The ceasefire in the Democratic Republic of Congo held only long enough for Laurent Nkunda to find another target of opportunity, this time the town of Ishasha on the border with Uganda. His successful attack there expands the territory under his control eastward from Rutshuru.
Some big questions remain about what Nkunda is trying to accomplish. His avowed goal was first to protect the minority Tutsi population in the DRC, the Banyamulenge, but that morphed into his stated ambition to take his army across the country and topple Joseph Kabila’s government in Kinshasa. On a more prosaic note, some believe Nkunda’s goal was simply to regain control of the Lueshe Mine, a source of the strategic mineral niobium that at its peak employed 3500 men. That might be a nice side benefit, but my guess is he and his backers have their eyes on a much larger prize: control of the entire North Kivu province with its rich cassiterite, gold, and coltan deposits.
Most of North Kivu’s mineral resources are found in Walikale territory, in the west of the province, an area so far unaffected by the fighting. At least some of these minerals are transported through Goma and into Rwanda. The Walikale mining sector is outside effective state control and many mines are under the physical control of unintegrated national army forces or armed groups, including the FDLR. The commercial interests in these mines are shadowy but reportedly extend to important figures in government circles as well as to Congolese Tutsi businessmen. These latter are rumoured to be the financial backers of Laurent Nkunda’s rebellion.
The tip off is Nkunda’s demand that Kabila’s government make a place for him and his army in the hierarchy governing the country. Having the imprimatur of Kinshasa on his army–even a false one earned under duress–would lessen the danger that MONUC or other outside forces would interfere with his plans. That legitimacy would also clear the way for him to attack other outlaws like Congolese Colonel Samy Matumo, who controls the rich cassiterite mines in Walikale territory with the renegade 85th Brigade of the FARDC, supposedly part of the DRC army. Kabila’s government has been unable to manage Matumo even though he technically reports to Kinshasa. He’s believed to be operating the mines in an alliance with the FDLR.
Nkunda has also demanded that Kabila’s government renegotiate contracts recently made with Chinese mining concerns for development in the region.
Nkunda’s original excuse for rampaging through the eastern provinces was to protect the minority Tutsis from the depredations of the remnants of the Interahamwe (FDLR) that committed the 1994 Rwandan genocide and then fled into the DRC. If Nkunda becomes the semi-legitimate military governor of the entire province, there would be nothing to prevent him from moving against them–and the mines they control.