Sunday, March 23, 2008

Can the Congo Save Itself?

Democratic Republic of Congo's mining minister, Victor Kasongo announced that several mining contracts between their government and international companies are going to be reviewed, re-negotiated and possibly terminated after a review commission revealed that out of 60+ mining contracts, NONE met international standards. Well no surprise there, we've had a long history of taking great advantage of Africa's bounty with good to great success and little to no obstacles. As Kasongo told a BBC reporter in reference to those contracts, "the state assets were undervalued, making our contribution seem smaller. In essence we are contributing too much. This creates some unfairness." The contractors (mostly from the west), see things differently, of course, and would prefer to keep their sweet deals intact, as noted in this Bloomberg piece.

Congo's latest president, Joseph Kabila, was elected in 2006 - the nation's first democratic election since the 60s. Will this give the DR Congo an opportunity to provide an example to other nations rich in natural assets but poor in international influence? What has it been, after all, that has allowed some (though not all) oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia to perch high in the driver's seat? While nations like the DR Congo, home to huge reserves of gold, diamonds, copper and coltan (don't know what it is, well try using your cell phone without it) serve at the mercy of international corporations? Great national wealth has funded national security for some, while others are torn limb from limb, often with international assistance. Some of the contracts Kasongo refers to were made by companies in rebel-held territories of the DRC.

Can Kabila and Kasongo find a way to break the trend and finally begin to use great national wealth to build and unify their nation? History argues no. Divisions are rife and complex across so much of Africa, and within the DRC. Kabila has recently hit at one large rebel group, the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK), which has accused Kabila's government of corruption. Troops attacked BDK areas and left almost 80 dead and hundreds unaccounted for. The BDK is a complicated organization. Part militia, part political and part religious movement that wants to return the nation to its pre-colonial kingdom status.

Complicated, isn't it. And that's only part of the equation. Eastern Congo is also been the stage for recent fighting between Mai Mai militia and Rwandan rebels. With every acre of disputed territory comes another danger of population exodus. Yet another group, The Party for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by Laurent Nkunda (who is Tutsi), have forced more than 750,000 people to abandon their homes and flee. Nkunda claims to be fighting to protect Tutsi populations from Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. Have you gotten out your charts and maps to follow this yet? From a BBC report:

Father Mario Perez runs the Don Bosco Ngangi home for orphans of the war in the provincial capital of Goma. He regards the numbers in his home as a tragic barometer for the crisis across the eastern DR Congo, and they are rising fast.

He has been working for the past decade with families torn apart by the conflict, and he sees a disturbing new pattern. It seems clear to me that civilians are being driven from their homes by force. In the past, they were just running from the fighting between the armed groups, and they were able to go back as soon as things had settled down," he says.

"But now they're being pushed out with aggression, and humanitarian groups are being prevented from helping them. I think the militias are trying to clear the countryside and push people to Goma."

According to Human Rights Watch this long tradition of no victors, but millions of losers, continues:
All parties to the conflict in North Kivu – including the Congolese army, troops under the command of Nkunda, and combatants from the FDLR and PARECO – have committed serious crimes against civilians, including killings, rape, forced displacement, looting and the use of child soldiers. In a detailed report published in October, Human Rights Watch documented abuses against civilians during 18 months of armed conflict.

The recent combat has increased local hostility against the Congolese Tutsi population, seen by other groups as the main supporters of Nkunda. But Tutsi civilians have also suffered displacement and abuse, including from those who claim to be protecting them.
The civilian casualties are so high and terrible to be almost beyond understanding. According to an International Rescue Committee report, 45,000 Congolese citizens, half of them children, are dying EVERY MONTH from hunger, disease and other fruits of violence and displacement.

Congolese women and girls in particular bear the vicious brunt of this crisis. Indeed, eastern Congo right now is perhaps the worst place in the world to be a woman or a girl. The sexual violence and rape exists on a scale seen nowhere else in the world as it is part and parcel of the conflict. It mutilates and humiliates. Its nature is brutal and vicious; it defies both description and imagination. Often successful in its intent to destroy and exterminate, rape as a weapon of war is causing the near total destruction of women, their families, and their communities.

I know, I know, after all of this, we have lost track of the original questions. Can DR Congo save itself? Are re-negotiated contracts for national wealth one step on the long road to creating a unified and successful nation? Or just one more bump on the long road of African despair.


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