The Democratic Republic of Congo: Why we care about some wars more than others

Merlyn Thomas 10 December 2016

Over two decades ago, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, was plunged into what became known as Africa’s Great War. This conflict raged on for more than half a decade from 1998, pulling in neighbouring countries and costing the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people and displacing millions too.

Despite the stark numbers, this atrocity was mainly ignored by news agencies outside Africa, despite the developed world’s insistent demand for the country’s natural minerals which provided ample ammunition for the conflict. The country’s wealth in resources has rarely been harnessed to benefit its citizens, left rather for warlords, corrupt governments, and unscrupulous corporations to fight over.

The bloody war had seen scores shot or hacked to death, but starvation and disease were the primary killer for most, as nine national armies alongside a constantly shifting throng of rebel groups pillaged their country. With over 60 armed groups, and a growing Islamist insurgency, operating in the Eastern Congo, it is hard to find other countries in Africa, let alone in the world, home to this many armed groups. Despite billions of dollars in aid, and one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the history of the United Nations, the DRC's government is incapable of providing stability or security to its citizens.

It has gone under the radar of most Western powers for which the DRC holds no strategic importance, unlike the Middle East. The jaw-dropping size of the country and its thickly-forested landscape with next-to-no infrastructure by way of roads or telecommunications makes it a hostile and extremely dangerous place for correspondents to work in. With a growing culture prohibiting immersive reporting in journalism, Congo does not provide fertile land for quick news bites. 

Stemming from the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Congo began to play a crucially definitive part in its tiny neighbouring country’s affairs. The story of Rwanda’s genocide is a haunting one. One which cannot be so easily summed up.

The deep divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda, saw a Hutu-dominated government attempt to exterminate Tutsis. In less than 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus, who refused to oblige to the governments wishes, were massacred. In a cataclysmic turn of events, exiled Tutsis from Uganda came back onto the scene to drive the Hutu dominated government into Congo – or the then-known Zaire.

By Sod’s law, Rwandans installed a new guerrilla leader in Zaire, Laurent Kabila, after the previous one did not pander to the Rwandan government’s wishes. Kabila renamed Zaire to what we now know as the DRC. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government hoped Kabila would not rearm those Hutus who had been exiled to Congo. Indeed, these were false hopes.

So they attempted to topple Kabila too, and they almost succeeded – almost. However with the help of amicable neighbour nations who had legitimate ulterior motives for their interest in Congo, a proxy war began on Congolese land. For over five years, six neighbouring nations fought. Unsurprisingly, once the tepid matter of war had been put into the works, the disarray of armies began working on the real aim at hand: looting Congo of its much-sought-after natural resources. 

Kabila ruled almost as tyrannically as his predecessor but perhaps with less competence. Plunging the country into economic crisis, by printing money (giving the country an eerie Soviet-style feel), scaring off foreign investors by jailing foreign businessmen, and banishing aid by foreign diplomats, he was not fond of book-keeping. In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguard’s. There is pure speculation on where in the higher powers the assassination order came from.

Yet a slimmer, younger Kabila – his son – took over. He was confirmed as DRC’s president by popular vote, but the legitimacy of the election is largely questioned. He was re-elected in 2011 – once again, the results were widely disputed. One of the key reasons why the citizens conformed was due to his pledge to refrain from seeking a third term.

And here we are. The DRC’s presidential election was due in November. It hasn’t happened. It has instead been delayed to April 2018. With promises left strewn on the floor and constitutions broken, Congo looks once again to be on the brink of another civil war. Congo’s powerful Catholic church, alongside a main opposition coalition, refuse this delay.

Scores of demonstrators and policemen were killed in recent protests in September, demanding the election be pushed forward, threatening turbulence in one of Africa’s largest countries.

Experts have said that civil war is a very plausible outcome of the government’s delaying tactics. The opposition leader, Tschisekedi, said in an interview, “This is the worst situation we’ve ever been in. The people have nothing, except hunger. The whole country is unsafe, and [Kabila] hasn’t done anything.” With protesters vowing not to stop until Kabila is forced from office, regardless of the violence unleashed by national forces, Congo is on the brink of descending into more bloodshed.

But numbers are not enough to persuade the international community. We have seen wars go ignored in the past, and the Congo's is one of them. However neglect is not the exception but the natural state of affairs. In order to be worthy of attention, war must have a compelling storyline. One in which there is a relevance to foreign interests, one that strikes a chord in cultural and political affairs in foreign countries and most importantly one that has a dichotomy of good-guys and bad-guys.

Most wars are neglected: South Sudan, Yemen, Sri-Lanka, Burma, to name a few. However Syria has found a place in media’s wasteland for reasons larger than its death toll. Syria’s war offers an easily palatable tale of innocent victims and villains – at least for popular consumption. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad provides a compelling villain, responsible for terrible barbarities against his citizens with the help of Russia’s President Putin. Islamic state’s reputation as a terrorist organisation with a predilection for beheadings and public murders also has a worthy position in the storyline of bad-guys.

Such a storyline is not so easily found in other conflicts. In Yemen, there is no simple 'good versus bad' storyline to tell. With a country torn apart by warring factions, and bombed by Saudi Arabia, it is not as simple a story to tell or pick apart for mass consumption. The story of the Democratic Republic of Congo is no easier.

It defies simple narratives. There are no straightforward “bad guys” and with constantly shifting groups of guerrilla fighters, it is difficult to find one with which we can align ourselves. In cruder terms, it is not that the DRC has nothing to offer the “superpowers” by way of natural resources. The country has a crucial natural source of tantalum and coltan, used in smartphones and other electronic gadgets, but this is not such an easy headline to feed, nor one which the public will care about.

Although there were many efforts from campaigns endorsed by celebrities, Congo’s turmoil never managed to capture and maintain the imagination or attention of the international world or policymakers.

Today, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the players have changed but the game remains the same. It is hard for correspondents to find some way to spin a constantly shifting story to the public in an informative way. Stories from Congo are growing distant and smaller.  But it is the citizens of Congo for whom this is really bad news. For them the people pointing the guns and machetes have changed, nevertheless they are still pointing guns and machetes.

Ungovernable land. Fragmentation. Turmoil. Rift. Stagnation. These are some of the words used by academics and experts to describe the DRC today, and it is only likely to get worse.