When Will the Congo Find Peace?


By Zachariah Cherian Mampilly *

March 25, 2004

Between three and four million have lost their lives in this war, a war most in the West know nothing about. When will the Congolese get the constructive help they deserve?

Flying into Eastern Congo is like flying over a vast, jade ocean. An impenetrable jungle canopy spreads for hundreds of miles over land uninhabited except for the reclusive Mbuti Pygmies. Perversely, this profound knowledge of the forest, ignored by almost all of humanity, has been forcibly been put to use by a multiplicity of armed factions who wander Eastern Congo reeking havoc on a population worn out by almost eight years of constant fighting.

The death toll is staggering and other forms of violence, particularly sexual violence against women, have become commonplace. Since the start of the second war in 1998, somewhere between three and four million people have lost their lives. Millions more have been displaced and what little infrastructure existed under the regime of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko has been destroyed. Peace talks and an increased UN presence in the country have brought relative stability to the capital Kinshasa and the surrounding environs; however, parts of the East remain outside of UN control. The scope of the violence and destruction makes the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo the worst in the world in 50 years, but the West pays it little attention. (In a particularly sad irony, the American television program Nightline launched part one of what was to have been a three-part series on the Congo on September 10, 2001. Needless to say, the rest of the series wasn't aired anytime soon thereafter.)

There are multiple reasons for the West's neglect. One is the difficulty of trying to come to terms with a war fought for a vast array of reasons, often imperceptible to even the populations on the ground. Combine that with a pre-disposition to view the Congo as "The Heart of Darkness" even in liberal circles — even unconscious racism can lead many to view the conflict in Congo as irreconcilable, inevitable. Reports of cannibalism don't help in this regard.

But this war, like many others, hinges at least partly on economic incentives. Eastern Congo is home to a vast array of minerals including diamonds, gold, oil and coltan, a valuable mineral present in every cellphone and laptop computer. Bunia, a town at the center of the worst ongoing violence in the country's northeast, is like a modern day El Dorado, with dubious-looking businessmen from around Africa and the world sharing bar space with political leaders, rebel leaders, and UN personnel. The trade in minerals is both widespread and open, with leading Ugandan, Congolese, Rwandan, and Zimbabwean politicians filling their pockets, and often reinvesting their vast profits in supporting militias that create mayhem, a necessary precondition for looting.

Although economic reasons have gained primacy, this war's origins stretch back to the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (it could be argued that its origins can be found even earlier, in the 1950s, when the departing Belgian colonial rulers fostered inter-ethnic rivalries through unequal land policies). After the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front of current president Paul Kagame marched victoriously into Kigali, around one million Hutus fled into neighboring Eastern Congo in fear of retribution. Many of these refugees had been complicit in the genocide, and from refugee camps in Eastern Congo, they continued to challenge the new regime in Kigali. In 1996, Rwanda, along with Uganda, who also had concerns about the instability in neighboring Congo, launched a successful invasion with Congolese dissidents that rapidly overthrew the infamously autocratic Mobutu regime.

Laurent Kabila, the new president, soon became a caricature of Mobutu, refusing to meet with dissidents and cocooning himself away from the demands of bringing development to Congo. Rwanda and Uganda, who hoped that by supporting Kabila they could resolve their security concerns in Eastern Congo, were soon disillusioned as the Kabila regime increasingly resented their intrusive presence in the Congo. Attempts by both Uganda and Rwanda to install their own citizens in prominent positions in Kabila's government led to a breaking point in 1998, when Kabila flushed out all Rwandan and Ugandan advisers from his regime and incited a new wave of Congolese xenophobia. Rebel groups, many of them Rwandan and Ugandan proxies, invaded.

To be fair, many of the leaders of the second war, including the president of one Congolese rebel movement, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba (the father of Africana's founding Editor, Philippe Wamba), were and are patriots with a genuine interest in developing Congo. However, the Rwandans under Kagame and Ugandans under regional power broker Yoweri Museveni seemed less concerned with Congo's development than with establishing a situation in Eastern Congo that met their requirements. While initially successful, the rebellion broke down when Kabila was able to garner support from Zimbabwe and Angola, to whom he promised mineral concessions in exchange for their support. This triggered an internal split within the rebels and a stalemate in fighting that essentially left Congo divided between the government and various rebel movements.

Following Kabila's 2001 assassination, his son (I say "son," though this relationship is in dispute) Joseph came to power, promising to make peace with the various rebels. A deal was signed that brought peace to much of the country, and a government of national unity has been formed, with Kabila at the head and four vice-presidents drawn from the rebel movements and political opposition. While most Congolese admit that it's a start, tensions remain high in the East, and the unwieldy nature of the current arrangement has left the government incapable of enforcing peace. Instead, power in the East is shared among a mélange of rebel movements, local ethnic militias and UN forces.

In Goma, where a rebel movement named the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) works closely with UN forces, there are signs that life is returning to normal. However, while there is peace on the streets of Goma, little is being done to rebuild the town. The RCD is indifferent to providing basic services, relegating their provision to the initiative of the local population. A crude school system has been established, paid for and run by parents. The town has been further devastated by a volcano that destroyed much of the town two years ago. Walking through Goma can be a surreal experience, as certain neighborhoods transform abruptly into vast fields of jagged black volcanic rock. The airport's one landing strip was destroyed by the volcano, and planes unfortunate enough to have been present in Goma before the volcano sit on the tarmac, slowly disintegrating.

Further north across Lake Albert by the Ugandan border, the town of Bunia remains a conflicted space with active fighting between various militias and UN forces. The shooting usually begins around 9 at night. The Hema militia against the Lendu militia, the Lendu against the UN, the UN against a random group of men with guns — the violence plays out in every combination under the sun. The UN forces, a motley crew of Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Uruguayans and Chinese, speak some English, little French, and zero Swahili, the local language. They have little desire to be in Congo and are reluctant to travel outside of the secure zone they have established in the center of town around the UN compound. Considering that the UN has only provided 4,500 troops to bring peace to a country the size of Western Europe, their reticence is understandable.

Outside the relative stability of the town center, a huge refugee camp has sprung up filled with people fleeing the violence in the rural areas. According to workers with Doctors Without Borders, who run a hospital next to the camp, the situation is the worst they have ever seen. Almost everyone has suffered catastrophic losses beyond the displacement that is a normal outcome of conflict. In this war, the local population has truly suffered. Yet life goes on and people remain hopeful that peace will finally come, though they remain skeptical of the politicians, both domestic and international, who have always ignored their interests.

In Bunia, I met with young Congolese activists at an organization called Justice Plus. Though armed with only minimal resources, these young activists are working to document human rights abuses in the region, seeking to make the rebel movements more accountable for their actions. If given the chance, it is not hard to imagine that these activists could do much to develop the region into the powerhouse it has the potential to be. But therein lies the region's constant predicament. Since the horrific days of Belgian colonialism, through the western-sponsored kleptocracy of Mobutu, and the current meddling of African states in the region, the people of Eastern Congo have never been given the chance to control their own destiny. While greater attention by the international community is critical if there is to be a genuine resolution to the conflict, the region will have any hope for success only if the interests and desires of the Congolese people are put first. As long as the international community's interests remain more with what lies under the ground than with the people living there, hope itself may be the rarest commodity.

About the author: Zachariah Cherian Mampilly is a freelance writer and political scientist traveling in Africa.

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