Categorized | Africa, Conflict, Refugees, UN, World

Kabila and the DRC: A Perfect Storm of Problems

Image by UNMISS MEDIA

The UN Under-Sectretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this week for the first time. Following meetings with internally displaced persons, Lowcock underscored that the DRC is the site of one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world today. A year after his term ended, Congolese President Joseph Kabila is taking increasingly desperate steps to cling to power, as his country sinks ever deeper into chaos. Millions of people in the DRC and neighbouring countries have been displaced from their homes, a desperate narrative played out against a backdrop of warring militia groups, famine, cholera, and sexual violence.

Under Kabila’s increasingly disastrous leadership, the DRC is faced with such myriad problems—each individual issue on its own would be serious enough to merit an international relief effort—that it is difficult to envision how to begin tackling the beleaguered nation’s challenges.

The deadliest of these problems are old ethnic enmities which have been rekindled as tensions rise throughout the country. The dormant conflict between the Hema and Lendu communities—who were locked in a bloody war from 1998 to 2003 which killed thousands of people—has reignited, with disastrous results. Congolese citizens are fleeing the country in such numbers that aid agencies in neighbouring nations are struggling to cope. In one week alone in February, almost 7,000 Congolese fled to Burundi, while 1,200 escaped into Tanzania. It has been Uganda, though, that has borne the brunt of the refugee exodus, as people escape from a place where, in the words of one man who had lost his entire family, ‘people are being killed and slaughtered like animals’. According to a New York Times analysis of active-fire data from NASA, whole Congolese villages are being razed to the ground as part of a ‘scorched earth’ policy, meaning that even if these refugees wish to return home, they may no longer have one to go back to.

Even neutral onlookers are getting dragged into the conflict in the east of the country, with Tanzanian aid workers and gorilla conservationists becoming collateral damage. Insurgent rebel groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), are capitalising on the chaos in the country to further their own ambitions, which include driving peacekeeping forces out of the region. Indeed, the situation is so grave that the Catholic Church, highly influential in the DRC, is now warning that the country could very easily spiral out of control and face “either a civil war or a genocide”.

Adding to this human-made calamity is a cholera epidemic, that has only increased the suffering of people who have already lost everything.  As of March 6th, 1466 Congolese refugees in Uganda had reportedly contracted the disease, with 32 reported deaths. With no signs of the refugee crisis abating, or conditions in the overcrowded camps improving, the death toll is likely to rise.

While circumstances are dire for those who have fled the DRC, the situation is even bleaker for those who remain. In addition to the thousands of citizens haemorrhaging over its borders, the DRC has 4.5 million internally displaced people, the largest number in Africa. Many of these have witnessed unspeakable horrors—one girl was forced by militia fighters to carry her mother’s decapitated head for 60 kilometres, while an elderly man recounted: “They come at night and burn your house. When you run out, they shoot you with an arrow; when you fall they chop you with a machete.”

Amidst this barbaric slaughter of its citizens, the DRC’s leadership is conspicuous by its silence, further facilitating the conditions which allow chaos and instability to take hold. Some commentators believe that this is a deliberate strategy of Kabila and his henchmen to use the continuing violence as a justification to further delay the holding of elections. 

Kabila’s refusal to cede power is one of the primary factors causing his country to slip further into the abyss. Yet, he has refused to step down as president, despite increasingly vociferous voices calling for him to leave. Instead, Kabila has done everything to buy time, arguing that the DRC doesn’t have money to fund elections, or suggesting that the country has to hold an extensive census first.

Meanwhile, Kabila has driven his main rival into exile in Europe. Moïse Katumbi,former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, has launched a new opposition movement and has vowed to return to the DRC by June. Katumbi is fortunate to have only been forced into exile; those still in the country who dare speak out against Kabila’s regime are treated even worse. In December, at least seven people were killed in protests against Kabila’s rule. Last month, security forces fatally shot at least two protesters and injured 47 others, as anti-government marches took place around the country.

Even when set against the DRC’s relatively short and troubled history, it seems that the country is on an extremely slippery slope, notwithstanding Congolese Prime Minister Bruno Tshibala’s questionable assertions that “everything is fine”. Although unpicking and resolving the DRC’s problems will certainly be a complex task, one refugee didn’t hesitate to offer an opinion as to what the first step must be: “President Kabila has failed. He must go.”

The international community is also starting to embrace the idea that the DRC cannot start healing its divisions until the sun has set on Kabila’s illegal regime. The consensus at the recent UN Security Council meeting on March 7th was that the DRC must be exhorted to hold ‘free and fair elections’, with opposition politicians such as Katumbi allowed to participate. These words, however, must translate into action. The time has come for the international community to put real pressure on Joseph Kabila, or the already tragic situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will only spiral further towards disaster.

Image courtesy of UNMISS MEDIA [CC BY 2.0]
Tom Wirth

About Tom Wirth

Originally from Düsseldorf, Tom is a recent graduate in International Affairs from St.Gallen (with a focus on Africa), and is an aspiring foreign policy analyst in preparation for a PhD in Conflict Analysis.

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