Congo in the Crosshairs

by Paul Harris

Dissident Voice

June 5, 2003


The world's press is finally starting to notice the terrible strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); the world's governments are still waffling over what, if anything, they should do about it.


Since 1998, a civil war has been a daily reality for the people of DRC. While YellowTimes.org was certainly not the first news service to notice what was occurring, our News From The Front section (NFTF.org) picked up this story in April and has carried 27 reports since April 9th documenting the ongoing struggles to secure some sort of lasting peace. Inasmuch as we do not presume that our efforts have spurred anyone else, it is gratifying to note that the mainstream press is finally beginning to take note of this disaster.


Unfortunately, the headlines are gloomy reading. Just in the past week: "Congolese beg for U.N. protection"; "DR Congo pygmies appeal to U.N."; "Congo tragedy shows up the U.N."; "Congo death toll: 2,500 per day"; "Canada missing in action"; "The shaming tragedy of Africa"; and "There will be no excuses for not knowing" have appeared in various media around the world.


DRC's recent history has been one of internal conflict. Much of this arose as the nation absorbed large numbers of refugees from the fighting in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994. While the current conflict dates back at least to its independence from European colonial rule in 1960, DRC also bears the scars of hundreds of years of inter-tribal animosity and, sometimes, violence.


Although the area has been populated for about 10,000 years, in the late 19th century it was colonized by Belgium and became the personal property of King Leopold II. Its administration was shifted to the Belgian government in 1907 and, in 1960, it finally achieved independence. Parliamentary elections produced Patrice Lumumba as the new nation's first president, only to have him die in mysterious circumstances within the first year. He was tortured and killed by Congo troops but there are allegations that his death was arranged by the United States because of his refusal to become a puppet state of either the U.S. or the Soviets. Within a week of independence, the army mutinied and the province of Katanga seceded, with the assistance of Belgium and the U.S.


After the death of Lumumba, a period of instability followed before power was seized in 1965 by Joseph Mobuto, in a coup d'état said to be with the assistance of the CIA. He renamed the country Zaire and finally renamed himself Mobuto Sese Seko wa za Banga, meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake."


Mobutu ruled for over 30 years. He is said to have turned over and again to policies and practices that would favor United States government and business interests over the needs and interests of his people. He also pillaged the country's treasury. But rebel groups arose to challenge Mobutu's rule and, in 1997, power was seized by Laurent Kabila, a former Marxist who led the Alliance of Democratic Forces. During most of Mobutu's rule, the country had been known as Zaire but, in May 1997, Kabila formally changed its name to Democratic Republic of the Congo.


On assumption of power, Kabila inherited a country already involved in massive tribal infighting, partly arising because of the influx of refugees in 1994. His rule was quickly challenged by a Rwanda and Uganda backed rebellion in August 1998. Finally, troops from Zimbabwe, Chad, Angola, Namibia, and Sudan intervened to support Kabila's government. Even though a cease-fire was reached in July 1999 between DRC, Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Namibia, Rwanda, and the Congolese rebels, sporadic fighting continued unabated. Kabila was assassinated January 16, 2001 and rule of the country fell to his son, Joseph.


Joseph Kabila was successful in negotiating a withdrawal of the Rwandan forces from Congo in October 2002 and, early in 2003, all combatant parties finally came to the table and agreed to cease the fighting. They agreed to set up a government of national unity as a caretaker until democratic elections can be held in 2005. These will be the first democratic votes cast in this country in over forty years.


But, almost from the first movement of Ugandan troops out of DRC on April 24, fierce ethnic fighting broke out in Bunia, the principal town of mineral-rich Ituri province. It raged for several weeks with accusations of body mutilation and dismemberment, cannibalism, and the targeted cooking of pygmies.


For all the time between 1998 and April 2003, most of the world had no idea anything untoward was occurring in DRC. Media didn't cover it although, to be fair, it is a difficult area to cover because it is largely jungle and forest with only primitive communications and bad roads.


During the past few weeks, though, editorials have started to appear in many places online and in many print journals calling attention to the plight of DRC. News articles are showing up on a sporadic basis on the televisions and radios of many people around the world. The United Nations has been discussing this situation for years, although not with much fanfare, and, since at least late 2002, several other nations have expressed some interest in helping out. And still the Congolese wait.


In my view, at least part of the reason that not much help has been forthcoming is that President George Bush is pouting. The main impetus toward getting some action in DRC on a rapid basis has been coming from France, and Mr. Bush is highly unlikely to support any call for action from France because he still holds a grudge over the French rejection of his Iraqi adventure. (It is said that Bush has instructed his staff to refuse all calls from French president Jacques Chirac and that when he attends a G8 summit in Evian next month, he will sleep in Switzerland rather than accept French hospitality.) Mr. Bush also fails to see that U.S. farm subsidies lead to American export dumping in Africa, weakening their ability to compete; he can see clearly that similar subsidies in European countries are bad, but apparently cannot imagine that U.S. subsidies are as well.


However, Bush is certainly not the only culprit. The French have talked passionately about sending aid but it appears they are unwilling to go alone, perhaps a wise precaution since some of the warring factions in DRC would consider them to be enemy combatants. But still, they have only talked.


Canada has declared a willingness to participate, yet it appears that Canada's only commitment might amount to no more than loaning the U.N. two airplanes. For a nation that has prided itself on its role as peacekeeper, this is almost an insult to the intelligence. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien deserves a lot of credit for efforts made last year to keep Africa on the agenda of the G8 nations' summit and for work to ban and remove landmines; and a previous prime minister, Brian Mulroney, deserves credit for his efforts to persuade the world to bully South Africa into abandoning Apartheid. Further, it is inconceivable that there are any Canadians who are feeling proud of their help to the needy at this moment. Nos culpos.


Britain has indicated a willingness to join the French action but as recently as May 26, a Member of Parliament in Britain accused the government of hypocrisy. It appears that Britain has been the source of much of the weaponry being used by the fighters in DRC (and other volatile African regions). MP Norman Lamb says Britain's actions undermine its claim to have an "ethical" foreign policy, that its claims are a sham. We will all recall that Prime Minister Tony Blair cited ethical reasons for intervening in Iraq but it appears his ethics might be somewhat, ahem, flexible. Britain is the world's second largest exporter of weapons (after the United States) and has clearly profited from the many years of turmoil in DRC and other African hotspots.


A story appearing in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on May 27 begins: "Few places on Earth need help more than the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civilians, including thousands of panicked refugees, are at the mercy of armed, drugged militias, which appear intent on slaughter. In early May, Oxfam appealed to the U.N. Security Council to deploy a rapid-reaction, peace-enforcement effort. U.N. commanders in the present mission have cabled New York daily, pleading for reinforcements. Sound familiar?" It does indeed sound familiar, and the gist of this article is a justifiable slap against Canada's weak-kneed response to this tragedy.


Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times, also on May 27, writes: "In Congo ... 3.3 million people have died because of warfare there in the last five years ... That's half a Holocaust in a single country. Our children and grandchildren may fairly ask, 'So, what did you do during the African holocaust?'" His article describes the failure of much of the African continent to manage itself but also points fingers at ineffective policy from the West and misspent financial aid.


A special report appearing in Britain's The Observer last week noted: "It is hard to imagine the situation can get any worse -- but it is doing so." This report, prepared by François Grignon who is Central African Project Director of the International Crisis Group, highlights the history of ethnic rivalry but puts the blame for the current violence squarely on the shoulders of the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He points out that the local U.N. officials in DRC requested troops for the area, with arms, as early as last summer. This was in anticipation of a power vacuum being created when Rwandan and Ugandan forces, who had been backing different rebel groups, withdrew from DRC. Unfortunately, President Bush refused to support their request for extra troops. Washington did finally give approval in December, but only on a staged basis; very few of them have arrived to date.


The U.N. mission in DRC is known as MONUC, and it is a dismal failure, according to Grignon. Its costs amount to $1.5 million per day but its only mandate is to carry out ceasefire monitoring and voluntary disarmament. That's a lot of money for sitting and watching. Grignon says that Britain's policies of giving unconditional aid to foreign combatants in DRC (Rwanda and Uganda) have simply provided those nations the means to prolong the fighting in DRC.


Africans themselves are getting very disillusioned about the value of the U.N. and the warm wishes of the rest of the world. They know that Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter provides for just the kind of military help that is needed, but they keep wondering if it is ever going to arrive. Africans have become inured to the indifference of the rest of the world (except for foreign interest in Africa's fabulous resources) and they would really prefer to find an African solution to their problems. But even they know that help is going to be needed. This continent with 12 percent of the world's population has 80 percent of the world's AIDS victims; it has massive areas of drought and famine currently affecting about 40 million people; it has many wars and skirmishes occurring every day throughout multiple countries where several million people have died in the past 10 years or so.


If international goodwill means anything, if the Charter of the United Nations means anything, if the chatter from all the world's leaders about ethics and humanity means anything, now is the time to step up to the damn plate.


Paul Harris lives in Canada, and is self-employed as a consultant providing Canadian businesses with the tools and expertise to successfully reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. He has traveled extensively in what we arrogant North Americans refer to as "the Third World," and he believes that life is very much like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. This article first appeared in Yellow Times.org (www.yellowtimes.org). Paul Harris encourages your comments: pharris@YellowTimes.org. Thanks to Matthew Riemer at YT.  



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