Ceaseless conflict, massacres, famine and poverty, high-level corruption, mass prison breaks and lawlessness. The news from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is as dismal as it has been for more than a century, and it has the same underlying cause -- misgovernment on a gigantic scale.
In October, the United Nations gave the humanitarian catastrophe in DRC its most dire classification, on a par with more heavily publicized emergencies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Four million people are internally displaced in Africa’s second largest country.
Fighting involving myriad militias and armies from neighbouring states has raged almost continuously in the east since violence in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide spread over the border. Africa’s “world war” between 1996 and 2003 killed up to six million people and sucked in the armies of nine countries.
Since it ended, massacres, systematic rape and fighting have continued, stoked by vast riches from Congo’s mineral deposits including the world’s largest source of coltan, which is used in mobile phones.
But more conflicts have emerged over the last year or so in other parts of the country as unrest and instability are fuelled by President Joseph Kabila’s failure to step down at the end of his two-term constitutional mandate at the end of 2016.
The previously peaceful central Kasai region erupted in August 2016 after the Congolese army killed a local traditional leader -- according to some reports to install someone more loyal to Kabila for political reasons.
At least 3,000 people are believed to have died since then, with atrocities on both sides. Nearly 90 unmarked graves have been discovered. The United Nations says up to three million people are at risk of starvation, including 600,000 children.
According to Norwegian relief officials, 500,000 people have fled and hundreds have been killed in violence between rival ethnic groups in the southeast since last year. The U.N. refugee agency says more than 3,000 people have fled into Zambia from two south-eastern provinces since the end of August alone.
In the general climate of political uncertainty and drift at the centre, lawlessness has also become endemic. In October, a local militia broke 50 men out of a prison in the southeast, the latest in a string of jail breaks. In May, 4,000 men were freed from a prison in Kinshasa and in June nearly a thousand from one in the northeast.
All this might sound almost too much to digest, but the misery of a country that is one of the world’s poorest, despite huge mineral riches and agricultural potential, does not end there.
Inflation has hit 50 percent and the currency dropped by about 30 percent in value this year. And corruption on an industrial scale, a feature of Congo’s history since colonial times, is siphoning off many of the resources that could help restore some degree of stability and prosperity.
In early November, the U.S. Carter Centre said the state mining company Gecamines was operating as a parallel state and $750 million of its $1.1 billion in revenue from cobalt and copper between 2011-2014 could not be tracked in its accounts. This raised “significant questions” about where the money went.
Repeated Election Delays
Although some of the events in this catalogue of disaster go back decades or have local causes, analysts agree the impasse caused by Kabila’s refusal to step down as scheduled last year has aggravated the pain.
Last December, Kabila reached agreement with opposition groups that he would step down instead after elections by the end of 2017. He has since argued that the cost and complications of organising elections in a country with such undeveloped infrastructure make this date impossible.
To howls of protest from the opposition, the electoral commission has now set December 2018 for the elections, and this fait accompli seems to have been accepted by regional powers.
The opposition believes Kabila is playing for enough time to change the constitution, so he does not have to withdraw after two terms.
Kabila’s actions are hardly unusual in a nation which has never had a peaceful transition of power.
Belgian King Leopold seized the vast tract of central Africa in the late 19th century and ran it as a brutal money-making enterprise, enslaving the population to loot ivory and rubber.
Some estimates, disputed in Belgium, say 10 million people died as a result before Leopold was forced by an international outcry to sell his fiefdom to Belgium. Exploitation without development continued up to independence in 1960.
However, when army chief Mobutu Sese Seko took power with Western backing five years later, he set about creating a kleptocracy, looting the country to the tune of an estimated $3 billion for the next 32 years before being overthrown by Kabila’s father Laurent. The older Kabila was assassinated in 2001.
Despite the suffering and injustice, the absence of effective regional or international pressure on Joseph Kabila suggests DRC’s torment is set to continue.
In late October, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited Kinshasa in what looked like an attempt to lay down the law to Kabila. Afterwards she said Washington would not accept elections later than the end of next year.
Ironically, she added: “Every day we don’t have elections in this country someone dies,” underlining the sad truth that many more people will lose their lives before change is likely in this long-suffering country.
-- Barry Moody was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Italy, Asia, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.