Analysis: a humanitarian crisis in the DRC

27 November 2008

When news of a fresh outbreak of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo filtered through to our newspapers and television screens in October, it was reported like any other distant fighting we couldn’t really understand.

From ‘dissident’ rebels in the ‘unruly east’ to the government’s ‘ill-disciplined army’, media coverage was sensationalist at worst and confused at best.

No-one seemed to really understand what was going on. In response to this, the Humanitarian Centre in Cambridge hosted a panel debate last Wednesday at Emmanuel College to raise awareness of the current situation.

I would like to offer four points arising from the discussion, which serve as a useful framework for understanding recent events. Firstly, we need to remember that this is a conflict with a history.

Media coverage of recent fighting may be a novel phenomenon, but these are not ‘trigger-happy’ rebels who only spring into action at the sight of a camera. Power struggles in the Democratic Republic of Congo are not new. Far from it. After King Leopold annexed the country as his personal kingdom in the late nineteenth century, the country experienced almost a century of colonial rule, followed by over 40 years of single-party politics and, most recently, a five year civil war which the international media paradoxically labelled, ‘Africa’s World War’.

This context gives a new perspective on current attempts to forge a new future for a country which, in living memory, has no ‘golden age’ to hark back to, no peaceful period of self-determination to which it can return.

The real roots of recent conflict, however, lie closer to the ground. If charity begins at home, so does injustice. Eastern Congo is one of the most fertile regions around the Great Lakes, and struggle for access to natural resources and land is one of the key issues of recent years.

Local elites are in competition with each other, multi-national corporations and neighbouring governments for rights to lucrative mining and logging activities. These power struggles leave little room for local communities and workers to negotiate the distribution of wealth, resulting in a sense of injustice and exclusion from their source of livelihood.

In this context, rebel factions often provide a means of redress of grievance and security for their family in an unstable world. However, whilst local concerns were the spark for initial action, it is external actors who have fuelled the fire.

The Rwandan government has a stake in Eastern Congo, not least because it is now home to thousands of refugees who fled Rwanda

during the 1994 genocide.

This exposed latent ethnic conflict in the region, and intensified debate over land rights. Moreover, profit from the exploitation of natural resources acted as an incentive not only for armed factions within the country, but also surrounding governments.

The involvement of Uganda, Rwanda, Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe can often be a double-edged sword, Like multi-nationals brandishing olive branches and mining contracts. This leads me to my final point; perhaps peace is not the answer. Or rather, perhaps peace is not the only answer. Kabila is too weak, Monuc too discredited, and Nkunda replaceable; we need to start looking beyond traditional remedies.

This conflict has not been entirely made by the West and, much as it pains our liberal guilt to admit it, it won’t be entirely solved by us.

The best thing we can do for once is to shut up and listen. What are the real causes of grievance? How can we support current diplomatic efforts through the African union, for example? How unequal are the terms under which mining contracts are negotiated? The answers are out there, but we have to really want to find them, and then act on them.

No-one disputes that Congo needs peace, but perhaps it needs justice first.

Phillida Strachen

Humanitarian Centre intern