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CRSV: The First and Second Civil Wars in the Republic of Congo

This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

The First Republic of the Congo Civil war was fought between rival militias led by former politician Bernard Kolelas and former Prime Minister Pascal Lissouba, and former President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. The conflict emerged from the unresolved claims of election fraud in the 1992 Presidential elections – and went on to shape the history of the Republic of the Congo (Clarf, 2008). The Second Republic of the Congo Civil War took place between June 5, 1997 and December 29, 1999. This was effectively a continuation of the First Republic of the Congo Civil War from 1993 to 1994.

Both these conflicts had their roots in the colonial history of the Republic of the Congo. Following independence in 1964, it experienced a period of great instability, marked by conflict between the military and executive branches of the government (Bazenguissa-Ganga, 1999). There was some form of a resolution with Colonel Denis Sassou-Nguesso assuming power in 1979, followed by some economic growth centred on the oil industry and reparations from France. However, over time, he turned the Republic of Congo into a neopatrimonial rentier state, and redistributed profits from oil to those who supported his regime (Englebert and Ron, 2004).

After a push for the democratization of Francophone countries, Pascal Lissouba took over as President defeating Kolelas and Sassou-Nguesso, and subsequently refused to carry on Sassou-Nguesso’s model of government (Clarf, 2008). To maintain control, Lissouba established a private security force to keep himself secure in power (Bazenguissa-Ganga, 1999). Seeing this as an act of aggression, Kolelas created his own unit, and this slowly began to draw young people into the factions. Lissouba lost parliamentary power and dissolved the Parliament. Sassou called for fresh elections in 1993, but Lissouba wound up winning. Kolelas then boycotted the round of voting that followed and incited his supporters to engage in civil disobedience. The fighting ended in July 1993 with a ceasefire, and signing of the Libreville Accords (Bazenguissa-Ganga, 1999). In June 1997, anticipating a coup led by Sassou, Lissouba ordered his militia to detain and disarm Sassou’s militia. This initiated the second civil war (Cook, 2017). In this war, the ethnic and political tensions escalated into a full-blown armed conflict).

Prevalence of Sexual Violence

In both conflicts, there were several instances of conflict-related sexual violence (Amnesty International, 1999, 2000, 2003; Ward, 2002). Most instances of rape and sexual violence took place either at or near militia roadblocks, in prison, and in displaced and refugee camps (Amnesty International, 1999, 2000; Shanks and Schull, 2000). The general hospital in Brazzaville documented 1,300 reports of rape within a 12-month window of the conflict (Shanks and Schull, 2000). Following reports from 2,000 women in 1999, affirming that they had been targeted with sexual violence, the UN Country Team estimated that 5,000 women in Brazzaville alone had faced wartime rape (Office of the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator, 2001). In 2003, the UN Country Team reported that as many as 60,000 women were raped in both civil wars, and several of them had contracted STIs, including HIV (Office of the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator, 2003).

Basis of the Use of Sexual Violence

Given that the conflict took place on ethnic lines, the ethnic divisions also played a role in fomenting rape and sexual violence (Englebert and Ron, 2004). Thus, it can be inferred that rape and sexual violence were used to further campaigns of ethnic tensions. There were several instances where women and girls were abducted and targeted for sexual exploitation and abuse. The use of sexual violence and rape as campaigns for intimidation and humiliation was also significantly prevalent. In several instances, transactional sex was carried out by aid-workers, where there were reports of local employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and global and local NGOs perpetrating sexual harassment and blackmail. Rape and sexual violence were evidently used as part of a systemic campaign to break down social order as the spread of STIs including HIV showed.


  1. Amnesty International (1999) Republic of Congo: An Old Generation of Leaders in New Carnage.

  2. Amnesty International (2000) Amnesty International Report 2000: Republic of the Congo.

  3. Amnesty International (2003) Republic of Congo: A Past that Haunts the Future.

  4. Bazenguissa-Ganga, Rémy (1999). "The Spread of Political Violence in Congo-Brazzaville". African Affairs. 98 (390): 37–54.

  5. Clarf, John F. (2008). The Failure of Democracy in the Republic of Congo. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

  6. Englebert, Pierre; Ron, James (2004). "Primary Commodities and War: Congo-Brazzaville's Ambivalent Resource Curse". Comparative Politics. 37 (1): 61–81.

  7. Office of the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator (2001) UN Plan: Republic of the Congo 2001-2002, Brazzaville.

  8. Office of the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator (2003) UN Plan: Republic of the Congo 2003-2004: Together, from the Ground Up, Moving Forward, Brazzaville.

  9. Shanks, L. and Schull, M.J. (2000) “Rape in War: The Humanitarian Response”, Canadian Medical Association Journal 163(9), 1154

  10. Ward, J. (2002) If not now, when? Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced, and Postconflict Settings: A Global Overview, New York, RHRC, 22.

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