscripting children under 15 to kill ethnic Lendus in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war between 1998 and 2003 (Independent, 27 January 2009)

The New Statesman published a special issue covering the conflict (29 November 2010)

A growing number of fictional works deal with central African conflict: for instance Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier is a character who occupies the same fictional universe as Superman and Batman. This comic book, aimed at mature readers, has won many awards.


A Level / IB essay assignment

Discuss the role that poverty and natural resource availability play in the outbreak of armed conflicts. (10 marks)

Examiner tips

This question is asking for a focus on two possible causes of conflict – poverty and natural resources.

A good answer will consider the role of both factors in turn, perhaps weighing up whether poverty is indeed the stronger influence of the two in a variety of contexts.

The best answers may show that the two factors are in fact interlinked. Where extreme poverty is found, such as in many African states, people may be more likely to take desperate measures to seize control of resources in the hope that wealth will follow.

Of course, there are other factors to consider too: poverty does not automatically make people lawless! Corrupt politicians, failed governance structures and ethnic rivalries may be amongst the possible triggers needed to additionally bring about resource conflicts (as a group of people may become militarized if they lose faith in the state’s ability to deliver any alternative way out of poverty for them and their families). The role of these additional factors may be discussed.



Failed state: Can DR Congo recover? BBC 21 November 2011

New Statesman cover 29 November 2010

2006 Time magazine archive article

On trial, the warlord ‘who led an army of child soldiers’. Independent 27 January 2009

IRC death toll estimate 

BBC timeline 


Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a Geography Chief Examiner who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex


File nameFiles

File type



Congo Wars Essay


96 KB

Download all files


Key words

Natural resource   Some part of the physical environment that has been used to satisfy human needs and wants. Natural resources may be renewable (sustainably managed forest, wind power and solar energy) or non-renewable (fossil fuels). 

Under-development theory   A view that suggests some place are less developed than they might otherwise be on account of external interference such as colonialism and neo-colonialism.   

Resource curse theory   The view that natural resource endowment may retard rather than accelerate economic and social development for some places, on account of the role resources often play in triggering war, corruption or the neglect of other development paths. 

Megacity   A city with more than 10 million residents.

Rare earths   A collection of seventeen different chemical elements not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms. These natural resources are important for range of industrial processes including mobile phone manufacturing.

Human resources   The working-age people found in a place who can generate wealth with the skills and capabilities they possess.


Featured image: iStock 000008911157