The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is putting its own short-term interests over the well-being of the Congolese people. It is refusing to attend and encouraging others to stay home from today’s international conference in Geneva, a United Nations-led initiative to raise $1.7 billion for emergency assistance to over 13 million people in Congo affected by recent violence.
Government officials deny that there’s a humanitarian crisis. This appears related to a sinister attempt to attract foreign investment and further enrich those in power, while avoiding outside scrutiny.
Congolese security forces and armed groups have killed thousands of civilians in the past two years, adding to at least six million Congolese who have died from conflict-related causes over the past two decades – making the conflict in Congo the world’s deadliest since World War II. Today, some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes – more than in any other country in Africa. Tens of thousands have fled into Uganda, Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia in recent months – raising the specter of increased regional instability.
Congo is Africa’s biggest copper producer and the world’s largest source of cobalt–which has tripled in value in the past 18 months because of the demand for electric cars. Hundreds of millions of dollars of mining revenue have gone missing in recent years, as Kabila and his family and close associates have amassed fortunes. While Congo’s immense mineral wealth could help address the emergency and other basic needs of an impoverished population, income from any new investments are more likely to end up in the pockets of those in power.
Much of the recent violence is linked to the country’s worsening political crisis. President Joseph Kabila has delayed elections and used violence, repression, and corruption to entrench his hold on power beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19, 2016.
Kabila has presided over a system of entrenched impunity in which those most responsible for abuses are routinely rewarded with positions, wealth, and power. Congolese security forces have carried out or orchestrated much of the violence, in some cases by creating or backing local armed groups. Well-placed security and intelligence sources have told us that efforts to sow violence and instability are an apparently deliberate “strategy of chaos” to justify further election delays.
Congolese security forces shot dead nearly 300 people during political protests over the past three years. Since December, security forces have hit a new low by firing into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and protest marches following Sunday mass.
Meanwhile, attacks on civilians have intensified in eastern Congo’s Ituri province over the past three months. We have documented terrifying accounts of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. More than 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
While government officials have insisted that the recent violence is the consequence of inter-ethnic tensions, baffled residents say that isn’t so. Many referred to an “invisible hand” – seemingly professional killers came into their villages and hacked people to death in what appeared to be well-planned assaults. Some alleged that government officials may be involved.
But Congo’s deputy minister for international cooperation said last week that “there is no humanitarian crisis.” Congo’s foreign minister said the UN’s description of the humanitarian situation in Congo is “counterproductive for the public image and attractiveness of our country and could scare away potential investors.”
Congolese government officials sent threatening letters to the Netherlands and Sweden, who are supporting the conference, saying Congo would be “forced to impose consequences” if they continue with their preparations, and they successfully convinced the United Arab Emirates to pull out.
Donors should not be intimidated. They should instead work to ensure that adequate funds are raised to meet the life-threatening humanitarian and protection needs of the Congolese people. And just as important, they should work to address the underlying causes of the violence to prevent the crisis from spiraling out of control even further.
That means working closely with regional leaders to ensure Kabila steps down in accordance with the constitution and allows for the organization of free, fair, and credible elections. Congolese need an opportunity to elect a new president who is accountable to the people and who will work to bring an end to Congo’s violence, impunity, and suffering. The Congolese people deserve no less.