DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO: Juggling crisis and opportunity
Francisco Quintanilla

Nobutaka Machimura

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), one of the largest countries in sub-Saharan Africa has been making a determined effort to emerge from years of civil and international war. An ongoing refugee crisis and conflict on its border with Rwanda, however, continue to threaten the countryís attempt to reach a point of normalcy.

The New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently issued a mortality survey noting that, in addition to the 3.8 million people estimated to have died since 1998 as a result of war, more than 31,000 people continue to die every month, primarily from disease and malnutrition. "DR Congo remains by far the deadliest crisis in the world, but year after year the conflict festers and the international community fails to take effective action," Dr. Richard Brennan, one of the studyís authors, was quoted as saying in an IRC press release. He compared the loss of life in Congo to that of the entire population of Ireland.

Stability in Congo is generally considered critical to stability in Central Africa and the Great Lakes region.

Faida Mitifu, Congoís ambassador to the United States, sees Rwandan interference as one key problem for the country. In an interview with Diplomatic Traffic she explained that Rwanda had been interfering in the Congo for over six years and had invaded three times. "During that time more than three and a half million Congolese in eastern Congo have died," she said.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the largest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, comparable in size to the United States East of the Mississippi. Sharing borders with nine countries, it is vulnerable to unrest among its neighbors. Congoís current problems were triggered by a massive inflow of refugees from fighting in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, which eventually led to civil war and the 1997 overthrow of longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko by Laurent Kabila.

Renewed rebellion backed by Uganda and Rwanda broke out in eastern Congo in 1998, eventually leading to seven African countries taking sides in the conflict. In 2002 peace agreements were signed with Rwanda and Uganda and a transitional government led by Joseph Kabila was established.

Not all disagreements have been resolved, however, and the government of Rwanda continues to argue that armed Hutu militants in eastern Congo are a threat to its security.

Reports of Rwandan troops and skirmishes in the Kivu district came as a surprise to the government of Congo, according to ambassador Mitifu, because at the time a tripartite agreement, signed on October 26, 2004, was being put in place. "[The DRC] has been working with Rwanda and Uganda with the facilitation of the US and UN to create a framework by which the concerns of the three countries can be resolved," she said.

The ambassador emphasized that although the Bush administration had shown a willingness to help resolve issues in the region, more support was needed. "We would like to see the United States be tougher with Rwanda," she said. "Right now, Rwanda is spoiling the process." She suggested that if the US wanted Rwanda to stop interfering in the DRC it could put some assistance programs at risk if belligerence continued.

In addition to additional pressure on Rwanda, the ambassador would like to see more and faster help with training and integrating the Congolese army. "The current results are not what we would like to see," she said.

The refugee crisis in eastern Congo continues to be a problem, with about three million people internally displaced, the ambassador said. She expressed concern that while Congolese refugees in foreign countries get aid from international agencies, internally displaced people do not get enough assistance. "There is a double standard in what is given to refugees in Africa and [refugees] in other parts of the world," she said.

The ambassadorís critique is supported by data from the International Rescue Committee. According to an IRC comparison, the aid budget for Iraq in 2003 was $3.5 billion ($138 per person) and foreign aid to Darfur in 2004 was $530 million ($89 per person). In sharp contrast, the IRC reported that global humanitarian response to Congo in 2004 was $188 million, "a scant $3.23 per person, in spite of DR Congoís rank as the deadliest recorded conflict since World War II," the report noted.

"The international response to the humanitarian crisis in Congo has been grossly inadequate in proportion to need," Brennan is quoted as saying. "Our findings show that improving and maintaining security and increasing simple, proven and cost-effective interventions such as basic medical care, immunizations and clean water would save hundreds of thousands of lives in Congo. Thereís no shortage of evidence. Itís sustained compassion and political will thatís lacking."

But not everything is wrong in Congo, ambassador Mitifu is quick to point out. "Business for the past year has been booming," she said.

The ambassador noted that South African and European companies have been investing in Congo with the support of ANAPI, the new investment promotion agency, and that more US businesses are welcome. "We would like to have more investment from the United States," the ambassador emphasized. She pointed out that Congo is a resource-rich country with many areas of opportunity, including telecommunications and mining.

"Once we reach the desired peace we will see many, many businesses from the U.S. operating here," the ambassador said.

She stressed that Congo is a big country and that conflict in the Kivu region did not mean it was not safe to travel to Kinshasa, Kisangani or other parts of the country. "There is a misconception about Congo," she said. "If there is violence people think that they cannot go."

Another area of success has been the relative stability of the transitional government and preparations for elections, currently scheduled for June 2005. "There have been bumps in the road . . . [but] we donít foresee changes in the timetable," the ambassador said.

She attributed the progress Congo has made to its people, who "have been yearning for a peaceful Congo," and to the commitment of President Kabila. "He was determined to reach a durable peace in Congo and the region," she said. "A stable, peaceful, prosperous Congo is important for the whole region."