October 20, 2006
The focus on elections was understandable given that decades had elapsed since the last democratic polls, but in truth Congo’s problems are not going to be fixed by elections alone.
Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for the Democratic Republic of Congo

The second round of the presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo will take place on the 29 October. On 30 July, neither the President Joseph Kabila (44.8%) nor the Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba (20%) obtained an absolute majority. These elections are a small miracle. But the problems of the Congo will not be solved by elections alone.

The hope for peace was especially poignant for the residents of Kilo on that steamy morning. They stood in the shadow of a mass grave on the crest of the hill, barely a hundred yards from the polling station. Three years ago, dozens of people were killed in a single day. The victims, mostly civilians, were stripped naked, placed face down on the ground and killed with spears. There are countless such mass graves, all over the country.

Unsurprisingly, the hopes for peace are shared by millions of the priest’s compatriots in this vast country, nearly the size of western Europe. This summer’s first round of elections and the run-off to be held later this month, mark Congo’s first democratic elections for more than 40 years. Voter turnout was a remarkable 70 per cent. Many voters walked for miles to reach polling stations. Some came the night before, sleeping outside in order to be sure of being able to vote the following day. An elderly blind man at a polling station just south of Kilo said he walked for 30 miles through the forest to vote, led by his young granddaughter. He told me: “I am tired of war.”

Late that night, after travelling through dozens of villages to observe the voting, I stood outside a polling station on the outskirts of Bunia, scene of fierce fighting in recent years, with Marie, an election worker. She, too, hoped that the elections would be a turning point for Congo. After five hours of ballot counting by candlelight, she said softly, “I am so proud to be part of this process. I will remember this day for ever.”

That these elections are happening at all can be seen as a small miracle. For five years between 1998 and 2003, Congo was wracked by a deadly war in which millions died. Armies from six African nations fought here, backing a host of local rebel groups who vied for power in this country whose citizens are desperately poor despite its extraordinary mineral wealth. The war became known as Africa’s first ‘world war.’ When the foreign armies withdrew, a transitional government was installed in the capital, Kinshasa. In this vast country with few roads and almost no electricity, elections were to be organized within just three years. The challenge was immense. The fractious government of former enemies spent much of their time squabbling as local warlords continued to devastate eastern Congo. After much arm twisting by the international diplomats and their government’s investment of more than £200 million, the first round of elections finally took place in July. The run-off will be held on October 29th.

Even now, however, the omens are mixed, at best. Three weeks after election day, on the night that first-round results were to be announced, gun battles broke out in Kinshasa between the Republican Guard of candidate and current president Joseph Kabila, and the armed troops of his main challenger, vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Huddled around radio sets, millions of Congolese waited for news. As the appointed hour for the announcement of election results came and went, only dance music – the irrepressible beats of Congolese soukous, which has made the country’s music renowned worldwide - distracted the expectant and worried listeners.

There was good reason to be worried. United Nations peacekeeping troops had to evacuate the president of the Independent Electoral Commission when fighting came too close to his office. He had to make the delayed announcement of election results in a hastily prepared alternative location. Kabila emerged as the frontrunner out of a field of 33 candidates, though without an absolute majority. A run-off vote between Kabila and his nearest challenger Bemba was announced for this month.

Two days of street battles followed. At one point fourteen ambassadors were trapped in Bemba’s residence, where they had gone to urge calm. Presidential guards exchanged fire with Bemba’s troops on the streets outside. U.N. peacekeepers, supported by a small European force eventually freed the ambassadors and defused the crisis. During those days, dozens died. It was an ominous start to the new political era that the Congolese people hoped for.

* * *

The focus on elections was understandable given that decades had elapsed since the last democratic polls, but in truth Congo’s problems are not going to be fixed by elections alone. The armed rebel groups, rampant corruption, greed for the country’s mineral wealth, and a national army that commits rape and murder, all combined with a pervasive culture of impunity, require a transformation of the country itself.

Instead, those who gained power through the barrel of a gun, and have therefore gained the most important positions in Congo’s transitional government, simply legitimated their seizure of power by becoming electoral front runners. Kabila and Bemba, together with another vice president and former leader of a Rwandan-backed rebel group, were the only three candidates who – through their access to government funds and their control of private armed forces -- were able to conduct a national election campaign. Bemba and Kabila control their own media and have their own planes, a luxury others lacked. This race provided few opportunities for new political actors to succeed.

As so often, international efforts did little to improve the situation. Ambassadors of fifteen governments – including Britain, France, South Africa and the United States -- established a structure to help guide Congo’s transition to democracy. But they preferred to look the other way on tough matters that could affect the elections. Diplomats dismissed concerns about corruption or the need to disarm private militias and integrate them into the national army, saying it would be unproductive to push too hard at such a delicate time. It was important, they said, “not to rock the boat.”

This was short-sighted at best. Congo’s only well established political opposition party was left outside the electoral process. Based on principles of non-violence, Etienne Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress refrained from any role in Congo’s war – putting him and his party at a disadvantage when spoils were divided among the belligerents. Because they were not signatories to the final peace accords, they were excluded from ministerial positions in the carve-up that followed and thus lacked the access to governmental resources that allowed other contenders to influence the election process. Efforts by the international community to bring them into the process came too late. By then the party had already made the fatal decision to urge their supporters not to register for the polls.

Lessons could have been learned from failed policies elsewhere, such as Afghanistan - a country with a similar history of criminal enterprise, pervasive conflict and warlords -- where international donors pushed elections as the answer to complex and deeply rooted problems and instead got renewed violence, aggravated divisions (both old and new) and the legitimization of warlords. The cost of that policy can be seen in the instability of Afghanistan today. Elections are important, but when held in the absence of fundamental reforms can result in new problems.

The failures of both Congolese politicians and international actors leave the Congolese people with unenviable choices. The day after the first-round results were announced, while street battles still raged in Kinshasa, I had lunch with a Congolese professor in Goma, near the Rwandan border in the east. He held his head in his hands. “We need new leaders in Congo,” he said, “Not the same ones who have been killing us.”

* * *

Congo carries the tragic label of the deadliest war in the world today. An estimated four million people have died since 1998. Civilians continue to die at a rate of 1,200 every day, some directly from the violence, many others due to hunger and the lack of medical care. But this story of tragedy is not new. Congo has suffered horribly throughout its history – and powerful outside interests have often been directly to blame. This is a story of continuously missed opportunities and of criminal enterprise. The victims are always the same: ordinary Congolese.

In 1885 Belgium’s King Leopold II set up his private colony, the Congo Free State, the only colony in the world ever claimed by one man. Though King Leopold never set foot in his private fiefdom, he ruthlessly built up a business enterprise with slave labour which made him vast wealth from the exploitation of rubber and ivory. Up to ten million people died, mostly in the two decades before the First World War, when the international demand for rubber was at its height. In the words of Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, the monarch was “a man as filled with greed and cunning, duplicity and charm, as any of the more complex villains of Shakespeare.”

Courageous activists of the day reported on the atrocities - severed heads and hands, and entire villages massacred - at the hands of the colonial masters. The British journalist Edmund Morel campaigned on the issue, giving birth to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century. Mark Twain wrote King Leopold’s Soliloquy, an imaginary monologue by King Leopold in which he delivers an ineffective defence of colonization and rages about the media campaign against him. “Blister the meddlesome missionaries!” the King exclaims. “They write tons of these things. They seem to be always around, always spying, always eye-witnessing the happenings; and everything they see they commit to paper!”

Eventually – not least because of Morel and others witnessing the happenings, committing it to paper and bringing it to the attention of the world -- King Leopold was obliged to cede his colony to the government of Belgium which ruled it for half a century. In 1960, Congo gained its independence from Belgium, and held democratic elections which brought to power a fiery young orator by the name of Patrice Lumumba. Standing against colonialist ideals, Lumumba is still revered by the Congolese, but his connections with the eastern bloc at the height of the cold war and support for African nationalism sealed his fate. With the complicity of the American government, Belgian agents organized his arrest and brutal execution. Thus came to an end the three-month rule of Congo’s first and, so far, only democratically elected leader. Lumumba’s assassination was a devastating blow to Congolese and other African nations struggling for an end to colonial rule.

Congo entered a new phase of dictatorship where greed remained a constant. Mobutu Sese Seko, Lumumba’s former secretary, took power through a military coup, and renamed the country Zaire. His 32 years of dictatorship were characterized by corruption on such a massive scale that it led to the popular coining of the term ‘kleptocrat,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a ruler who uses [his] power to steal [his] country’s resources.” The president and his political elite plundered mercilessly, sending the country into a long, slow economic decline. Under Mobutu the country’s citizens perfected lessons of survival akin to those learned under Leopold and ones they would continue to use during Congo’s years of war. Michela Wrong’s account of the Mobutu years, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, accurately sums up the mentality that pervaded those years: “Keep your head down, think small and look after yourself.”

Despite President Mobutu’s excesses, his end came about not as a result of changes inside the country, but because of events in neighbouring Rwanda. The 1994 genocide of Rwandan Tutsi and the slaughter of Hutu opposed to the regime had a cataclysmic effect on the politics of the entire region. Regional power dynamics changed as the governments of Rwanda and Congo toppled and western nations, driven by guilt for failing to stop the mass slaughter, skewed their policies in favour of the new Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda. One diplomat said to me years after the genocide, “You must realize that the guilt factor now drives our foreign policy towards the region.”

For Congo, the first impact of the genocide was the arrival of more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees into the eastern border region in June 1994. The refugees were accompanied by the perpetrators of the genocide - the Interahamwe militia and other Hutu army extremists - who soon established their control over the refugee camps set up by the international aid community. Hutu forces prepared to renew attacks on Rwanda and carried their ethnic hatred of the Tutsi to those living in Zaire. The Rwandan government, in turn -- backed by Uganda – invaded, launching a war that lasted from 1996 to 1997.

Rwandan army troops smashed the refugee camps forcing the return to Rwanda of many of the Hutu refugees. Others, including large numbers who had been uninvolved with the genocide, fled deep into the forests of Zaire where pursuing Rwandan troops massacred tens of thousands. Backing a hastily mounted rebel alliance of local groups, the Rwandan army marched on Kinshasa and ousted Mobutu, who had provided support to Rwanda’s genocidal leaders in 1994. Laurent Kabila, the leader of this rebel alliance, was installed as president as hopes rose for a new era. Kabila ended the use of “Zaire” and established the Democratic Republic of Congo, now in name at least a democratic country.

In reality the new regime differed little from the old. Kabila quickly adopted the practices which Mobutu, building on Leopold’s legacy, had perfected: corruption, economic mismanagement and favouritism towards the family clan. Seeking to free himself from the Rwandan support that had helped him to victory, Kabila launched new campaigns of ethnic hatred against anyone linked to Rwanda, including the Congolese Tutsi who shared some cultural characteristics with those across the border in Rwanda. Hundreds of Congolese Tutsi were killed in cities across the country. Unwilling to lose their new influence in the mineral rich Congo, and concerned about the targeting of Congolese Tutsi, Rwanda and Uganda launched a new Congo war in 1998, which eventually drew in other African countries including Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia - on Kabila’s side - and Burundi alongside the Rwandans and Ugandans. The war spawned a host of rebel groups and local militias who sought to gain power and influence through armed force, often using ethnicity as their rallying cry.

In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in the presidential palace in Kinshasa, thus bringing a violent end to another of Congo’s leaders. His 29-year-old son Joseph succeeded him as president. The change in leadership from father to son opened up new opportunities for diplomacy. Joseph Kabila and the main rebel leaders signed a power-sharing agreement in Sun City, South Africa in 2002, which led to the establishment of a transitional government the following year. The government included four vice-presidents, each from one of the main rebel groups who had fought in the war.

* * *

Actors in Congo’s sad history have been motivated by the desire to control the country’s rich natural resources. In Leopold’s day this was primarily rubber and ivory. Today competition focuses on control of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, and coltan (columbite-tantalite, used in laptops and mobile phones). Politicians and foreign armies have struck deals that enriched themselves, contributed to the financing of the war and the purchase of weapons, but provided few or no benefits to the Congolese people. In the memorable phrase of one miner in eastern Congo who laboured in the gold mines: “We are cursed because of our gold. All we do is suffer.”

A myriad of reports has documented the link between the war and the illegal exploitation of Congo’s natural resources. Yet little or nothing has been done to address the issue. In a series of reports published between 2001 and 2003, a U.N. panel concluded that mineral exploitation was funding Congo’s warring factions. According to the panel, Rwandan, Ugandan, and Zimbabwean army officers as well as the Congolese elite were growing rich from the war, killing and abusing Congolese citizens in the process. A range of other organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Global Witness, also documented how the battles to control Congo’s mineral wealth, such as its gold and diamonds, resulted in massacres and rape. The International Court of Justice issued a landmark judgement in 2005 which concluded that the occupying Ugandan army had killed and tortured Congolese civilians, had supported abusive local armed groups, and had looted, plundered and exploited Congo’s natural resources, all in violation of international law. The court recommended that the Ugandan government make reparations for injuries caused. (Trade statistics obtained by Human Rights Watch show that Uganda exported $60 million worth of gold in 2002, less than one percent of which was produced domestically. The rest was smuggled in from Congo. Rwanda also profited from the re-export of mineral resources originating in Congo.)

Since Congo’s minerals are predominately destined for multinational corporations based in Europe and North America, accusations have also been levelled at these businesses for their role in contributing to Congo’s ills. The U.N. panel found that dozens of European and North American corporations had breached international business norms in their operations in Congo. The panel’s findings sat uncomfortably with U.N. Security Council members who were reluctant to punish or even seriously investigate corporations based in their own countries. Thus far no such corporation has been sanctioned, although several have reformed their practices following publicity of their role in Congo.

A special Congolese parliamentary commission established that dozens of contracts signed during the war years were either illegal or of limited value for the Congolese people. It recommended their termination or renegotiation. The report’s findings, which named senior Congolese politicians, were never debated. Hundreds of copies of the report destined for members of parliament disappeared. Commission members received death threats. Some diplomats urged that the report’s findings not be discussed before elections, claiming that such a debate might “trouble the electoral process.”

The questionable exploitation of Congolese resources has not ended but rather apparently accelerated with the end of war and the establishment of the transitional government. World Bank officials say privately that the number of grants for exploration rights to important mineral-rich areas increased four-fold in 2005. Many of the deals involved dubious provisions that would do little for the development of the country.

On the ground as well, particularly in the mineral-rich eastern part of the country, ongoing conflict during the past three years of transition has been linked to competition for resources. Last year, government soldiers used villagers as slave labour, forcing them to dig for gold in the mines of Bavi, in northeastern Congo. The soldiers threatened to kill the local people if they refused to comply. They arrested one of the local chiefs, beat him and put him in a hole used as an underground prison. He told me: “I had tried to stop what they were doing, to defend the people. They tied me up and hit me. We were powerless against them.” For twelve hours a day, hundreds of local men and boys scrambled in the dirt for gold that would only line the pockets of the military.

The international community acknowledges that natural resource exploitation has played a central role in exacerbating conflict in Congo. And yet, almost nothing has been done to control it. If there is no progress on this crucial issue, military conflict is likely to continue.

* * *

Local rebel groups continue to rape and kill, as do foreign armed groups from Rwanda and Uganda. But one of the largest threats to Congolese civilians is now the new Congolese army itself, a mixture of soldiers from the disbanded rebel groups and from the old national army.

Ten days after the elections, I happened to see two soldiers marching a small group of civilians along the road from Gethy, a town in northeastern Congo. The six, members of a single family, carried chairs, benches, and corrugated metal roofing on their heads. Forced labour, looting and rape of civilians by soldiers are commonplace here, so my companion, a Congolese human rights activist, and I stopped to ask questions. One of the women, carrying a child on her back and a church bench on her head, said nothing as she looked beseechingly at us. Her hands trembled. “There is no problem,” laughed one of the soldiers. “We are escorting these people for their own safety.”

The family members told a different story. They had been forced to flee their home two months before when soldiers had burned their village to the ground, killing their grandmother who was unable to flee. That morning they had been searching for food in the fields when the soldiers had taken them at gunpoint to the church. They made the men remove the metal sheeting from the roof and ordered the women to carry the chairs and benches. The soldiers threatened to kill them all if they failed to obey. My companion gently but firmly pointed out that the soldiers’ actions were illegal and that the people must be released immediately. On this occasion at least, the soldiers backed down. “An army of bandits,” my companion said, as the family piled into our car and we brought them to a place of temporary safety.

Congolese civilians fear the new national army, just as they feared King Leopold’s Force Publique – which had a policy of severing the hands of those who refused to collect rubber -- and just as they feared Mobutu’s security forces, known for their wide-scale looting and violence. Mobutu’s forces twice pillaged the capital, in 1991 and 1993.

More recently, Congolese soldiers murdered and raped, as part of military operations to tackle insurgency groups opposed to the transitional government. Earlier this year, for example, a group of around twenty people hoped they had found safety when they gathered in a church in the village of Nyata, an hour’s drive south of Bunia, after fleeing a battle between the army and a rebel militia. They were wrong. Dozens of soldiers opened fire from the door and through the windows of the church, despite the shouts from those inside that they were civilians. Seven people were killed, including two babies. When the firing stopped, a local leader tried to help two elderly injured women. He asked the soldiers why they had killed people inside the church. “This is not our problem. It’s your problem,” the soldiers replied.

In the southern province of Katanga, a similar deadly military operation was launched against another insurgent group there. As part of the operation, soldiers attacked the village of Kyobo, and detained two dozen men, women and children. They tied up the detainees with rubber cords and beat and burned them with red-hot iron rods. Through the walls the detainees heard the screams of the others as they were being tortured. A few days later, soldiers executed six of the men and threw two of the bodies off a nearby bridge in an attempt to hide the evidence.

The Congolese army is riddled with corruption. Every month the top brass steal an estimated £1.5 million from funds set aside for soldiers’ salaries. They inflate the numbers of soldiers in the ranks – a phenomenon known as ghost soldiers – in order to pocket more money. International donors attempting to reform the army have taken to babysitting the cash as it makes its way down to the lowest foot soldier. This has had some initial success, but even those privates who receive their full salary of £13 per month have barely enough to live on and the incentive to loot and extort remains strong.

Another important constraint to reforming the military is that some former belligerents have been reluctant to commit their troops to an integrated national army. Instead they have preferred to retain their own military forces until they know how the elections will turn out. The largest such force is President Kabila’s own 15,000-strong presidential guard, largely made up of men from his own ethnic group.

Vice-President Bemba, too, has important numbers of private forces at his command. One of the diplomats who was trapped in Bemba’s house while Kabila’s and Bemba’s forces battled together outside, admits that the international community has ignored the problem of these private militia, especially the presidential guard, for too long. Perhaps eager to find the glass to be half-full, he says: “At least the problem has been recognised. It’s just that nobody knows what to do about it.”

While the diplomats ponder the problem, both Kabila and Bemba are widely reported to be obtaining more weapons for their militias.

* * *

Congolese agree that overcoming their country’s problems requires justice. Yet there has been little appetite for this from their rulers, many of whom have hands soaked in blood. In the past two years dozens of warlords accused of murder, torture and rape have been appointed as generals or colonels in the Congolese army. Some members of the government claim that these appointments are a necessary evil to move the country away from violent conflict. Yet these attempts at inclusion have had the opposite effect, facilitating the emergence of yet more warlords, who see armed violence as the best way to achieve positions of power. Diplomats and politicians argue that there are times when justice must wait in order to establish conditions conducive to peace, but experience shows that such peace rarely lasts if accountability for major crimes does not follow.

The new International Criminal Court, in existence since 2002, is seen by many Congolese as offering the hope of justice for Congo’s victims and the prospect of deterring future crimes. Two years ago, the court announced its first-ever investigation, focusing on crimes committed in eastern Congo. In March this year the court made its first arrest and initiated proceedings against Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord responsible for torture, rape and ethnic massacres, in Ituri district, in the north-east. The results were immediate: fear of arrest spread amongst others responsible for war crimes. One such person whom I met in a remote part of Katanga, in southern Congo, earlier this year, expressed concern when I pointed out that it was a war crime to arrest and execute one’s rivals. “I don’t want to end up like Lubanga,” he cried out.

Even here, however, hopes are disappointed. The prosecutor of the court has charged Lubanga with recruitment of child soldiers, a serious crime. But to date no action has been taken against other militia groups, individuals in Kinshasa or soldiers from the Rwandan and Ugandan armies, even though they contributed to the deaths of over 60,000 people in Ituri.

The victims who suffered at the hands of more than a dozen warlords in this corner of Congo want to know why others are not being tried. “This is selective justice,” one community leader said to me in Bunia, commenting on the single arrest. “It will not help us in revealing the truth of what happened and why we have suffered so much.” A new and stable Congo is unlikely to emerge until perpetrators on all sides are held to account.

* * *

King Leopold’s greed spawned the most famous book on the Congo: Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Published in 1902, the book describes a journey by the narrator, Marlow, as he travels up the Congo River and discovers white man’s inhumanity to his fellow man in the quest for wealth. The title of Conrad’s book – and the frequently quoted phrase of its main character Mr. Kurtz, who gasps “the horror, the horror” as he dies on a steam boat sailing down the Congo river - has often been used to refer to Congo’s plight today, as if the country is somehow predisposed to dark atrocities and violence. But Conrad’s real message is not Congolese barbarism but rather the greed of outsiders. He found in Congo, “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” A situation little changed a century later.

Powerful governments turn away from uncomfortable truths about the role played by the illegal exploitation of natural resources and multinational companies in fuelling violence in the Congo. They ignore wide scale corruption and the horrific abuses carried out by the country leaders, as they did with Leopold and Mobutu. It is easy, and justified in part, to blame Congo’s troubles on its leaders, but multinational corporations and leaders of neighboring governments must also be held accountable for the roles they have played in perpetuating massive violence that is largely unreported in the international press.

With the new elections about to take place, Congo again stands at an important crossroads in its history. Regardless of the outcome of the polls, political leaders will have to tackle head-on the underlying issues that destabilize the country. They must stop illegal exploitation of Congo’s mineral wealth, hold to account individuals responsible for war crimes, and restructure the army so it protects Congo’s citizens rather than preying on them. Perhaps most important, they must guarantee those civil and political rights that will permit new political actors to emerge so that Congo’s next elections may provide a better choice for its people.

The international community is all too eager to wash its hands of the troublesome and expensive process, and move on. American and European diplomats grumble about the cost of U.N. peacekeeping in Congo. They would like to reduce the number of blue helmets soon after the elections and declare Congo’s transition successful. While concerns about costs are understandable, reducing the number of peacekeepers too quickly will hinder the establishment of an effective new civilian administration and risks repeating the mistakes of the past. In the words of one senior U.N. official referring to the role of U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo in the 1960s, “We were here when it was a mess 40 years ago and if we don’t help to fix it now we will be here again in 40 years time.”

For Congolese voters, the expectations are as simple as they are ambitious. In Congo’s third largest city, Kisangani, which has been ravaged in recent years by battles between the occupying and opposing armies of Uganda and Rwanda, a mother of four children said she had one wish for her country. “We are tired of crying. We just want peace and to be able to see our children grow up. I hope the politicians understand that.”