The Democratic Republic of Congo has been cursed with natural disasters, poverty, exploitation, conflict, and all sorts of suffering for endless decades. I cannot begin to skim the surface of the complex issues of the Congo here, but I was shocked to see an article on the BBC a few weeks ago that said people are still “discovering” villages in Congo. When imagining remote villages described in the Poisonwood Bible, it was hard to believe that some villages were so isolated from the outside world, dominated by superstition, and existing in the same way they did hundreds of years ago. But after reading statements from the Rainforest Foundation, I’m starting to wonder. It appears that 190 villages have been found in one area of Bandundu province where the government had originally thought 30 villages had existed. The government is surveying the area as they hand out permits to logging companies in the area. The government has already allocated parts of the territory to 11 logging concessions and the lives of these villagers will be greatly affected as a result with little consideration from the government. Instantly after reading the news, I wondered: Do these people receive no protection or social services from the government? What if there is an outbreak of a serious disease (like Ebola) in one of the villages? Being oppressed is one thing, but not existing at all…that seems insulting on another level.
Interestingly, the Bandundu province is in the western region of the country not far from the capital city compared to the vast distance from Kinshasa to the Eastern Congo region. If the government doesn’t know about their neighbors in their own backyard then how are they supposed to keep track of people who are almost a thousand miles away. The Congo is about one fourth the size of the US. Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, is from the East, which could be helpful, but his government has consistently proven that they cannot provide security for those in the East. According to the IRC, 5.4 million people have died in Congo due to conflict or preventable illnesses. And as many as 45,000 continue to die every month, despite a peace agreement that ended the war in 2002. For those of you not familiar with Congo’s history, President Laurent Kabila took over after Mobutu in 1997 and then there was a five-year civil war with Zimbabwe and Namibia supporting the government and Rwanda and Uganda supporting rebels in the East. In 1999 a peace agreement was signed, but in 2000 fighting continued between all parties including clashes between Uganda-supported and Rwanda-supported rebels in the East. Many believe Uganda and Rwanda were fighting over control of Congolese resources being plundered by both groups. A peace agreement was signed in 2002 and Joseph Kabila headed the interim government. The last Uganda troops left in 2003 or shortly after that, but Rwanda’s involvement in the East has remained. Today Eastern Congo is still in conflict. The government has failed to protect its citizens from constant rape, genocide, and children being forced into combat. A good friend of mine in grad school, who was very passionate about Congo, always complained about how evil Uganda and Rwanda were for exploiting Congo’s resources and fueling rebel activities in the East. He was correct to some extent, but it is a fact that there were separate rebels groups organizing in Congo to overthrow the Uganda and Rwanda governments which is a good reason to invade a country (the US would have invaded). The Congolese government has no control over the area, therefore they cannot control who crosses their borders with weapons or prevent rebels groups from attacking neighboring countries. Uganda and Rwanda took advantage of the situation, but I would also argue that Congo is not such a great neighbor either. It is particularly horrific in the case of Rwanda. The militia that killed the most people during the Rwanda genocide were never brought to justice because they are still hiding in the Congo. Kagame wants to get them badly at any cost, which is understandable. Kagame is criticized for killing people in refugee camps in Congo, which was wrong, but the camps were not only harboring people who committed the genocide but they were empowering them. A brilliant book, Condemned to Repeat; The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, written by Fiona Terry (the head of the Medecins sans Frontieres in Goma) illustrates how humanitarian organizations empowered Hutu genocide leaders by having people in the camps elect them as camp leaders and allowing them to control supplies. There is no simple answer to what is going on in Eastern Congo, but it is a disaster and the Congolese government hasn’t done enough for its people.
The story of the pygmies in Congo is particularly tragic. Since 2003, there has been several articles on the mass slaughter, rape, and torture of the pygmies. Many of tribes consider them “subhuman” and there is proof that the MLC rebel group regularly eats Pygmy body parts (the heart especially) in ceremonial rituals. While the UN carried out an investigation of the allegations, they collected testimony from 350 witnesses. The UN peace keeping force in Congo, MONUC, was urged by the Congolese government to help with the situation, but they claimed they had no mandate to use force to protect the pygmies. Now the Pygmy population has become dangerously low. Humanity wouldn’t be the same without them. According to the BBC article, When humans faced extinction, genetic research has shown that Pygmies are genetically similar to the first modern humans making them one of the oldest group of people still existing today.
The only solution that makes sense to me is not an option – Congo should split into smaller states. The government obviously can’t manage such a large state. What is the Congolese solution – Chinese Companies. Congo just signed a huge deal with Chinese companies (CREC and Sinohydro) where Congo agreed to give them “10m tonnes of copper and 400,000 tonnes of cobalt” and they will in turn build “6 billion dollars of infrastructure including 2,400 miles of road, 2,000 miles of railway, 32 hospitals, 145 health centres and two universities.” The Congolese government likes the deal because there are no strings (western governments usually use aid to promote democracy and capitalism) and it is said that the government doesn’t have the technology, capacity, and knowledge to build its own infrastructure. Critics say CREC and Sinohydro are going to make tremendous profits on the deal (about 42 billion at current market prices) and the Congolese people are going to loose out. One of the main concerns is that this deal was signed in secret and there weren’t provisions for regulation or taxation of the companies. I can’t wait to see how this works out. Are there no better options out there? Not only is the Kinshasa government not looking out for its people on so many levels, but they are still discovering communities they had no idea existed.