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CONGO'S HIDDEN TRAGEDY:
65 MILLION PEOPLE THE WORLD FORGOT
by Hugh McCullum

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There is no sky as big and deep and dark as an African sky. I awoke in the dark to a soft humming noise. A mosquito, I thought, remembering the rip in the net over my cot and Aru's high incidence of malaria (1 million or more people die every year in Africa from the disease). As I fumbled for a candle, the humming grew louder but still soft and undulating. Can't be that many mosquitoes. I went to the small glassless window. The sun was just touching the horizon. About 4.30 a.m. The humming grew, my eyes adjusted. I could see and was hearing a huge crowd of people about 50 meters from my room. A long orderly queue as far as I could see in the early dawn light. Sort of eerie, was it something religious on this Sunday morning, July 30?

Suddenly my brain clicked in – election day – but the polls didn't open until 7 a.m. There were thousands lined up around the voting station near where I had been sleeping. Solemn, quiet, patient, hands clutching their voting papers. By the time the poll opened it seemed half the town was there.

Aru lies near the top of eastern Congo’s  Ituri province, one of the most war-scarred provinces in the DRC where more than 200,000 people are still displaced, driven from their villages into squalid camps.  Aru district is just a few kilometres from the Uganda border. It is a MONUC (the French acronym for the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC)  base serving 132 polling centres which adds up to 555 polling stations, most of them in the bush. None has electricity, even in Aru, and most can only be reached by air. All day and into the night white UN  helicopters had roared across the town and out to the bush, delivering all the paraphernalia needed for a national election in a country where there are no paved roads and the tracks through the bush that pass for roads are axle-breaking.

The election stories were endless and amazing. Two skinny, bent grandmothers set out on Saturday to walk 35 kilometres to the polling station and then, having voted, turned and walked back through the bush. They were dressed as for a feast: "We have voted; now everything will be all right. No more violence; we will be safe.”


"We have voted; now everything will be all right."
* * *
"It will make things change because we must have change;
we have suffered too much."

Henriette Katuku Kishala, a nurse in a hospital, built by the Belgians in 1926, which has no electricity, and does surgery by the light of candles and kerosene lamps, said the elections would end the suffering. "It will make things change because we must have change; we have suffered too much."

In Ituri's capital, Bunia, a bashed-up city of unknown numbers, the main MONUC centre for the northeast, the blue berets from a couple of dozen or more countries are exhausted, dirty, dark circles under their eyes, but they laugh and dance and act as if they had voted themselves. "We did it, we did it," says a Pakistani corporal with huge handlebar moustaches. "We've been fighting here for months, lots got killed. Today, nothing. People walked for days, old people, crippled people, pregnant women, kids, everyone walked for miles and miles. Do you do that in Canada?”

Technically, the war ended with the Pretoria accords of 2002, brokered by the UN, EU, US and South Africa. Congo is no longer supposed to be the killing fields of foreign countries and ethnic militias. These elections for president, the first in over 40 years, were held peacefully and fairly on July 30. The 19,000-member MONUC force, charged with maintaining order, brilliantly supported the complex Congo-operated voting process. The UN spent more than $500 million, the biggest peacekeeping mission in its history. But for an area of 2.5 million sq kms, the mission is tiny. By contrast, in Europe, Kosovo had 40,000 troops in 10,000 sq km with far fewer people. And MONUC further lacks the ability to move outside town centres while the militias still operate freely in the dense forests of the East.

Already, however, some of the more influential UN members complain about costs, what with another big mission under way in Lebanon. The MONUC mandate expires this year and diplomats worry that it will be drastically reduced or cut altogether.  The auspicious vote is fragile and the fear is widespread that more conflict faces this already devastated former Belgian colony. The influential Catholic and Protestant churches have called on the two presidential rivals to talk. A runoff election Oct. 29 between the two main candidates, interim President Joseph Kabila and former rebel leader and interim Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, to achieve the necessary 50 percent majority posed a possible threat. Already violence has struck the capital, Kinshasa, and parts of the volatile East. And will the losers accept defeat or will they return to the bush wars manipulated by foreign economic and political interests? And will the leaders in all the countries that surround Congo leave it alone?



National Elections at a glance

  • Overall cost: US$430 million
  • Number of registered voters: 24.7 million
  • Number of voters: 17.9 million, 70 percent
  • Number of polling centres: 11,000
  • Number of voting stations: 50,000
  • Number of presidential candidates: 32
  • Number of candidates for 500 parliamentary seats: 9,000
  • Number of political parties: 200
  • Last, and only, election: 1960

* * *

The runoff elections were held Oct. 29. The Independent Electoral Commission announced a month later that Kabila had won with 58 percent of the votes cast, leaving Bemba with 42 percent, a gap between them of approximately 2.5 million votes.  Immediately tensions arose with Bemba declaring he would not accept the result due to fraud. He was supported by some elements of the powerful Roman Catholic church.

The election results immediately sparked violence in Kinshasa which heavily supported Bemba while Kabila received most of his votes from the Swahili-speaking east of the country. The Supreme Court was required to ratify the electoral commission’s results and also hear Bemba’s complaints that the vote was fraudulent. As the Supreme Court was hearing the case, it was set afire by a large crowd of presumed Bemba supporters, burning many electoral documents and leading the Kabila-appointed judges to suspend hearings on Nov. 22.

The black-robed judges fled the court, as documents and furniture caught fire. The UN troops, EU peacekeepers and police fired tear gas into the crowd. The future of the case is uncertain since the court had only until Nov. 23 to hear the Bemba appeal.  Election observers, including former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, heading the prestigious (President Jimmy) Carter Institute’s observer team, said there were irregularities but they were not large enough to overturn Kabila’s lead.

More distressing was the discovery by MONUC, just after the announcement, that three mass graves had been discovered in a Congolese army camp in Ituri provice. Each grave contained around 30 bodies, not yet even decomposed in the heat of that area. Ituri is in east, a previously volatile area, and fears are high that ethnic and militia violence involving the undisiciplined and often unpaid Congo army will destabilize the country.

Kinshasa, the ramshackle capital of 8 million, mostly very poor but with pockets of gross wealth, is especially fragile while observers say there is a precarious peace in the north and west of the country due more to splits in the Bemba coalition concerning what tactics to use. However, these same observers point to the serious divide between the capital and the north of the country and the Swahili-speaking east. Kabila, and the 81-year-old Antoine Gizenga, whom he has appointed prime minister have poor records in governance and are not Lingala-speakers who are the majority in the north and west of the country. The newsletter, Southscan, says “it is not likely” that Kabila’s future government will be able to deliver on the social front given the corrupt terms of many contracts signed by the interim government and their bad record on managing state revenues and properties.

* * *

There is no place more pivotal to the future of Africa than Congo. Since the first of two wars  broke out in 1996, its potential to drag down the prospects of the continent are immense. Of the armies of the eight African countries that were involved at the height of the war, which gave them the chance to indulge in systematic looting of diamonds and other minerals, several still have influence through proxy militia, mafia-style business networks and ethnic links. The DRC’s instability immediately threatens Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi -- all emerging from various forms of violent unrest -- and the six other  countries that  border Congo.


"There is no place more pivotal to the future of Africa than Congo...
The DRC’s instability immediately threatens Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, and
the six other countries that border Congo."

After the 2002 peace deal brokered by the UN and South Africa, a fragile, transitional government came to power, in a uniquely Congolese power-sharing arrangement: President Kabila (thrust into the job at age 29 after the assassination of his father Laurent Kabila in 2001) shared power with four vice-presidents -- the major warlords whose militias wrought havoc for the past years. (A wry Congolese joke described this unwieldy coalition as “four plus one equals zero.”)

This was peace enough to placate international donors, who've poured in money to prop up the flimsy government and maintain some stability to reassure adventurous international mining companies, who are rushing to re-open shop in the Congo.



Democratic Republic of Congo at a glance

  • Population: 65 million (estimate, no census)
  • Capital: Kinshasa
  • Area: 2.5 million sq km
  • Major languages: Lingala, Kiswahili, Kikongo and 220 lesser but distinct dialects, French for the elites
  • Major religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islam
  • Life expectancy: 42 years (men), 44 years (women)
  • Main exports: diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, coltan, timber, crude oil
  • Interim president: Joseph Kabila, 34, former major-general (since 2003)
  • Governance: unelected president, four vice-presidents, interim appointed parliament, unelected senate, unpaid civil service, army and police

Coltan was one of the products that grabbed the world’s attention in the DRC. An ore called columbite-tantalite -- coltan for short – was  one of the world's most sought-after materials although some of its sheen has now worn off. (Refine coltan and you get a highly heat-resistant metal powder called tantalum.)

The link between bloodshed and resource extraction was slow to cause alarm in the West which ignored high level reports from the UN. Despite international pressure few multi-national or regional corporations will grapple with the possibility that their products may contain the tainted fruits of civil strife. According to the UN, more than 20 international mineral trading companies import minerals from the Congo via Rwanda alone.

“So, don’t kid yourself, my man,” explodes a Kisingani businessman, Mokeni Ekopi Kane, one night in the airport. “This war is about one thing and one thing alone. Plunder, loot, exploitation and you [Westerners] are the beneficiaries.”

It’s always been that way. When DRC was called Zaire (after it was called the Congo when it got independence in 1961 from Belgium, who had had raped its resources and murdered 10 million people since 1890 in the world’s largest ever genocide), its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was often feted in the White House for his pro-American stance during the Cold War and for his generosity in giving away contracts to American (and Canadian) mining corporations.

In the Ronald Reagan years, Zaire received almost half of all foreign aid allocated by the US to the entire continent. After Mobutu had pillaged the country for 30 years, a middle-aged rebel, Laurent Kabila, seen as a puppet of Uganda and Rwanda, finally kicked him out in 1997. Mobutu died the next year in exile, with between $5 and $8 billion stashed in foreign banks and French and Swiss properties – this while the country had fewer than 50 kilometres of paved roads.

Even though per capita income, which is meaningless in DRC, is said to be $1 a day and the Central Bank has no money, the “fat cats” of Kinshasa can buy a Mercedes for a million dollars today, or a box of Kellogg’s Cocoa Pops for $35 or a can of Diet Coke for $7. So, who buys these items at City Market, an American style supermarket in downtown Kinshasa? The people of the Eastern Congo who loathe the politicians and businessmen of the capital 2,000 km away call them the “fat cats” whose corruption and tastes for high living have made Kinshasa the Sodom and Gomorrah of Africa. It is their SUVs  along  with those of embassies, relief agencies, adventurer mineral developers and the UN, that are parked outside City Market, just like at Chez Gaby, a popular Portuguese restaurant with a well-stocked bar.

Just outside the supermarket compound, the grotty streets steam and stink with garbage, and AIDS, malaria and other diseases kill many of the city’s eight million or so poverty-stricken people. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), 1,250 people still die every day because of war-related causes, the vast majority succumbing to diseases and malnutrition that wouldn’t exist but for the wars. And, beyond Kinshasa, there is little sign that the war has ended.


"Beyond Kinshasa, there is little sign that the war has ended...
The countryside is broken, its peoples divided and volatile. There is no rebuilding,
no phone service, no electrical grid, no roads."

The countryside is broken, its peoples divided and volatile. There is no rebuilding, no phone service, no electrical grid, no roads; hospitals, when they are still standing, have been looted of everything from beds to bandages. No government employee – teachers, judges, nurses, doctors, civil servants – has been properly paid in 14 years.

Congolese soldiers, also often unpaid or their wages appropriated by their officers, are driven to violent looting. There are an estimated 33,000 child soldiers, forced into militias when they are as young as 10, accomplished dead-eyed killers at 14. Amnesty International says 40 percent of these children are girls or young women kept as sex slaves. Most of the DRC, especially the East, is extremely  dangerous even with the big white UN vehicles constantly on patrol. The place is on edge.

Yet the Congo’s troubles rarely hit the daily newspaper columns, and the country ranks near the bottom of international donor lists. Ten months ago, in February of this year, donors made a humanitarian appeal of US$692 million for Congo. So far they have received about $100 million -- $9.40 per person in need. As this was being written, donors in one day pledged $900 million to rebuild Lebanon for the third time from Israel’s lethal destruction. Last year’s tsunami raised $550 for each person and donors didn’t know how to spend it all.

What explains this widespread neglect of the Congo? To visit its trackless lands, its lush jungles, its smashed towns and cities, its hundreds of thousands of displaced who greet a visitor joyfully, is to see an incredibly brave people. The world should not be forced to make choices between Darfur and Congo. We, in obese comfort, have no right to be suffering donor fatigue.

Congo represents the promise of Africa as much as its misery. We have money for a dubious war on terror, billions to destroy Iraq and save Afghanistan from itself. Is Africa somehow entitled to less for the country that lies at its very heart?


"Congo represents the promise of Africa
as much as its misery."

Can Congo be saved? Of course, but it did not get this way by itself and it cannot be expected to save itself. One woman called Congo the broken heart of Africa. Another man – both are pastors in the EEC  (Eglise du Christ au Congo, the Protestants) -- asked if the white world would let millions more die because there is no one listening to the story of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

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