DR Congo: why the volcano city of Goma matters

Goma lies at the foot of an active volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo and on the border with Rwanda.

It matters today because it testifies to the powerlessness of the Congolese government and the United Nations to stop fighting and tit-for-tat violence.

The border city also matters because it could be an indicator of the unravelling of the Rwandan president’s authority.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame is under pressure from hardliners frustrated by the continued presence of opposition forces who have found sanctuary on the Congolese side of the border.

President Kagame is also increasingly seen as an embarrassment to touchy foreign partners.

M23 rebels have now entered Goma; the governor of North Kivu has fled to Bukavu by boat and hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the city helter-skelter without having anywhere to go.

War, rape and the illegal extraction of minerals – an old story – matter more and more.

M23, also known as the Congolese Revolution Army, is alleged to be the newest avatar of Rwandan support for Tutsi rebellions in eastern DR Congo.

The rebel fighters defected from the Congolese army in April this year because of pressure on the Congolese government to arrest Gen Bosco Ntaganda who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.

The recent fighting for Goma can be directly traced to this decision.

It also results from the symbolic and strategic importance the city and region have in the intricate Kigali-Kinshasa balance of power.

Who are the M23 rebels?

  • Named after the 23 March 2009 peace accord which they accuse the government of violating
  • This deal saw them join the army before they took up arms once more in April 2012
  • Also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army
  • Mostly from minority Tutsi ethnic group
  • Deny being backed by Rwanda and Uganda
  • Believed to have 1,200 to 6,000 fighters
  • International Criminal Court indicted top commander Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda in 2006 for allegedly recruiting child soldiers
  • The UN and US imposed a travel ban and asset freeze earlier this month on the group’s leader, Sultani Makenga


Some 20,000 UN blue helmets with a $1.5bn (£943m) annual budget have not been able to stop the fighting. The peacekeeping force – Monusco – has ordered the evacuation of its non-essential staff.

UN resolutions taken in New York have little impact on rebels or their backers.

Rwanda is not bowing down to Paris, Brussels, Washington or London.

The small East African nation, the donor darling of the post-genocide years, raises an interesting paradox.

Development aid it has received has been used efficiently but the creation of Mr Kagame’s benign dictatorship is having unforeseen side effects in eastern DR Congo.

The UN Security Council has condemned Rwandan support of the M23 rebel group leading to another paradox.

On 1 January 2013 Rwanda will occupy a rotating position on that Security Council.

In austerity Europe, where closer scrutiny is given to aid efficiency, failed international interventions and development co-operation in Africa are politically damning.

There has been neither peace nor full-scale war in the densely populated, mineral-rich Kivu provinces of eastern DR Congo since hostilities officially ended in 2003.

‘Volcano Republic’

Until recently, a situation of manageable low-level violence prevailed.

Warlords have had a free hand to carry out business as usual – the illegal extraction of strategic minerals.

Congolese officials, militias and the ordinary people who dig for and trade minerals reached a fragile modus vivendi where all sides were able to agree on sharing the profits and risks.

The Congolese army offers little competition to the rebels, which is a further blow to Congolese sovereignty and their sense of national identity.

Soldiers are underpaid, lack motivation and do not respect the government’s orders.

A decade of security sector reform initiatives has produced few tangible results in terms of morale building, training, chain of command or the ability to defend the country.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila is partly to blame because he is afraid that if the military were to become a real force on the security and political front, it could stage a coup against him.

Goma also matters because amid rumours of the Balkanisation of DR Congo and the creation of the “Republic of Volcanoes” – yes, the territory already has its own name.

The taboo of redrawing Africa’s boundaries was broken with the creation of South Sudan.

While the issues of governance and access to land and resources are fundamental for local populations, Goma also matters to the international marketplace.

DR Congo has 70% of the world’s coltan and it comes from the Kivus.

Coltan is what keeps our mobiles ringing. The threat of a new DR Congo war could disrupt supply chains.

The human tragedy in eastern DR Congo has not mobilised creative thinking or effective diplomacy for a lasting peace settlement.

Perhaps if the price of coltan skyrockets, consumers in the West will need to rethink their engagement in this troubled part of the world.

By Theodore Trefon
Congolese affairs analyst

Theodore Trefon is senior researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa and author of the blog Congo Masquerade: The political culture of aid inefficiency and reform failure.