THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Humanitarian crisis needs world attention
Francisco Quintanilla

According to the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based NGO, almost four million people have died from violence, disease and starvation in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998. This humanitarian disaster, however, has received scant media attention when compared to the scope of the tragedy. Diplomatic Traffic had the opportunity to speak about the crisis and upcoming elections in Congo with Mr. Nzanga Mobutu, son and former spokesman of now-deceased president Mobutu Sese Seko.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), located in the heart of Central Africa, is one of the largest countries in Africa, sharing borders with nine countries. A huge inflow of refugees from the 1994 Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda triggered instability and ethnic strife in Congo culminating in the flight into exile of president Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997 and the assumption of power by rebel leader Laurent Kabila.

Since then Congo has experienced a prolonged period of instability including a war involving seven African countries, the assassination of president Laurent Kabila, and the establishment of a transitional government headed by current president Joseph Kabila. Congo's hopes for a more stable future are planted in national elections originally planned for June 2005, but which are likely to be postponed.

Nzanga Mobutu places a large part of the responsibility for the crisis in eastern Congo on the Rwandan regime of president Paul Kagame. The crisis in the Kivu region of Congo began with a flood of Rwandan refugees after the massacres in 1994, Mobutu said. "Refugee camps established in Congo were also inhabited by members of Interahamwe militias, and the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) made a decision in 1996 to use the Kivu district of Congo as a buffer zone," he said.

Although he acknowledges that Rwanda has some legitimate security issues, Mobutu believes they are a justification for a much broader economic agenda in Congo. "[The Rwandan government] has continued to raise security issues," as an excuse for intervention, he said. "The cause of the problem in eastern Congo is primarily the interest of the Rwandan regime in the mineral resources in the region," he added.

"Rwanda wants to be a major player when it comes to the mineral industry," Mobutu said. "They want to be an economic hub in the region." But Rwanda needs Congolese minerals to become that hub, he suggested.

Mobutu was careful to point out, however, that his observations were about the Kagame regime, not the Rwandan people. "The Congolese and Rwandan people had good relations for many years," he said. "There is a difference between the dangerous policy of the Rwandan regime and the Rwandan people."

Mobutu is not alone in his claim that the struggle for resources is behind the tragedy in eastern Congo.

Congo is well known for having an abundance of natural resources including diamonds, gold, timber, coltan and other minerals. According to observers in the Congo, including the United Nations and Global Witness, a London-based NGO focusing on the relationship between human rights and natural resources, struggle over those resources is one of the leading causes of armed conflict in the region.

"Diamonds, timber, gold, cassiterite and coltan are just a few of the precious resources being fought over, not just by Congolese factions, but by DRC's neighbors as they too seek to exploit the confusion of war for profit," Global Witness stated in a March 18, 2005 open letter to the United Nations Security Council.

At a 2001 press briefing discussing the United Nations' report "Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Safiatou Ba-N'Daw, the reporting panel's chair, said that "the conflict had become a 'win-win' situation for all belligerents and was now mainly about access, control and trade of coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold, as well as timber, coffee and ivory."

"The exploitation of the country's natural resources by foreign armies had become systematic and systemic, and the role of the private sector in the exploitation and continuation of the war had been vital," the UN briefing summary states. "Top military commanders from various countries needed the conflict for its lucrative nature," it said.

But good business and tragedy do not have to go hand-in-hand, Mobutu said.

Mobutu suggested that the multinational companies currently dealing with Rwanda would be better off dealing with a stable Congolese government. "They can only benefit on a long-term basis if there is a stable government," he said. "Of course some would argue that [conflict] is good for them because they can get better prices," he added.

Mobutu believes that another major factor in the crisis is dysfunction at all levels of the Congolese government, starting with a fragmented military.

"There is no such thing as a Congolese army," he said. "You have troops all over Congo, but it is not an integrated body that can protect the borders of Congo. That is one of the problems."

There has been some integration of the military at the leadership level, Mobutu said, but the troops continue to be under the control of factional leaders. "The former government of president Kabila kept its own troops. The RCD [Congolese Rally for Democracy] kept its own troops, and they are still under the influence of Rwanda. Mr. [Jean-Pierre] Bemba's MLC [Liberation Movement of the Congo] troops are still located in northern Congo," Mobutu said.

"We need a republican, professional, integrated army," Mobutu emphasized.

While the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean receive constant media attention, the world press has been strangely silent on the ongoing crisis in eastern Congo, a much more massive problem.

One reason Mobutu gives for the lack of world attention is ineffective public and private diplomacy by the current Congolese government.

"I cannot understand that none of the leaders react to the fact that we have lost millions of countrymen. People are still dying and there is no firm reaction," Mobutu said.

Mobutu suggested that a stronger diplomatic effort is necessary to bring attention to the crisis. "I think that the government, if it were really interested in Congo's fate, would push the international community. It would draw their attention," he said.

Mobutu also recommended a stronger intra-African diplomatic strategy. "The [Congolese] foreign minister should work closely with the president to reestablish Congo's prestige," he said. "They should work with fellow African governments to help implement a policy that would pressure Rwanda."

The first step toward creating a truly effective foreign policy, according to Mobutu, is an elected government able to wield that legitimacy in Congo and abroad. To him, that means elections as soon as possible.

"There is no acceptable alternative to elections in Congo," he said. "They will not be the whole solution, but will reestablish Congo's dignity."

According to Mobutu, however, there has been serious foot dragging on the part of the Congolese government in preparing for elections. "Obviously their interest is in delaying elections as long as possible," he said.

Mobutu believes that the Congolese people are tired of war, instability and poverty, and are ready for change. "The Congolese people have a great challenge now that the elections are close," he said. "For the first time in 45 years there will be pluralist elections, a new beginning."

Reflecting on the four million Congolese dead, Nzanga Mobutu brought up his father. "President Mobutu would never have let something like that happen," he said. "When he was president nothing anywhere close to that ever happened."


Biography of Nzanga Mobutu

Nzanga Mobutu is the son and former aide to President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He was born on March 24, 1970 in Kinshasa, DRC. He is married and is the father of 3 children.

Mr. Mobutu attended primary and secondary school in Belgium. He later attended Universite de Montreal and also American university in Paris studying International Affairs.

In the summer of 1996, after the Rwandan invasion of then Zaire he became spokesman to ailing President Mobutu. He served as a special envoy to then UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. As a spokesman he was also in charge of media contact within the Executive Office of the President.

After Kinshasa fell in the hands of AFDL troops in may 1997, he went into exile with his family. President Mobutu died on September 7, 1997.

Nzanga Mobutu went on to assume the post of Deputy Secretary General of the MPR party in charge of International Relations until 2002. As an advocate of DRC he visited with leaders and institutions in Africa, Europe and America.

At the invitation of President Joseph Kabila, he went back to Kinshasa in late 2002 putting an end to a 5-year exile-with the exception of a visit to the rebel-held towns of Goma and Kisangani in 2000. His last stay in Kinshasa was in 2003 when he established his own grassroots group in the capital city.

He intends to be involved in the upcoming Congolese elections.