Congo beyond the hashtags

While social media has amplified calls for social justice in long-ignored parts of the world, it should only be the beginning of our activism.

Lake Kivu. Image credit Mugisha Don de Dieu via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

The 2023 AFCON  tournament in Côte d’Ivoire saw the Congolese national football team, the Leopards, bring renewed hope to the Democratic Republic of Congo as they made their way to the semifinals. As the team progressed through the different stages of the tournament in Abidjan, insecurity in the volatile eastern DRC increased, with the March 23 Movement (M23) and other militia groups amplifying their violent attacks in the region. 

The Leopards made a point to denounce the killings by demonstrating solidarity with the victims during the games and on social media—standing on the pitch and shaping the fingers of one hand into a gun pointed at their heads while covering their mouths with the other as the national anthem played—making use of hashtags to spread the message.

Social media has become instrumental in the call for social justice in areas of the world that have been willfully ignored for decades. Hashtags such as #EndSARS, #FreePalestine, and #BringBackOurGirls have allowed people from all corners of the world to provide insight into global affairs to the curious and the empathetic.

Hashtags old and new about the situation in Congo, for example, have been in circulation for years. #CongoIsBleeding and #WhatIsHappeninginCongo first surfaced in November 2020 with the renewed attacks by the M23. More recent attacks in February 2024 brought #RwandaIsKilling and #FreeCongo to every end of the internet. Free-flowing information channels are a double-edged sword, however—the well-intended virality of the #FreeCongo message has also led to an uptick in non-vetted information that not only eliminates context but conflates facts about a layered and complex crisis.

A pertinent point of confusion is the framing of the crisis surrounding child miners. Videos of the Haut Katanga mining crisis are often found under hashtags used to denounce the situation in the east. Congolese mineral wealth has made the nation a beacon for greedy Western nations, world leaders, and corporations who believe that they can help themselves to it, regardless of the consequences. 

Although there is a demand for multinational mining companies to “Free Congo” there are a few points that should be emphasized that create a distinction between the war in eastern DRC and the highlighting of mining by children and the hazardous situation in the Haut Katanga province. Corruption, irresponsible governance, unenforced mining laws, and greedy multinational mining companies are the biggest contributors to the mining crisis in the DRC. They have taken advantage of the economy leaving Congolese families across villages and even big cities like Likasi and Kolwezi forced to accept work in and around toxic, unsafe mines that are then sold back to the mining companies. This scheme involves companies such as Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chinese company, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd. This is where brands like Apple, Dell, and Microsoft benefit from child labor. The cobalt mined in Congo for the aforementioned company provides technology companies with cobalt, for them to make lithium-ion batteries for their devices.

The abundance of minerals in the DRC’s soil—particularly copper and cobalt—is almost immeasurable, estimated at $24 trillion. Honing in on the mining crisis offers tangible, direct actions to minimize the labor exploitation taking place (commit to buying less technology that isn’t refurbished for example). But the conflation of the child mining crisis in Haut Katanga, while certainly informed by the war in eastern Congo, is not the cause nor reason behind the mass killings or the hashtag #RwandaIsKilling. The child and artisanal miners in Kolwezi deserve to have their stories told clearly and concisely, and not overshadowed or confused with the conflict in the east; it simply enables the true aggressors to hide their hands and escape responsibility for their crimes amid confusion and conflation. Discussing the mining issue is a much simpler way for the global community to understand the humanitarian crisis in the DRC; people can connect the images of suffering to the devices that power their daily lives and thus understand the injustice of it all. 

Honoring the complex stories of the women and the men of eastern Congo requires engaging with a sordid history. After the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in 1994, eastern DRC received an influx of Rwandan refugees, with both Tutsis and Hutus crossing into Congo (then known as Zaire). Allegations that Interahamwe (Hutu perpetrators of the genocide) had infiltrated the refuge population and crossed over into Congo with the authorization of Congolese dictator Joseph Mobutu prompted the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by commander Paul Kagame, to cross into Congo and retrieve these Hutu rebels. This 1996 Rwandan invasion of eastern Congo led to the First Congo War, in which the RPF fought alongside Uganda, Burundi and Laurent Kabila’s Alliance des Forces Democratique pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (AFDL), a rebel group fighting to rid Congo of Mobutu. 

The war gave Kabila the presidency in 1997 and Rwanda and Uganda the freedom to operate in the provinces of Ituri and South and North Kivu. In 1998, Kabila reneged on the arrangements he had with the aforementioned countries, souring relations between the DRC and its neighbors, and prompting a Tutsi rebellion and the Second Congo War, also known as Africa’s World War.

There were multiple attempts to bring an end to the war, from the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement in 1999 to the installation of a transitional government in 2003 that placed Joseph Kabila as head of state after the assassination of his father in 2001. Insurgency persisted, however, and new militia groups seemed to sprout daily as violence continued to escalate in the region. Militia groups would go through leadership and name changes; the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) split into different factions with multiple leaders. The war and instability allowed for the illegal transportation of artisanally mined minerals into neighboring countries, making it clear that the motives for the invasion had little to do with Interahamwe but everything to do with the minerals found in the region.

Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and hailed by former US president Bill Clinton as “one the greatest leaders of our time,” is at the eye of this humanitarian storm. It was under his directives that the RPF led an invasion of eastern Congo without impunity in 1996 with the support of the UK, France, and the US. The goal was and continues to be to control and exploit the coltan reserves: minimal amounts of tantalum are found in Rwanda, yet Rwanda is a top exporter of coltan. In 2021, Rwanda made approximately $516 million on mined minerals, including coltan. By indirectly causing instability in the locations where coltan is found in surplus in the DRC, Rwanda has managed to siphon billions of dollars worth of the valuable mineral to attract foreign investment over the years. Despite the Rwandan government denying all claims, the UN has presented conclusive evidence of the state funding the M23, and continuing to spill Congolese blood on Congolese soil without remorse.

In April 2012, former rebels defected from the Congolese army and launched the M23 group in North Kivu. In the space of three months, 200,000 people were forced to leave their homes as the rebels stationed at Bunagana, a town at the border of Uganda. On November 20, 2012, the M23 went on to take control of Goma. After almost two years of merciless operations, the M23 agreed to stop their rampage and were driven out of North Kivu after being defeated by the FARDC (the DRC armed forces) and their allies in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). 

Despite the Second Congo War formally ending in 2003 and the M23 surrendering in 2013, the Congolese people are still not free. The nation’s people are still dying; women and children are still victims of sexual violence; minerals continue to be trafficked and Uganda and Rwanda continue their covert attacks on the DRC through the use of rebel groups.

In 2011, Congo was named the rape capital of the world with at least 48 women/girls raped every hour. A former Human Rights Watch senior researcher on the DRC, Anneke van Woundenberg, stated in a thesis, “I have never before come across the cases described to me by Congolese doctors, such as gang-rape victims having their labia pierced and then padlocked.” In 2016, it was reported that 46 children aged 18 months to 10 years were abducted and raped by militia group members. These women, girls, and even men in the region were and continue to be purposely infected with HIV. The victims of these crimes are doubly traumatized: not only do they experience violations from the assaults, but they are then faced with being ostracized and isolated in their communities for bringing shame to their families.

In October 2010, the UN released the DR Congo Mapping Report, which detailed some of the most harrowing violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that occurred in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. The acts of violence were linked to the exploitation of natural resources, namely coltan and gold. The report contained 617 alleged violent acts. In 2008, it was estimated that approximately six million lives were taken as a result of the war, often referred to as a genocide. Today, that number has increased to well over 12 million, more than double the lives that were lost during the Holocaust. In addition to lives lost, the number of people displaced continues to rise. Videos showing hordes of locals seeking refuge in neighboring cities, villages, and countries have gone viral on social media. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of people displaced across the North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika provinces of eastern Congo is around 5.8 million, while around 1 million people have requested asylum in neighboring countries

The covert targeting and decimation of Congolese people have persisted over three decades as the world at large remains silent. In February 2024, the M23 struck again, dropping explosives in and around the city of Sake in North Kivu near a school and a church. But the Congolese diaspora has consistently denounced the militia groups, the Congolese government, and foreign bodies responsible for this humanitarian crisis. The Combattants—made up of militant Congolese living in Europe— have taken to the streets of Brussels, London, and Paris to denounce the involvement of the EU on multiple occasions. Boketshu Wayambo, a Congolese musician, has become one of the prominent faces in the Congolese diaspora, calling out all of the critical figures in this systematic murder of Congolese nationals. Websites like have put a face to the boogeymen and named the individuals and institutions implicated in the silent eradication of a people. On Instagram, accounts such as Genocost and CongoFriends are dedicated to community organizing and raising awareness about the dire conditions in the DRC.

More than an economic problem, this is a humanitarian problem, not only because the minerals stolen from the DRC sustain a global Western lifestyle, but also because 12 million lives have been taken. Mere survival is a default setting for the people of the DRC. 

The world can no longer ignore the injustices suffered by the Congolese people. The denouncement of the abuses in eastern Congo, however, will only be as good as the availability of a clear message, supported by facts and access to correct information. While social media has become instrumental in the call for social justice in areas of the world that have been willfully ignored for decades, viral hashtags are just the beginning.

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