Problems in Democratic Republic of Congo often overlooked

Sunday, February 10, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:21 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

Loory: The Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s third-largest country, comes and goes from the news, but the killing there doesn’t stop. In the past 10 years, more than 5 million people have been killed in fighting. That means every two days as many people are killed as those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. The tragedy in the Congo has moved from the time it was a Cold War battleground in the 1960s, through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when it was ruled by a corrupt tyrant, to the present when ethnic conflict has brought killing and “sexual terrorism.” In addition to the rape of women and children, according to Maurice Carney, executive director of the Friends of the Congo in Washington, D.C., there is also rape of natural resources. He and others blame Western international corporations for those actions, and they provoke much of the killing while they drain minerals and other natural resources necessary in today’s information economy from the Congo. There was renewed fighting in the eastern Congo near the Rwandan border last month. Thousands were killed. A truce has been negotiated, and a peace conference is underway. The United Nations has an 18,000 person peacekeeping force in place that has had varying amounts of success. What is the current situation in the Congo?

Kemal Saiki, director, Office of the Spokesperson and Media Relations, United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa, DRC: Most of the instability is in the north and the south provinces bordering Uganda and Rwanda. In the past two weeks, a large conference brought together governments and the armed groups that are operating in the Congo to put an end to the bloodshed and the fighting. These groups have committed themselves to observe a cease-fire and to advance issues through negotiation rather than through weapons. Another promising sign is the joint communiqué signed by the Rwandan government and the government of the DRC, in which they’ve agreed to try negotiations to solve the issues.

Loory: How much is Rwanda responsible for what’s going on in the eastern provinces of the Congo?

Arthur Asiimwe, correspondent, Reuters, Kigali, Rwanda: Rwanda has strong interests in the Congo because many perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide have fled into the Congo jungles since 1984. Rwandan troops were in the Congo in 1996 and 1998, and they went in again and withdrew in 2002. So, Rwanda definitely keeps a keen eye on the Congo because of the history of genocide and because of the forces that are based in the eastern Congo.

Loory: Is South Africa working to bring some rationality to the situation in the Congo?

Peter Fabricius, foreign editor, Independent Newspapers, Johannesburg, South Africa: South Africa previously played a big role in securing the basic agreement which led to the transfers of the final government of President (Joseph) Kabila through the first democratic election in more than 40 years in 2006. It isn’t very intimately involved in the current negotiations, although it has an interest in African peace, security and certain economic interests also.

Loory: The DRC was formerly the Belgian Congo, a Belgian colony. What responsibility does Belgium feel towards the Congo and how is it exercising that?

Filip Reyntjens, professor of African Law, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium: There’s a long common history between Belgium and the Congo. A main problem in the Congo is there is virtually no state left. That’s due in large part to the nature of Belgian colonial rule. So Belgium feels that it’s responsible to some extent for the situation.

Loory: What do you mean, no state? Isn’t there a government in the Congo?

Reyntjens: There’s a government, legally speaking. There’s a state, a capital and a currency, but the state has started to disappear. By the mid-1980s, as a result of decades of misrule, the Congolese state wasn’t performing the minimal functions it should perform. Reconstructing a state when it has collapsed doesn’t happen in one or two years. It’s takes a long effort, and it’s one of the reasons the Congo has been attracting violence from neighboring countries. The Congo is a huge country with nine neighbors, many of which are unstable. Reconstruction is the major challenge for the next couple of years, or even decades.

Saiki: It could have been thought a few years ago that the state had disappeared, but important events have taken place since then. In 2006, with the aid of the international community in the U.N., the first elections in more than 40 years were held. People adopted a constitution, and out of that came democratic elections for the republic’s presidency, and for the senate and the parliamentary representatives. This year, the Congo is moving towards local elections. So the state is being rebuilt. Democratic institutions are in place and are functioning, not ideally, but they’re there.

Loory: The Congo isn’t in the news much in the U.S. Is that because the U.S. government isn’t interested in what’s going on?

David Jones, foreign editor, The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.: The U.S. has a long history of not being particularly interested in Africa. That’s nothing to do with the current political leadership so much as no one sees a strategic or political interest. Also, the Congo is hard to explain to the public because it’s hard for reporters to get there, to get enough solid information to report seriously and to get Americans interested. There’s been a flurry of attention because of a report from the International Rescue Committee that estimated the deaths related to this war at about 45,000 a month. But one thing that doesn’t get much attention is the amount of valuable minerals in the Congo. The Congo is the world’s largest producer of coltan, an essential element in making cell phones and other electronics. That’s obviously valuable and in demand, and it’s probably motivating various parties to conflict more than gets described.

Loory: Are businesses acting improperly to obtain those minerals?

Reyntjens: Yes. A number of reports by the U.N. looked at the illegal exploitation of those resources. The reports point fingers at elite networks in countries like Rwanda and Uganda that make many bucks by pilfering the Congo. Things like coltan are easily mined, so in a country where there’s no territorial control, it’s easy to exploit those materials and get them to a neighboring country. The country potentially has the means to fund its own development, but it’s being plundered by its own nationals, by nationals of neighboring countries and by international corporations.

Fabricius: Part of the problem is there’s been an inability by the DRC government to create law and order to extend its authority beyond the states and beyond peace agreements like the new one. The government is slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle to extend law and order throughout the country, but there’s a long way to go. Foreign forces have to be got out, and the state has to be strengthened in order for that to happen.

Loory: The Congo appears to be one area of the world where help by individuals can be meaningful. Readers can search online for “Congo help” to find dozens of organizations that spend contributions wisely and well.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Heather Perne, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.

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