Congo slipping back toward civil war

Congo slipping back toward civil war

As Joseph Kabila plays video games in Kinshasa surrounded by the only functioning military entity in the Congo, the Presidential Guard, the people grow weary of his pretexts for remaining in power. Having taken over following the assassination of his father Laurent-Désiré in 2001, the president completed his second term in 2016. 
The hollow state he has built teeters over a vast country wrought with ethnic division and foreign interference. The last thing it now needs is a return to the armed conflict that since 1998 has left over 5 million people dead.
Political scientists and African anthropologists will note that violence is no stranger to Congolese society, and that since independence in 1960, armed conflict has persisted in the country. Others argue that it has existed as far back as King Leopold of Belgium’s violent exploitation of the Congo in the 19th century. 
The Second Congo War, which took place from 1998 to 2003, was the most violent in the world since 1945. With a death toll in the millions, involving nine African countries and around 25 armed groups, the conflict was synonymous with the scale of the Congo’s problems.
The rapid succession of conflicts has not allowed the state to solidify. Rampant exploitation under Belgian colonialism, followed by the disastrous 32-year rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, have allowed a violent kleptocracy to take hold. The military, unpaid and poorly trained, was unable to protect previous presidents, let alone pacify the state. 
Arguably, the only reason why Kabila remains in power is that the Presidential Guard is well paid, and its cocktail of tear gas and live ammunition is enough to disperse the occasional waves of protests in the capital.
Though there was a formal end to the war in July 2003, small-scale conflict has persisted, driven by disagreements over the Congo’s natural resources, especially minerals. According to the International Rescue Committee, at various moments as many as 1,000 people were dying daily in 2004 from easily preventable cases of malnutrition and disease. 

The conflict has received such little attention that donor ignorance, as opposed to the more common donor fatigue, has exacerbated the situation. In 2003, Iraq received aid worth the equivalent of $138 per person, while the Congo received roughly $3 per person in aid. 

Zaid M. Belbagi

The human cost of state failure in the Congo is often overlooked; Kabila has built a spectacularly corrupt state where as much as a fifth of mining revenues are unaccounted for, and as much as $15 billion a year are lost due to corruption more generally. 
The state is so weakened and ineffectual that it led the finance minister to declare last year that the government could ill-afford the $1.8 billion cost of an election. With a country of such immense natural resources, the scale of the tragedy is overwhelming.
The war of 1998-2003 was by far the most lethal in recent memory, weaponized rape and maiming by machete a common terror for civilians. The factors that fanned the flames of the conflict — exploitation of mineral wealth, ethnic and tribal grievances, and a state too weak to hold the Congo together — again exist today. 
The largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, numbering 18,000, tries to maintain a semblance of calm in the unstable east of the country, when it is not deliberately prevented from doing so by government forces. Chronic misrule and instability mean that the average life expectancy is 58, while only one in seven earns more than $1.25 a day (half of levels in the 1960s). 
A great reason for which the corrupt Kabila remains in his precarious position is that few Congolese can afford to take a day off work to protest his rule. The situation in the Congo has been grossly neglected, its 80 million people left to fend for themselves. 
The conflict has received such little attention that donor ignorance, as opposed to the more common donor fatigue, has exacerbated the situation. In 2003, Iraq received aid worth the equivalent of $138 per person, while the Congo received roughly $3 per person in aid. 
For a country with such colossal potential, the current state of affairs is pitiful. Given its geography and clear natural advantages, it should be the center of Africa, connecting the north and south of the continent. A country two-thirds the size of India cannot continue to have less paved road than Luxembourg.
With rebel groups growing in strength and the army continuing to flee from conflict scenarios, Kabila’s position is hugely reliant on the presence of UN peacekeeping forces. His weakness has become so apparent that the US ambassador to the UN has accused peacekeeping forces of effectively propping up a corrupt government. 
The great Congo and Kasai rivers, which used to be the main arteries of trade into the country, are underused. Once facilitating the trade of coffee, palm oil and minerals to the coast, they no longer have functioning shipping, with only local barges allowing a trickle of goods for export. 
According to a recent poll, only 10 percent of the population would support Kabila to continue in office. Increasingly a recluse, momentum is beginning to move against him. Whether or not the Congo will once again be left with a sudden power vacuum will dictate how long its human tragedy will continue.
 
  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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