The Democratic Republic of Congo's Mute War

11 June 2013

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a puzzle to outsiders, a prime example of a collapsed African state. This puzzle becomes ever more complicated when the country – rich in mineral and water resources – has proved practically insolvable to the outside world since the collapse of Mobutu’s regime in the 1990s. Ethnic violence, genocide, corruption, rape, state-led violence and militias continue to stalk the eleventh largest country in the world, one which continues to struggle to come to terms with the impact of Africa's World War during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Congo - after genocide in its neighboring states, Rwanda and Burundi - became the central stage for human suffering and the most brutal human conflict since the Second World War, an event more costly in innocent lives than the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Syrian Civil War, and multiple conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Why does the world turn a cheek to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa's multi-generational problem?

The DRC did not used to be so closely associated with anarchy and atrocity in the 1950s. It was the coming of the various dictators and authoritarians such as Idi Amin, Joseph Mobutu and later Robert Mugabe in 1980s which ushered in an era of dictatorship for multiple African countries. These dictatorships propped up by Cold War interests. The Western powers turned a blind eye to Mobutu’s tyranny in DRC (renamed Zaire by Mobutu) in exchange for support against Communist threats across Africa. In the case of Zaire, Mobutu checked the expansion of communism in Angola which paved open space to rule Zaire in a centralised dictatorship, which expanded his wealth at the expense of his own people and allowed him to suppress dissent and activism with impunity. In 1994, the situation changed dramatically.

The Rwandan genocide was the catalyst for continental war and the collapse of Mobutu’s regime. Like a pressurized cooker, the Rwandan genocide exploded after a decades of build-up, eventually being triggered by the shooting down of a plane containing president Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira. 20% of the Rwandan population was believed to have perished in 100 days. 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered until the genocide and Rwandese Civil War was ended by the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame. The United Nations and the Western powers passivity in the face of mass-murder was subject to heavy scrutiny, including its inaction in the Congo during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Rwandan holocaust was only the beginning for Zaire and heralded the beginning of the end for Mobutu's dictatorship. U.S support for his regime had deteriorated in the wake of the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, resulting in an increase in dissent and protest against his regimes excesses. The genocide in Rwanda was the catalyst for his regime to completely crumble as the mass exodus of Hutu refugees, both those who had participated in the killings and those fearing revenge attacks from the RPF and remaining Tutsis, spilled over into Zaire. Many of the primary perpetrators of the genocide – Network Zero, the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi – accompanied them. These men and women and many others were regarded as potential forces which could be used as bargaining chip and political tools

 In exchange for shelter from vengeful Rwandan Tutsis and the wrath of President Kagame's new regime, Mobutu hoped to use the Hutu refugees in the fight to consolidate power. This failed as Kagame invaded Zaire to curb cross-border attacks by Hutu extremist groups, shut down the refugee camps being militarized by remnants of the regime. Mobutu, ailed by illness, was eventually replaced by Laurent Kabila and the Democratic Republic of Congo was established. However, the DRC conflict expanded and came to absorb Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, and almost twenty different political groups with varying objectives. Peace today remains elusive across parts of the Congo. The few examples named highlight the diversity of the groups established in DRC; Rwandan rebels (Hutu and Tutsi), M23 (The March 23rd Movement), the Lord's Resistance Army  (Ugandan), the MLC (Congo), the AFDL, the Allied Democratic Forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Army.

The broken heart of Africa is a term frequently used to describe one of Africa's most turbulent countries. However, the coverage in the media is infrequent, even shocking. Though many across the world were appalled by the violence, many states and non-state actors involved did little to stop the bloodshed. The legacy of the wars, continued violence in the eastern and central regions and no end in sight to the fundamental corruption which pervades every level of administrative, economic and political levels of government. This is aided little by the difficulty of distinguishing between the various state and non-state actors involved.  A wide range of splinter governmental and rogue military/militia forces have perpetrated appalling violence, including using rape as a strategy of terror against local populations to gain objectives.

Unlike the conflicts in the Middle East, the conflicts in DRC are not seen as having an immediate impact on Western military and economic interests. The result is that many readers feel no real connection to the violence in and around the DRC. For example, as Vava Tampa, founder of 'Save the Congo' illustrates on the Congolese wars and the general conflict in the region, high casualties have been ignored by the international community:

"The wars in the Congo have claimed nearly the same number of lives as having a 9/11 every single day for 360 days, the genocide that struck Rwanda in 1994, the ethnic cleansing that overwhelmed Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the genocide that took place in Darfur, the number of people killed in the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004, and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- all combined and then doubled."

DRC is the host to the UN's largest peacekeeping mission, however countries like Somalia – long regarded as a haven for Al-Shabaab, an affiliate group of Al-Qa’ida – have received more attention because of security threats it presents to Western states. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s instability, a product of resource wars, corruption and the legacy of its violent conflicts, must become a priority for policymakers across the international community. Sustainable, long-term solutions combined with short-term military and humanitarian responses are critical to paving the way for peace in the region.

Matthew C.K Williams