Congo: UK and US must play more consistent hand to end world’s worst war – By Richard Dowden

Africa is covered in epithets, like graffiti. It has been labelled dark, lost, hopeless. But generalisations about Africa are dangerous. The only certainty is its size: it could contain the United States, China and India and still have room to spare. Recently it has been dubbed rising, hopeful, the continent of the future. But Africa cannot be declared successful until its vast, rich heart, the Congo, is peaceful and prosperous.

Most other African countries have more or less emerged from the uprisings and chaos of the 1990s that followed the end of the Cold War. But Congo lies broken and wasting. The last two elections have not produced a government capable of delivering services or security. The legacy of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32 year corrupt kleptocracy remains the zeitgeist of its ruling class. The people must fend for themselves.

Congo’s potential, like most of Africa’s, is immense and unmeasured. It has everything that the rest of the planet needs for the future; the highest reserves of mineral ore, thousands of square miles of fertile land and the second largest rainforest in the world. The energy of its huge, fast flowing river could power up much of southern Africa.

The kneejerk reaction of Britain and other western countries is therefore to give Congo aid. And the only way of spending 0.7 percent of our GDP on aid is to give it to governments. But has Congo got a government? In 1997 the remnants of the Mobutu regime were pushed out by the armies of Rwanda and Uganda. They replaced him with Laurent Kabila, a former revolutionary and cafe owner, living in exile. When he rejected the Rwandans’ tutelage, they had him murdered and replaced him with his son, Joseph.

To legitimise Joseph the aid donors paid for and organised two elections each costing more than a billion dollars. In 2011 that came out of a national budget of £4.6 billion ($7.3 billion). The elections satisfied the western political need to give Kabila international legitimacy so he could now receive aid. But the elections in Congo divided rather than united. The losers saw them as fraudulent.

After the election supporters were rewarded, opponents shunned but they live in different parts of the country so a small war broke out. At the very moment when the country needed to come together, the western solution deepened the divisions. It also handed total political and economic power to a greedy elite incapable of constructing a viable state – even, as one Congolese academic said, in their own narrow interests.

What has wrecked the Congo is not lack of aid. It is politics. Aid has probably made things worse by offering development which may never be delivered. There is no state capable of delivering it. If ever there was a case for a country to be under a UN mandate, it is Congo. The United Nations’ current half-baked, ill-thought-out mandate was cruelly exposed last week as UN troops stood back to allow rebels to take the city of Goma in eastern Congo.

But there was a second, even more catastrophic contradiction in Western policy. After the Rwandan genocide, western governments, ridden with guilt, supported the incoming Rwandan regime, a rebel group led by the charismatic Paul Kagame. He now runs a capable state – perhaps too capable. Rwanda is a tightly controlled dictatorship, with almost no press or political freedom. But it uses aid well, it is not stolen. A succession of British aid ministers from Clare Short to Andrew Mitchell see Kagame as the saviour of Africa. They gave him money – currently £83 million a year, knowing it will be spent on education, health and other good things.

Rwanda’s success however is Congo’s loss. Fearful that political opponents will gather in the forests and mountains across the border in eastern Congo, the Rwandan and Ugandan regimes have armed militias there, most recently the M23, Mouvement de 23 Mars. This militia protects the Tutsis of Eastern Congo, Kagame’s ethnic group, and guards mines and plantations controlled by senior Rwandan and Ugandan officers. They control and tax trade routes and bring the loot across the border to Uganda and Rwanda. Above all, they ensure that there is no order, security or justice in eastern Congo. Every village has a militia and many have turned into roving gangs killing, raping and stealing at will. Controlled anarchy in Eastern Congo suits Rwanda and Uganda – as long as the anarchy does not get out of hand.

Unfortunately, and embarrassingly for the British and American governments, Rwanda and Uganda, their closest allies in the region, have been fingered by a well-researched United Nations report, as the suppliers of weapons to M-23 as well as the beneficiaries of the free-for-all in eastern Congo. The US tried to suppress the report. The British suspended aid to Rwanda. On his last day at Dfid Mitchell restored it.

The war in eastern Congo is the worst war in the world, costing according to some estimates five million lives. It is time the US and UK took it seriously and played a more even and consistent hand in trying to bring peace.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.

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8 thoughts on “Congo: UK and US must play more consistent hand to end world’s worst war – By Richard Dowden

  1. There is a huge gaping hole in this argument. How can Rwanda and Uganda be the pillagers of DRC’s wealth and the cause of DRC rot when British, American, German, my country Canada’s mining companies are as we speak siphoning billions of dollars worth of minerals? Is Rwanda and Uganda also stealing the billions of dollars of taxes that these mining companies have paying to the nonexistent DRC government?

    Did you know that in your own UK parliament, MP Jeremy Corbyn argued that the biggest contributor to conflict in DRC is big mineral companies that don’t pay taxes? He also asked for scrutiny of British mining companies in DRC – very active in South Kivu. These companies are reaping colossal, ill-gotten profits and watching quietly in delight while everyone but them are getting bashed for DRC’s unending woes. Come on Dowden – step out of the box. If you dare.

  2. +Accusing the big mining companies of funding the conflict is not correct. The big companies are mostly acting as responsible corporate citizens, not least because they are forced to be so by legislation like the Dodds-Frank act. The problem is the thousands of artisanal miners who work, often under slave labour condition, and they have to pay for the privilege, to sell their ore to middlemen who smuggle it through illegal border crossings into save havens from where it is laundered into the global systems. If anything big companies should be encouraged, because they are susceptible to control by laws, tax regimes, and stock exchanges. What the governments do with the taxes is another matter.

    What the Congo, and especially the eastern Congo needs is a grassroots program of creating the institutions of society, of government, of trust and administration.

  3. Give the Rebels a chance. RDC has not in decades managed to bring a halfway functioning administration. Their own government and troops are the worst among the corrupt and the rapists. It is only fair that they should lose the Eastern territories. Bring M23 out of the doghouse. Of course they are supported by greedy neighbours. One should not hold that against them. In real life, you have to take support where you find it.

  4. Rwanda’s concerns are legitimate, even if its methods are ugly. They have learned the hard way not to entrust their security to a largely hopeless “international community.” As for M23, are we sure they are worse that the other two dozen or so militias in the eastern DRC that terrorize civilian populations? To the extent M23 is directed or managed by Rwanda, it will be more disciplined and restrained than the others. Civilian populations will be at least marginally better off. That M23 has chased away the DRC’s “armed forces” ought to be regarded as a service delivered to the people of the Eastern Congo.

  5. Power and Dignity

    A considered concluding reflection which might weave all the disparate diverse sociopolitical economic threads entailed in the current eastern congo imbroglio is both understanding and appreciating that when rendering an analysis on power and dignity is that the power which is generated and unleashed by natural forces, however destructive or devastating, never humiliates or degrades, but that exercised by one human being or entity over another, or by a section of political humanity over another, is the very expressive apotheosis of contempt, humiliation and absolute disdain.

  6. Pingback: Goma Solution «

  7. Pingback: I Paesi occidentali e la crisi della Repubblica Democratica del Congo | FirstLinePress

  8. Pingback: Congo: UK and US must play more consistent hand to end world’s worst war – By Richard Dowden | African Arguments | A WORLD OF CONPIRACY, LIES, GREED, DECEIT and WAR | Scoop.it

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