It has been the deadliest war in the world today, yet rarely does it reach the front pages of newspapers or make the headlines on the evening news. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a mineral rich country at the heart of Africa, has taken the lives of over 3.5 million people since 1998. Every day more than 1,200 civilians die, some directly from the violence, many others due to the lack of medical care and hunger. Their deaths go mostly unnoticed.

Congo’s first democratic elections in over 40 years are scheduled to start on July 30. The country is on the brink: the elections are tipped to change the current tragedy and help the country turn a corner. The German government, working under the umbrella of the European Union, has authorised that 780 of its troops help in this effort. Yet the challenge in turning Congo from a failed state to a stable and democratic one is immense and the underlying problems of this huge nation will not be fixed by elections alone.

How did it all start?
Two successive wars, one in 1996 and another that began in 1998, have left Congo devastated. During the first war neighboring Rwanda and Uganda sent their armed forces to invade the Congo, oust long-time ruler Mobutu Sese Seko (one of Africa’s most corrupt leaders) and install Laurent Desiré Kabila as the country’s new president. Once in power, President Kabila changed the name of the country from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo and sought to rid himself of the foreign troops who had helped him to victory.

In July 1998, unwilling to lose their role in the DRC, Ugandan and Rwandan forces turned on Laurent Kabila’s government and launched a second Congo war, one that eventually drew in other African countries including Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia (supporting Kabila) and Burundi (allied with the Rwandans and Ugandans). This war became known as ‘Africa’s first world war’.

Why are the stakes so high?
Actors in this sad story have been motivated by the drive for political power and the desire to control the wealth of the country. Congo is rich in natural resources, such as gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and timber, to name just a few. In 2000, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council appointed a panel of experts to look into the link between the war and Congo’s natural resources. In a series of reports published between April 2001 and October 2003 the panel concluded that mineral exploitation was funding the warring factions. Rwandan, Ugandan, and Zimbabwean army officers as well as the Congolese elite were growing rich from the war.

Since the minerals from the Congo were predominately destined for multinational companies based in Europe and North America, the panel further considered the connection between mineral exploitation and international business. It found that eighty-five companies had violated international business standards in their activities in the Congo. Five of the companies listed were German. The panel’s findings sat uncomfortably with U.N. Security Council members who were reluctant to sanction companies based in their own countries. (Germany was a member of the Security Council in 2003 when the final report was presented.) In the end the Security Council took no effective action to deal with the role of international companies in the devastating Congo war.

Talking Peace
Belligerents signed a first peace agreement in Lusaka, Zambia in 1999 and the U.N. agreed to establish a small peacekeeping force of 500 military observers known as the U.N. Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) in November 1999. But belligerents in the end did not implement the peace accord and the war continued. As the crisis deepened, the peacekeeping force grew and today it numbers at over 17,000 peacekeepers.

In January 2001 President Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in the presidential palace. An inner circle close to the president decided to promote his son, 29-year-old Joseph Kabila, to the presidency. The change in leadership from father to son opened up new opportunities for diplomacy. Under continued international pressure and lured by financial incentives from international financial institutions, the government of Joseph Kabila and the major rebel movements backed by Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi signed a power-sharing agreement at Sun City, South Africa, in April 2002. The agreement paved the way for a transitional government headed by Joseph Kabila as president with four vice-presidents, each from one of the main belligerent groups who had fought in the war.

A weak transitional government
From the beginning the transitional government was plagued by mistrust, infighting and corruption. Political leaders dawdled in passing the laws needed to begin the electoral process and deliberately stalled the development of a new national army meant to disarm and demobilize thousands of former combatants. Faced with these political and logistical obstacles, the transitional government postponed elections scheduled for June 30, 2005 to June 30, 2006 and then to July 30, 2006.

Uncertain of how the elections will turn out, many of the former belligerents have retained their own military forces and bodyguards rather than allowing them to be integrated into the national army. The largest of these is President Kabila’s own Special Presidential Security Guards, or GSSP, estimated at 12,000 - 18,000 soldiers who have fanned out across the country in recent months. Other vice-presidents are also said to have important numbers of forces under their command.

In the eastern parts of the country fighting continues and many citizens question whether the peace agreements have served any purpose at all. The ongoing fighting and resulting human rights abuses raises serious questions as to whether elections can be held with any degree of security.

In a recent visit to Katanga province, in the south-east of the country, another Human Rights Watch researcher and I documented attacks on scores of civilians targeted just because they had registered to vote in the upcoming elections. Some were killed. The assailants were part of a local insurgent force known as the Mai Mai who are opposed to the elections and the transitional government. In other areas of the Congo, such as Ituri in the north-east, fighting between the national army supported by U.N. peacekeepers against local armed groups has been particularly fierce in recent weeks raising the possibility that voters will be afraid to go to polling stations on election day.

The European Union (EU) has agreed to provide 2,000 troops to the Congo during the election process, of which some 800 will be based in the capital Kinshasa, to provide security and to support overstretched U.N. peacekeepers. But the real security challenges are in the volatile east where EU troops may not be prepared, or allowed, to intervene.

The Real Challenges
Caught up in the political and logistical challenges of the election process, the international community and Congolese leaders pay little heed to the underlying problems that have fuelled violence and bad governance, such as failed army reform, an ineffective judicial system, corruption and, perhaps most importantly, illegal mining of Congo’s mineral riches. Elections alone will not fix these problems.

If the elections are held freely and fairly, Congo may be on the brink of moving from a failed state to a democratic one, based on the rule of law and governed by legitimately elected leaders. But the process has only just begun.

The German government should be thinking about what it will do six months from now, after elections, to help the Congo deal with the fundamental problems that remain. If these problems are not addressed, this potentially prosperous and powerful nation will be on the brink of a new disaster, not a bright future.