Central Africa’s Terrorist Threat Could Spark Another Continental War
The global imagination has conflated the word “terrorism” with Arab Muslims due to the headline-grabbing attacks that some of this demographic have carried out across the years, but they by no means have a monopoly on this type of warfare. When discussing terrorism in Africa, it’s worthwhile not just to look at Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram, but to also turn attention to the many terrorist groups running amok in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which don’t satisfy the ‘traditional’ criteria of being Arab or Muslim. While the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) are Muslim, they’re not Arab, and organizations such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), M23, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) are neither of these.
The reason why all four of them can be categorized as terrorists is because they frequently target civilians, so much so that a compelling argument can be made that such attacks are not the actions of a rogue collection of individuals, but part of the groups’ policies. The case can be made that the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s security services sometimes engage in this sort of atrocious behavior as well, but this doesn’t appear to be state policy. Moreover, the Congo’s armed forces are part of the state, while these so-called ‘rebel’ groups are not, which is a key differentiator in assessing each actor’s ‘legitimacy’ when it comes to the use of force, no matter who it’s directed against. It should be said that Kinshasa has a vested interest in framing these ‘rebel’ groups as terrorists because its assures the country of international support and positive media coverage in its campaign to clear these groups out of the Congo, though it sometimes backtracks on its ‘terrorist’ designation like it did with M23 whenever it tries to strike a political deal with such organizations.
The armed non-state actors that are active in the Congo, whether as ‘rebels’ or ‘terrorists’, pose a very serious threat to the Central African region’s stability. The northeast corner of the country is already a black hole of governance and has even attracted former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar’s Nuer rebels following their retreat from the country in September. Furthermore, there’s the ever-lingering threat that the Muslim-majority Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic might also spill over into the country in the future too, depending on the course of the unresolved civil war there. In that sense, it’s applicable to speak about a collection of six separate non-state actors that could satisfy the criteria of ‘terrorist organizations’ in the Congo – the ADF, LRA, M23, FDLR, Machar’s Nuer forces, and Seleka, all of which except for M23 are explicitly aimed at destabilizing the situation in one of the country’s fragile neighbors.
The northeastern Congolese juncture point between Central and Eastern Africa has twice proven to be a Balkan-like powder keg for igniting larger African conflicts, so the complex situation today with myriad non-state ‘rebel’/’terrorist’ actors running around is very similar – and in some cases, worse – than the strategic context that preceded both the First and Second Congo Wars. Instead of states initiating and driving the course of events like in those two previous bloodbaths, this time it might be non-state actors that take the lead in dragging the rest of the region into an interlinked conflict that none of the affected countries truly wants. Addressing each of Congo’s relevant neighbors in a clockwise direction and beginning with the Central African Republic, the sparsely populated mineral-rich country is a failed state that’s religiously divided between Western Christians and Eastern Muslims, the latter of which fight under the Seleka banner and could venture over into the Congo just like the Ugandan LRA and ADF ended up doing.
The adjacent oil-rich country of South Sudan is newly independent but has also become a failed state amidst an outbreak of ethnic warfare and former Vice President Machar’s Nuer forces have crossed over into the country, while neighboring Uganda and Rwanda are comparatively more stable than the other two but are overdue to experience inevitable leadership transitions as their leaders eventually reach the end of their lives. Any political uncertainty that follows in either of these neighboring states could create an advantageous space for Color Revolutions to break out and for the Congolese-residing ‘rebel’/’terrorist’ groups to wage an Unconventional War on their territories. Lastly, Burundi is on the brink of state collapse, though it’s not because of President Nkurunziza so much as it due to his Rwandan counterpart Kagame in trying to trigger a Tutsi uprising in the demographically identical country which has almost the exact same ratio of Hutus and Tutsis, a very risky policy which might blow back into the Congo and aggravate the same already existing Hutu-Tutsi tensions in the eastern borderland which sparked the First Congo War.
All of these existing regional frailties are made even more sensitive by the Congo’s ongoing election crisis and the violence that this has already produced throughout the country, especially around the northeastern and eastern cities of Kisangani and Goma where the ‘rebels’/’terrorists’ are already active. In the event of a sudden and large-scale security breakdown that the Congolese security forces are unable to adequately deal with, Uganda and Rwanda – whether on their own initiative or once more in coordination with the other – might be urgently pressed to stage a military intervention into the country in order to prevent the emergence of an even more chaotic situation that could be exploited by their LRA, ADF, and FDLR enemies. If either Kampala or Kigali are in the throes of the previously mentioned leadership transitions during this time, then the scenario would become even more dangerous because the unstable government would be thrown into a dilemma between choosing whether to centralize its new authority or secure the Congolese frontier.
Without anyone having prepared for it, a huge conflict could thus break out in this transregional pivot space as the Congo descends into chaos precisely at the moment that ‘rebel’/’terrorist’ groups are rising up and two of the most comparatively stable countries are undergoing sensitive leadership transitions. Apart from directly affecting the humanitarian situation in each of the prospectively affected countries, another regional war would also adversely impact on several of China’s transnational infrastructure projects, which receive comparably scant media coverage in the West but are inordinately influential in shaping the continent’s geopolitics.
Kenya and Uganda are in the process of building a Standard Gauge Railroad with Chinese assistance which could one day be extended to Kisangani in establishing a multimodal trade corridor between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Tanzania, also with Chinese support, is building a Central Corridor railway to Rwanda and Burundi which might also eventually reach into Goma and the rest of the mineral-rich eastern Congo. Finally, the railway network in the copper- and cobalt-rich former region of Katanga could be disrupted by any new conflict and thus interfere with China’s valuable resource imports, as well as impede the viability of another cross-continental rail project in bridging Angola’s recently refurbished Benguela Railway with Tanzania and Zambia’s TAZARA, all of which are also linked to China. Of global concern, China importantly controls 60% of the world’s cobalt production and obtains 99% of this mineral from the former region of Katanga, thus meaning that the information-communication, ‘smart’ missile, and electric car battery industries could immediately experience product shortage and price spikes if a new conflict exploded there.
Appraising the very delicate situation in the Congo, it’s important for observers to recognize that ‘rebel’/’terrorist’ groups might actually have more of an influence in sparking a major international conflagration than any of the Central-East African governments, owing to the relative freedom with which they already operate and the developing backdrop of the Congo’s ongoing election-related violence. A dark scenario is rapidly taking shape whereby these non-state actors and others are playing a more heightened role than they had in the past, prompting a sudden security crisis that might succeed in tempting one or some of the regional states into militarily intervening to prevent the establishment of an uncontrollable terrorist safe haven in the borderland region. If history is any indicator, then the overt involvement of just one foreign country’s military forces in the Congo might be all that’s needed to fully tip the scales of destabilization into all-out chaos, which could lead to a re-eruption of multisided warfare and undermine China’s unstated New Silk Road ambitions for more fully penetrating the resource-rich African Heartland.