Home The Washington Diplomat April 2008 Misery Persists as Congo Remains One of World’s Worst Tragedies

Misery Persists as Congo Remains One of World’s Worst Tragedies


The atrocities in Darfur have garnered most of the media ink and international attention in recent years, but a decade-old humanitarian crisis in the Congo has claimed millions more lives. In fact, more than 5.4 million people have died in the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1998—and 45,000 more continue to perish each month, according to a report released in January by the International Rescue Committee.

Although many of these deaths are attributable to preventable diseases such as malaria and pneumonia, even these are often indirectly the result of ongoing conflicts that undermine public health, critical infrastructure and stymie outside intervention.

Furthermore, thousands of Congolese women are brutally raped each year. In 2004, Amnesty International estimated that 40,000 women and girls had been systematically raped and tortured in the DRC in the previous decade and a half.

“The persisting humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is among the most complex, deadly and prolonged ever documented,” the International Rescue Committee report states.

Congo was plunged into massive upheaval during years of war from 1998 to 2003 that sucked in eight other African countries, notably neighboring Rwanda; resulted in a presidential assassination and several coups; changed the country’s official name of Zaire to the DNC; and utterly devastated this enormous nation of nearly 60 million. And although the two main wars have officially ended, skirmishes in five separate eastern Congo provinces continue to roil the region and exact a devastating human toll on the beleaguered population.

Experts on Africa interviewed by The Washington Diplomat said there are myriad reasons why the Congo crisis has unfolded under the media and international community’s radar, not the least of which is that, unlike Darfur, there is not a single, identifiable villain.

“It’s a very complicated cast of characters in the DRC, and it’s very hard to get a handle on,” said Roberta Cohen, a nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution who has studied the DRC extensively. “It all looks too complicated, but considering there are 45,000 people dying every month in the Congo from hunger and disease, and that 5.2 million people have died, it is rather surprising and tragic that there is so little attention paid to what goes on there.”

Cohen cited Congolese ethnic conflicts, competition for resources, undisciplined militias, a weak government and a ragtag national army as all contributing to a chaotic situation that no one faction can control. Throw in the fact that there are some 250 ethnic groups in an area roughly the size of the entire United States east of the Mississippi and you have an explosive, oftentimes confusing, mix of players.

By contrast, in Darfur in western Sudan, the opposing sides are more easily identifiable. In one corner, you have the Sudanese government aligned with the Janjaweed militia, and on the other the largely black population, including rebel groups such as the Sudan Liberation Movement and the non-Arab Justice and Equality movement.

“The situation in Darfur has been portrayed as genocide by a single reprehensible government and it makes it easier to mobilize concern about the country,” Cohen explained. “Genocide is seen as the single most serious crime there is, even though the suffering in the Congo may be as bad, or worse, than in Darfur.”

Cohen also pointed out that the conflict in Darfur erupted in late 2003, roughly the same time that the international community was beginning to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the mass slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority and Hutu majority moderates in 1994. The systematic killings in Rwanda—up to 800,000 were killed just between April and July of that year—was the worst genocide of the 1990s.

At the same time, former Clinton administration officials publicly lamented that Rwanda was their gravest foreign policy mistake, which helped spur the United States—and the rest of the world—to take action on Darfur so as not to make the same mistakes. “The timing made it compelling to focus on this latest case and say, ‘Let’s not let his happen again,’” Cohen noted.

William Zartman, an expert on Africa and director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the relative lack of attention paid to the deadly chaos in the DRC is quite basic.

“The biggest problem for the public and news media is that we are numbed on Africa,” Zartman said. “We take it to be a normal condition.”

He argues that seemingly endless conflicts around the African continent have exhausted the public’s patience with the country’s often inept and corrupt leadership. “In Central Africa, we’ve been through the genocide in Rwanda, the many versions of war of the Zairian successors, and as a result, the U.S. is just not as directly active as it is in Darfur,” he said.

The Bush administration does deserve some credit for diplomatic efforts in the region. In January, after extensive efforts at mediation by Tim Shortley, special State Department advisor, along with U.N. and other officials, the Congolese government signed a peace deal in the city of Goma with nine rebel groups in the eastern North Kivu region, led by dissident Gen. Laurent Nkunda; Belgian and European Union officials also lent diplomatic muscle to the effort. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a trip to Africa in December 2007, said the United States will continue to apply diplomatic pressure along with its international allies to oversee the integration of the rebel troops into the national army and the enforcement of a permanent ceasefire.

Although the Congo’s problems rarely make the nightly news in America, another prominent national politician has turned his attention to the issue. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama introduced the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act in 2005, which President Bush signed into law a year later.

The legislation, which at this point has triggered little significant change with regard to rape in the DRC, identifies systematic sexual violence as a particular threat in Congo. It states that U.S. policy should “urge” the DRC government to discipline its security forces and bring to justice the individuals responsible for atrocities and other human rights violations.

The law also requires the United States to “help halt the high prevalence of sexual abuse and violence perpetrated against women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and mitigate the detrimental effects from acts of this type of violence by undertaking a number of health, education, and psycho-social support programs.”

In 2006 alone, the United Nations reported 27,000 sexual assaults against women and girls in North Kivu province, and Human Rights Watch has documented cases of rape victims as young as 3 years old—crimes that oftentimes go unpunished and are committed by a wide array of perpetrators, from rebel groups and armed forces to police and civilians.

The U.S. government has been especially frustrated by the role of Rwanda in fanning the fires of Congolese volatility. Meanwhile, France and former Congolese colonizer Belgium—perhaps more than any other nations—are interested in stabilizing the DRC, but they have thus far been unable to do so.

“It’s nobody’s beat,” Zartman said, predicting that it will take a long time for the DRC government to make any progress in the region, even with intervention from outside nations.

“It’s just a long-term project for the government to consolidate itself and gain control of the region,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “It would be a great deal of help if we could pressure Rwanda to stop supporting the [warlords and armed groups]. This takes a long time—it’s a wild place.”

Attempts at forming a viable government have been made in recent years, with mixed results. The DRC held its first multiparty elections in 46 years on July 30, 2006. Voters had hoped to choose a new president and national assembly, but the elections quickly devolved into near-chaos.

The polls were boycotted by the veteran opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, and although the balloting was done with minimal violence, the tally was rocky and spurred armed clashes around the country. A month later, full provisional presidential election results released to the public indicated neither candidate was able to secure a majority. Finally, a Nov. 15 runoff election showed that incumbent Joseph Kabila (himself the son a former president assassinated in 2001) had won.

Although most international observers have generally praised the election outcome, for many, Kabila’s “victory” was less than inspiring and skepticism abounds as the killings continue and large swaths of the country remain lawless. Earlier this year, Kabila announced plans to disarm and repatriate foreign fighters still in his country, voluntarily or by force. He has the backing of an impatient United Nations, which maintains a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.

Zartman though is skeptical that more international aid will rectify the problems in the Congo. “These elections cost millions of dollars, and you have a peacekeeping force, you have billions in aid, and yet the humanitarian situation remains dire and the political situation remains very fragile,” he said.

“Pouring more money in there is not the answer at this time,” he added. “It needs the more complex measures of trying to consolidate the government and keep it on an honest track. It’s a complicated mess that takes an awful lot of diplomatic pressure.”

Princeton N. Lyman, a former ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria who is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that the most difficult part of mediating the Congolese conflicts is the sheer number of opposing sides.

“The Congo is more complex [than Sudan]—you don’t know who the enemies are,” he said. “It’s harder for us to relate to it because it’s such a complicated situation and it’s dragged on for a very long period of time.”Touching on some of the issues that have fueled the conflict over the years, the advocacy group Enough recently released the report “Getting Serious about Ending Conflict and Sexual Violence in Congo,” outlining the complex labyrinth of problems in the Congo.

“In eastern Congo, divisive issues such as citizenship and land ownership have, over decades, splintered into innumerable grievances. Coupled with the ripple effects of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda … these grievances and the cynical politicians and warlords who exploit them are driving one of the world’s thorniest conflicts,” the report said, adding, “Women bear the brunt of this punishment. Rape is used as a weapon to weaken the fabrics of communities that women work so hard to uphold so that armed forces can better exert their control.”

One positive development in this area, Lyman noted, is that the International Criminal Court in The Hague is now investigating the widespread allegations of rape in the Congo and is considering prosecution in some cases.

“This thing that hasn’t gotten enough outrage is the brutality and the extensiveness of the rape,” Lyman said. “It’s a way of demeaning your enemy, humiliating the man and destroying the dignity of the woman.” Meanwhile though, the misery persists. “You can’t say there is no attention being paid,” Cohen said. “There is money and there has been some attention to it, but compared to the mortality rates and tragedy there, you could say there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.