Ethnicity as a Weapon:
Ethnic Entrepreneurship, Power Struggles, and Resource Acquisition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
by Quentin Sauvage Spring 2019
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the site of a never-ending barrage of war and other forms of violence, which ethnic rivalries stirred and foreign interests fueled. Home to an estimated 200 or more ethnic groups, colonizers, political powers, foreign interests, rebel groups, and militia have deliberately promoted ethnic differences in order to pursue their own agendas. The use of ethnicity as a weapon can be better termed as ‘ethnic entrepreneurship,’ as coined by Severine Autesserre, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Three provinces, in particular, have been home to a history of endless conflict over land rights and/or ethnicity: North Kivu, South Kivu, and Katanga, located in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Examples of ‘ethnic entrepreneurship’ are prevalent during the First Congo War, the Second Congo War (also known as the Great African War) and the most recent Kivu and Ituri conflicts. These and earlier conflicts have been waged in order to obtain some of the DRC’s precious mineral resources, including: silver, cobalt, cadmium, tantalum, beryl, cassiterite, wolfram, gold, diamond, and uranium. In 2001, the United Nations (UN) Security Council released a statement. on a report of the Expert Panel charged with investigating the illegal exploitation of Congolese natural resources regarding the exploitation of mineral resources, stating, “the report contains disturbing information about the illegal exploitation of Congolese resources by individuals, governments and armed groups involved in the conflict and the link between the exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the continuation of the conflict”(UN Security Council 2001). The purpose of this essay is to discuss the following: political and economic organizations, whether foreign or internal, have used ethnic tensions to fuel their own agendas while hundreds of thousands of innocents were massacred, raped, and deprived of their homes and families in the DRC, in order to exploit the DRC’s natural resources.
Setting the Stage
The Congo was colonized by Belgium under King Leopold II, in 1877, who brought Belgium into the fray for domination of the African continent. The territory was renamed The Congo Free States (1877-1908). The monarchy subjected the local populations to forced labor to extract rubber from rubber trees, demanding a quota be met at the cost of chopping off a limb, being shot, or sold into slavery. The period under King Leopold II’s rule is recalled in Congolese history as the era of “blood rubber”, in which an estimated ten million Congolese died. By the turn of the century, the violence used by Free State officials against indigenous Congolese and a ruthless system of economic exploitation led to intense diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take official control of the country, which it did in 1908. The Belgian Congo (1908-1960) was relatively less brutal toward the local population than Leopold II’s Congo Free States were, however economically, the Belgian government sought a program of further expansion into the Congo in search of more valuable mineral resources. The Belgian government contracted the opening of several mines that were opened in the countryside. The most notable and lucrative mines were those found in Katanga (copper and cobalt mines), Kasai (diamond mines), and Ituri (gold) in the eastern part of the country. The Belgian government displaced several ethnic communities in order to provide their workforce with proper housing and accommodations.
In the Belgian Congo, local natives of various ethnicities regularly interacted and inhabited a common space. In the DRC, to this day, there are more than two hundred ethnic groups, which made differentiating which ethnic group a local belonged to extremely difficult for Belgian authorities. Amselle identifies two approaches to defining difference. The first, the Ethnological approach, constitutes “the continuity-breaking procedure that extracts, refines, and classifies with the intention of isolating types, whether they be in the realm of politics, economics, religion, ethnicity or culture”(Amselle 1998). The second, the Mestizo Logic approach, comprises “a continuist approach that would emphasize an originary syncretism (the merging or assimilation of several originally discrete traditions, in this context ethnicity and ancestrage) or lack of distinctness (a system for classification or distinguishing difference)”(Amselle 1998). The Belgian government adopted both approaches whether Mestizo Logic in the Congo (due to the numerous ethnic groups) or Ethnological in Rwanda (based on physical characteristics that defined the Hutus and Tutsis). Having established trade links and transportation routes connecting various tribes, the Belgian government inadvertently opened up channels for ethnic tensions. Once the Congo claimed independence in 1960, newly interconnected ethnic groups were left to fend for themselves, as were the many Congolese, dispersed from their lands by the Belgium government to unfamiliar territory, leading to ethnic violence between natives and non-natives.
Independence left the Congolese without a government to unify the nascent country and, more importantly, its multiethnic population. In May 1960, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), a nationalist movement led by Patrice Lumumba, won the parliamentary elections. Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Joseph Kasavubu as president. Lumumba wanted the new government of the DRC to have direct control over the DRC’s natural resources rather than the oversight by foreign manufactures of mineral mines. This conflicted with the interests of the United States of America (USA) and their Cold War allies, who were disinclined to allow Africans control of strategic raw materials, ultimately leading to the ousting of Lumumba by Kasavubu. Lumumba spoke out against Kasavubu, declaring his action unconstitutional. “Belgian paratroopers, supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), assassinated Lumumba, only seven months after the independence of the DRC. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, ex-president of the African Studies Association of the United States (ASA) and of the African Association of Political Science (AAPS), writes in The Guardian, “It is in this regard that Patrice Lumumba’s determination to achieve genuine independence and to have full control over the Congo’s resources in order to utilize them to improve the living conditions of our people was perceived as a threat to western interests”(Nzongola-Ntalaja 2011). Consequently, the infamous rule of Mobutu Sese Soko began as Mobutu took advantage of the leadership crisis between Kasavubu and Lumumba, having been previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army, Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Through support from the United States, Belgium, and privately paid soldiers, Mobutu took control of the government in 1965 and officially renamed it Zaїre in 1971. Under his leadership, the Congo and its neighbors would be subjected to violent terror tactics and ethnic cleansing campaigns that unfurled into the First and Second Congolese Wars.
The Mobutu Regime
Mobutu’s regime was infamously corrupt and internationally condemned for using ethnicity as a weapon to gain popular support by demonizing ethnic populations in the eastern DRC for the socio-economic woes of Zaire. African academics, Tony Karbo and Martha Mutisi, write, “the nature and extent of violence in the DRC are not only embedded in the history of the Great Lakes Region, but also reflected in the politicization of ethnic groups by the Mobutu regime”(Karbo & Mutisi 2012). Since the 1850s, Rwandans migrated to the Kivu provinces, located in the eastern DRC, escaping ethnic violence and cruelty from their local rulers. In the 1930s, there was an influx of tens of thousands of Rwandan migrants and Banyarwanda (earlier Rwanda settlers in eastern DRC) looking for work, providing cheap labor for Belgian planters and mining companies. R. Deman, a Belgian territorial agent, wrote in a survey, in 1959, that, “184,089 Hutu were reported to have permanently settled; to those must be added 53,233 Tutsi”(Lemarchand 2009) in the Kivu regions. In the province of Katanga, indigenous peoples were out-numbered by migrants.
During the first decade of Zaїre’s existence (1971-1997), Mobutu implemented a series of reformations. On Jan. 5th, 1972, his government implemented a citizenship law that naturalized native Rwandan and Burundian settlers who arrived before 1950, a process known as Zairianization. Huge tracts of land were sold to wealthy Tutsi and Hunde (not to be mistaken with Hutu) farmers in the east, land previously owned by Belgian settlers, “resulting in the expulsions of hundreds of Hutu and Hunde peasant families”(Lemarchand 2009). Local ethnic groups, furious about losing their lands, demanded their customary land rights, but a general property law in July 1973 abolished such rights. For most Congolese, “one’s identity as a member of a specific ethnic or tribal group thus became the basis for receiving national rights as a citizen, in addition to remaining the key factor for access to land, wealth, and political, social, and economic power at the local level”(Autesserre 2010). Newly integrated Rwandan settlers, as citizens now outnumbering the local ethnic population, caused massive political unrest. Consequently, a new ethnic conflict began between the Banyarwanda, local Tutsi and Hutu migrants, and Hunde, Nande, Nyanga, and Mai-Mai ethnic groups (among others), in Kivu (which continued into 2013).
The second decade of Mobutu’s rule sparked a network of rebel and militia groups, along with intervention, by foreign actors in the Congo. Due to dwindling foreign aid in the later years of the Cold War, “Mobutu and his cronies decided to exacerbate ethnic tensions to stay in power” (Autesserre 2010) in eastern DRC. On June 29th, 1981, the government delivered a referendum on the citizenship law of 1972, establishing a difference between “immigrant” and “indigenous”, redefined to exclude Banyarwandan peoples. The law, “limited citizenship rights to those persons who could show that one of their ancestors was a member of a tribe, established in the Congo prior to October 18, 1908, when the Congo formally became a Belgian colony” (Lemarchand 2009). The rifts caused by the referendum pitted those groups living in the Eastern Congo, colonized after the creation of Belgian Congo, against the general populous of the West which was already under Belgian control in 1908. This caused much confusion as such any evidence or documents were either ambiguous or never created in the first place; it also further stoked hate crimes and escalating violence on ethnic lines.
Mobutu engaged in a process of ‘indigeneity’. Stanislas Bacyalimwe Mararo writes, “Ethnicity was more politicized in North Kivu than elsewhere in the east of the country… Every political calculation was made in exclusively ethnic terms”(Turner 2007). Rwandans “intermarried over the years, [thus] it was extremely hard to define who was ‘native’ and who was not”(Karbo & Mutisi 2012). “The idea of ‘an indigenous people’ is… unsustainable due to complex and extended histories of migration, intermarriage, interaction, and assimilation, not to mention the specific contexts from which the term ‘indigenous’ stems”(Lynch 2006), writes Gabriel Lynch. Only those ethnicities local to an area of land could be awarded positions of authority. Thus minority tribes, especially Hutus and Tutsis, were left unrepresented and disregarded by government development and infrastructure projects.
Mobutu’s regime began to dwindle in public support due to lavish expenditures for government officials, mismanagement of public resources, and a lack of proper healthcare and social services. The division of cross-ethnic communities by such laws deflected hatred to the ‘non-indigenous’, using ethnic tensions and xenophobic violence to divert anger from the government and fuel a sense of nationality.
These actions were ethnically entrepreneurial. Autesserre writes, “Fueling ethnic hatred spared politicians the need to develop real political platforms”(Autesserre 2010). Encouraging hatred for Banyarwanda led to the alliance of Congolese with Rwandan ancestry alongside foreign powers. Hate crimes against the Banyarwandans incited a massive Banyarwanda uprising in Masisi, which led to the massacre of 10,000 people and the displacement of 250,000 others. Micahel Mann writes that such procedures of governance only serve the purpose of “entwining the demos with the dominant ethos, generating organic conceptions of the nation and the state that encourage the cleansing of minorities” (Mann 2005). The massacres in Eastern Congo began to draw the attention of neighboring countries, especially Rwanda, which would soon experience its infamous genocide of Tutsis.
Laurent Kabila, The Rwandan Genocide, and The First Congo War
In July 1994, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPA) took control of Rwanda. Shortly after, 1.5 million Hutu refugees migrated to North Kivu. These new migrants experienced violence from local Bahunde and Banyanga militias, which led to Hutu migrants killing 30,000 Tutsi, Bahunde, and Banyanga in their efforts to create a new ‘Hutuland’. The new Rwandan government proceeded to pour into eastern DRC in Nov. 1996, fearing a Hutu uprising could expand back across the border destroying Hutu refugee camps and empowering local Tutsi to refer themselves as Banyamulenge, or ‘native’ elements in South Kivu.
The Rwandan government created a de-facto government in eastern DRC to protect ethnic Tutsi from prejudicial violence enacted upon them by the Mobutu regime and local ethnic groups. The RPA allied itself with the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADLF), led by Laurent Kabila, who sought to overthrow Mobutu, prompting the First Congo War (1996-1997). Other actors, such as Burundi and Uganda, joined the fight against Zaїre. According to Human RightsWatch, “the rebellion was sparked by the government’s move to strip the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge of their citizenship and drive them from the country”(Karbo & Mutisis 2012). Mobutu was successfully overthrown and on May 17th, 1997, Kabila became the DRC’s first president.
The Second Congo War (The Great African War)
The Second Congo War (1998-2003) brought about the most devastations in the DRC, incorporating national and foreign actors competing with local proxies for control of mineral resources, illicit exploitation of resources to finance rebel groups, and extreme cases of violence. ‘Local’ became ‘criminal ’in eastern DRC. One UN official said, “The local agenda? It’s resources!” (Autesserre 2010). The three major interests of the Second Congo War were security concerns over rebel groups, exploitation of Congolese natural resources, and duties toward ethnic kin.
After taking power, Laurent Kabila requested that all foreign troops withdraw from the DRC. The RPA moved from its previous locations to Goma, and border city in eastern DRC, and established a new rebel group, the Rassemblement Congolaise pour la Democratie (RCD), to destabilize the new government. Uganda established a rival rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), under Jean Pierre Bemba. The RCD, along with the Rwandan government stipulated that parts of eastern Congo were historically Rwandan with “the recasting of precolonial history as a means of legitimizing Rwanda’s territorial claims to large parts of Eastern Congo”(Lemarchand 2009). Tony Karbo and Martha Mutisis argue, “When kin groups exist in neighboring states, ethnic conflict can either intentionally or unintentionally become transnational. Much depends on political opportunities perceived by ethnic entrepreneurs” (Karbo & Mutisis 2012). Thomas Turner writes, “Shortly after the invasion of eastern Congo, Kagame (President of Rwanda) and his associates began importing gold, cassiterite, and other valuable minerals from eastern DRC and then re-exporting them as Rwanda products”(Turner 2013). The Rwandan and Ugandan governments and militias thus promoted interethnic conflicts and mass killings as a means to secure mining zones (Shah 2010). Intervention forces from Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and from UN Security Council, MONUC, arrived to combat rebel militias.
In retaliation, Kabila orchestrated anti-Rwandan propaganda to combat the RCD and Banyarwanda. In Article 12 of the Congolese Constitution (1998), Kabila stripped Banyarwandans of more citizenship rights. “In essence, the article defined the “real” Congolese as an individual who acquired citizenship through the blood of both parents, reaffirming the colonial distinctions between “native” and “non-native” Congolese…”(Ngolet 2011). In the Ituri district, Kabila loyalist and radio broadcaster Maj Mudenke called for the massacre of Rwandan Tutsi, Aug. 12th,1998.
“…it should be stressed that people must bring a machete, a spear, an arrow, a how, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, and the like, in order, dear listeners, to kill the Rwandan Tutsis, who are currently in Ituri District and continue to spread information against the Congolese by means of radiotelegraphy with the sole objective of dominating us.” --Maj Mudenke (BBC News 1998)
Laurent Kabila also manipulated Mai-Mai, community-based militia groups in Katanga province, to banish Banyamulenge militia forces and MLC rebels. By failing to support parts of Katanga, Kabila, through macro-level antagonisms (e.g.a lack of state authority, the devastation of infrastructures, poor education, poverty, and the refrainment from tapping into mineral resources) was able to insinuate violence by the Mai-Mai against local migrants and rebel forces. Mai-Mai groups had rejected government control and fought among themselves to promote grassroots agendas, festering clan, tribal, and ethnic rivalries in the area. In early 2000, pamphlets were circulating in Bukavu, a region predominantly occupied by Mai-Mai ethnic groups, denouncing “invaders” and “strangers”. Francois Ngolet writes, “The RCD authorities recognized the explosive potential of ethnic hatred, having heard of public meetings in which the expulsion of the Tutsi from rebel-held territories had been discussed”(Ngolet 2011). Turner writes, “The RCD, formed by Rwanda and Uganda to put a Congolese face on the war, pursued a largely extractive approach by collecting taxes and exploiting natural resources”(Turner 2013). This is direct evidence of ethnic mobilization and entrepreneurship. The RCD successfully destabilized the DRC, by recruiting local Banyamulenge, pitting citizens against citizens with ethnicity being a clear difference, while Kabila fueled ethnic hatred among ethnic tribes in the East.
Other than Rwanda and Uganda, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, a supporter of the Kabila regime, was accused by the UN of illicit trading of the DRC’s natural resources. Zimbabwe’s speaker of parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, shared in a UN report that the exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources for personal wealth is a “key strategy for the Zimbabwean branch of the elite network… [and] part of the inner circle of [Zimbabwe Defense Forces] diamond traders who have turned Harare into a significant illicit diamond-trading center”(Deibert 2013). The UN estimated that Zimbabwe, alone, had acquired five billion dollars from illicit diamond trading.
Government forces and Congolese enterprises had, themselves, fueled ethnic tensions in order to pursue economic agendas. “Top-down manipulation of ethnic antagonism provided elites not only with political power, but also economic benefits. Kinshasa and Goma-based companies tried to force each other out of business by exploiting the tensions between indigenous communities and Congolese of Rwandan descent”(Autesserre 2010). Individuals, based in Kinshasa, also fueled the conflict. Autesserre states that this group included those close to Kabila, whose involvement in Katangan politics was aimed at the “pursuit of an ad-hoc, uncoordinated, and individual search for profit (notable through the illegal exploitation of mineral resources) and local power (by supporting their own ethnic group or clan), rather than to advance any national-level political or military strategy” (Autesserre 2010). Even the Rwandan government, the supposed bastion of defense for those of Rwandan descent, was caught in the mix of exploiting the DRC’s resources by way of ethnic strife.
After the assassination of Laurent Kabila and the installation of his son Joseph Kabila, as the next President of the DRC in 2001, the Second Congo War continued to rage on until 2003. Notably, in 2002, an RCD faction led by Laurent Nkunda, as ex-general of the DRC army, committed massive violence. In June 2003, all foreign armies, except for Rwandan forces, pulled out of the DRC, culminating in the end of the war.
Post-Conflict and On-Going Tensions in the DRC
“The two Congo Wars and subsequent violent struggles for power were indeed a holocaust, but they were also an armed robbery of epic proportions, a robbery in which Congolese officials, their neighbors in Africa, and the international community were all complicit” (Deibert 2013).
The years that followed the end of the Second Congo War brought civil unrest and destruction to the country. In an article published by Reuters on September 12th, 2000, the author writes, “the Congolese conflict disintegrated into an archaic mix of rebel groups and militia factions exploiting ethnic divisions and competing for control of the country’s vast mineral wealth (Ngolet 2011). Extreme violence continued among various ethnic groups that struggled to control the mineral-rich provinces of North and South Kivu. Rwanda continued to support rebel Tutsi forces.
In 2009, Rwanda and the DRC proposed a peace deal, wherein the CNDP rebels (National Congress for the Defense of the People) disbanded and was incorporated into the Congolese army. Its leader, Laurent Nkunda, was arrested and jailed. The deal passed, yet with consequences. Michael Kavanagh, a reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, said in an interview, “The CNDP has been integrating into the Congolese army over the past year as part of a peace deal, but they are still committing massive atrocities in Eastern Congo, they’re just now wearing Congolese Army Uniforms”(Kavanagh 2010). Mr. Kavanagh proceeds to say, “Meanwhile, tiny-but-powerful Rwanda benefits from the illegal trade in natural resources in eastern Congo, as do other neighboring countries like Uganda and Burundi and Tanzania” (Kavanagh 2010). The Congolese government refused to complain about these atrocities to maintain the peace deal.
Those CNDP rebels, who had not integrated themselves into the FARDC, joined the ranks of the M23 movement, allegedly led by ex-chief of staff of the CNDP Bosco Ntaganda. The group was created on March 23, 2009, and continued to ravage the Kivu provinces and plunder resources. Throughout this time, they killed elephants, for their ivory, in order to fund their ensuing military efforts. The militia group is primarily composed of Tutsi, who have continued to fight over territory with the Mai-Mai groups in the area, as well as the Hutu militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. The M23 movement also employed countless child soldiers in order to pursue their agendas. The UN Security Council accused the leaders of the M23 of financial embezzlement, divisions, ethnic hatred, deceit, and political immaturity. An official ceasefire was signed in 2013, and, currently, the M23 rebels have discontinued their efforts in Kivu.
During the 2000s, especially after the war, many foreign investors and mining companies began investing in the Congo. Companies such as George Forrest International (GFI), OMG (US mining firm), and AngloGold Ashanti purchased huge swathes of land in DRC for commercial mining. China, alone, imported $1.6 billion in resources from the DRC in 2008, compared to a mere $1 million in 2000. Yet, even some of these foreign investors sought to exploit ethnic divisions for their own personal gains. In Ituri, conflict raged between ethnic Lendu rebels, supported by Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) rebels, and ethnic Hema, supported by the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). One unnamed former employee of AngloGold Kilo, a subsidiary, was quoted by Human Rights Watch in 2005, saying, “that Jean-Pierre Bemba had directed AGK to negotiate with the FNI Lendu militia as a means of exploratory mining”(Deibert 2013). The conflicts between the two ethnic groups formally ended in 2007, yet during the time, most of those in Ituri, “claimed that their community, whether Hema, Lendu, or any other ethnic group) still needed to protect itself from expropriation, oppression, and extermination by their local enemies”(Autesserre 2010) an aspect of ethnic relations, in Katanga, taken advantage of by major corporations.
Congo’s history has been dark and violent, from King Leopold II to Mobutu, to the Kabila administration. Congo’s tragedy, “has been fueled by transnational corporations' insatiable greed of its abundant mineral ore deposits, including Colton, and not by ethnic conflicts that existed in the region from time immemorial”(Ngolet 2011). Foreign interests, dating to the Belgian colonization and the assassination of Lumumba and the backing of Mobutu by the United States, deliver a striking message: foreign investors will take extreme measures to keep their hands on DRC’s mineral wealth. Yet, mobilization of ethnic people, the creating of difference, the fueling of ethnic hatred (dubbed ethnic entrepreneurship) has played a key role in the violent history of the DRC. Jason Stearn writes,
“The only viable means of popular mobilization remains ethnicity, although even that has been gutted of much of its moral content by generations of customary ruler co-opted and repressed by the state. These ethnicity-based organizations, whether political parties or armed groups, mobilize for greater resources for their own narrow community, not for the public good. This is turn fuels corrupt systems of patronage, whereby ethnic leaders embezzle public funds in order to reward their supporters”(Stearn 2011).
One can always wonder how the history of the Congo could have been re-written had Patrice Lumumba stayed in power, and the Congo’s resources been converted for use for the people. The government is failing to help its people and civil unrest due to a lack of proper healthcare, education, employment, and other social services has driven more people to join in ethnic conflict and acquire wealth. Article 27 of Congo’s mining law hardly shows any promise for a prosperous future, specifying that, “civil servants, members of the armed forces, police and security services, judicial authorities and employees of parastatal companies involved in mining operations are ineligible to hold mineral rights.”(Deibert 2013) This measure creates a policy mandating that government officials are exempt from restrictions on owning shares in mining enterprises. As foreign investors continue to show interest, Michael Kavanagh states, “Growing and regulating its mining sector is probably the most important thing Congo can do to extricate itself from poverty; it’s also the sector most vulnerable to corruption”(Kavanagh 2009). To this day, Congo is experiencing similar levels of violence to that of its past, and only time will tell whether ethnic tensions will continue to prompt conflict over land, resources, and, ultimately, power.
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