Light in Congo’s Darkness?

NEW YORK – Perhaps no country on earth – not even Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan – has suffered more gravely from armed conflict in the past decade and a half than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Several million people have died either directly in armed struggle or from forced displacement and the resulting health consequences.

The main causes of the fighting that has afflicted the DRC for so long have been competition for control of that impoverished country’s vast natural resources and neighboring Rwanda’s effort to wipe out what it sees as a potential threat posed by perpetrators of the 1994 genocide who took refuge in the DRC. Several other African states – Angola, Namibia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe – have also at times participated in armed combat within the DRC, either directly or through proxy militias. Suffering continues even in parts of the country where peace has been restored, manifested in the epidemic of sexual violence, much of it committed by former combatants, that has swept the country.

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In these dismal circumstances, a recent development has provided a rare ray of hope: the extraordinary mobilization of Congolese civil society in defense of the DRC’s nascent democratic institutions. No fewer than 210 Congolese nongovernmental organizations, including those enjoying the widest recognition and respect across the country, recently joined in challenging President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to take control of the National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) that came into office after historic elections in 2006.

The episode that brought together Congolese civil society was Kabila’s insistence in March on forcing the resignation of Vital Kamerhe, the Speaker of the National Assembly. Kamerhe had antagonized Kabila by criticizing his secret deal with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda that resulted in joint military operations earlier in the year against a Rwandan rebel force operating in the DRC. Kamerhe’s supposed offense was diverging from the official party line, thereby weakening Kabila’s standing with the Congolese public.

What is most important about this episode is that it demonstrates the determination by groups representing a substantial share of Congolese society to pursue democratic development. The National Assembly plays a key role in attempting to improve governance in the country. It has had a crucial role in the effort to regularize the mining industry so that the DRC’s mineral wealth may be used to improve living standards, rather than only to enrich local warlords and the foreign governments and corporate interests allied with them.

The international community has a lot at stake in the Congo. Its rain forest, threatened by timber companies that have made deals with some of the militias, plays an important part in slowing global warming. Its copper, cobalt, tin, and coltan (columbite-tantalite) are essential for many industries. 

The United Nation peacekeeping force in the Congo, MONUC, is the UN’s largest and most expensive intervention anywhere in the world. International humanitarian assistance groups are deeply engaged in the DRC, and it is a substantial recipient of international assistance. Above all, the Congo matters because of the continuing violence, wretched poverty, and misery of most of its nearly 70 million people.

The attempt by Congolese civil society to foster democratic development may be the best thing that has happened in the country in a long time. It deserves the attention and support of all those who seek a better future for a vast country that has long endured plunder and misrule.