Several different conflicts, tangled up with the past, mean that the situation in Congo is a complicated one. What should the Church be doing to support this troubled region?
As a plot for a spy thriller, it’s a little over-the-top. Insane dictators, CIA assassinations, shady international business deals and jungle death cults…Unrealistic, right? But this is a true story. You’ve been part of it for years, but you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s no secret, but there are governments, corporations and brutal militias who would rather you didn’t know too much. Their tools are not the hidden transmitters of Daniel Craig, but personal, national and global indifference. And right now the Church is one of the few movements that can defeat them. This is the story of Africa’s largest country, a place where 92% of the 62 million-strong population call themselves Christian, and where, over little more than a decade, 6 million people have died and countless more men, women and children have been raped. What is happening in Congo is complicated. It’s not just one conflict, with easy to understand causes, good guys and bad guys. It’s several different conflicts – some new, and some tangled up with Congo’s past. Most of the recent conflict has taken place in the East of the country, where the Rwandan genocide spilled over into neighbouring Congo, then known as Zaire. ‘It started off quite large-scale where hundreds of people were being killed,’ says Geoff Andrews, country director for Christian relief charity Medair in Congo. ‘In the last 18 months it’s been five here, two there, ten there. Small-scale, but enough to frighten populations so they don’t go back to their homes.’
Hidden holocaust Some of the most brutal acts, including mutilation, sexual slavery, child soldiers and mass murder, have been committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Its infamous leader, Joseph Kony, is a selfstyled ‘messiah’ and paramilitary leader who claims to be indestructible. The LRA moves around, but mainly operates in the East. Further south, in the mineralrich eastern Congolese provinces, a more complicated but no less brutal situation exists. Remnant groups of a war between eight African countries in the 1990s have split into independent fighting forces, terrorising local populations, funding themselves by selling the metals mined in the area. We are all tired of hearing stories from conflict zones that make us feel hopeless, even guilty. But while we hear a lot about some humanitarian disasters, the situation in Congo has for decades been ignored. The Church needs to speak out. How can we ignore a region where, on New Year’s Day 2011, 60 women were raped in one village? In July, another report emerged where up to 70 women had been raped. Only a month ago, The Observer published a harrowing story that reported 30% of women and 22% of men had suffered sexual violence from soldiers and militiamen. This is not just ‘another African problem’. With a death toll now estimated at 6 million people, yet little said about it around the world, this is a hidden holocaust. Africa’s First World War The stories of mass murder and rape, of entire villages forced from their homes and people enslaved by militias, are numerous and shocking. ‘In Eastern Congo, a lot of the situation stems from break-off groups from militia who have used sexual violence as a weapon of war,’ says Sarah Reilly, spokesperson for We Will Speak Out, a coalition of Christian groups seeking to bring an end to sexual violence. These ‘break-off groups’ came into being during what some call ‘Africa’s First World War’. The comparison is justified. An area of Eastern Congo, half the size of Western Europe, was the battlefield for two opposing alliances, and it cost 3.2 million lives – the worst casualties the world had seen since 1945. Africa’s war was sparked by the brutal slaughter in 1994 of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda. Millions of Hutus, fearing reprisals, poured across the border into Congo, assisted by a French military operation that was sanctioned by the UN Security Council. They were pursued by Tutsi forces and their Ugandan allies. Congo, which had had nothing to do with the genocide, was now home to millions of refugees, as well as opposing death squads and foreign armies. The UN, which helped settle this massive population, made no plans to remove them. Their presence provided an excuse for Congo’s neighbours to pour troops into a very rich area. Many of the forces that entered Congo in 1994 and again in 1998 have yet to leave the mineral-rich East. ‘War has been imported to Congo by people who want to plunder the wealth of our country,’ says Jeremie Alamazani, a Christian entrepreneur from Congo, now living in the UK. Too Complex to Deal With? Between 1998 and 2003, while many of us were dancing to Britney Spears, watching Titanic and enjoying England’s Rugby World Cup victory, much of Africa was at war, and the theatre they chose was Eastern Congo. Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Chad fought alongside Congolese forces who were attempting to get foreign troops off Congolese soil. Ugandan, Rwandan and Burundian forces fought against them. The temptation is to think of all this in terms of Africa being a terminally messed-up place. Or, worse still, to write off the conflict as something Europeans will never understand or fix. ‘The problem is that people usually think this is another situation where Africans are killing Africans, so they feel they don’t need to get involved,’ says Dedy Bilamba, a Congolese author and activist living in Canada. He is echoed by Kambale Musavuli, spokesperson for Friends of the Congo: ‘If you look at just the last ten years, all you’ll see is Africans wantonly killing each other like savages. That is not the real explanation.’ Wealthy The suffering in the East of Congo, when not wrongly chalked up to the easy Western cliché of ‘tribalism’, is usually written off as simply another consequence of the Rwandan genocide. But there are several other factors involved. What lies behind the Congolese government’s apparent inability to defeat small rebel groups and militias? Reasons include the systematic destruction of Congo’s infrastructure and culture by dictator Joseph Mobutu, and the legacy of colonialism. But the most obvious is Congo’s mineral wealth. We could be forgiven, based on what we see on the news, for thinking Africa is poor. The truth is, much of it is exponentially wealthier than most of Europe in terms of minerals, arable land and forests. That is, after all, why Europe colonised Africa. Congo itself has some of the highest concentrations of some of the most useful minerals in the world. And time and again, when talking about the country’s problems, one thought keeps coming up: ‘Congo is too wealthy for its own good.’ ‘Rwanda came into the Congo for a specific reason that they told the international community but they moved away from that reason,’ says Musavuli, ‘They started looting Congo’s resources. They started taking the gold and coltan [a mineral used in electronics such as phones and laptops] from the mines.’ Andrews from Medair agrees: ‘In North and South Kivu, exploitation of gold, coltan and copper plays a significant role,’ he says. ‘Some of the militia groups are directly or indirectly involved in the exploitation of minerals, and even the national army is implicated.’ ‘It’s an open secret that the minerals play a big part in financing the conflict and have done for a few years,’ says Colin Robertson, senior policy and advocacy officer at Christian Aid, and specialist in mineral exploitation in the region. Minerals such as cassiterite, gold, coltan, wolframite and others are exploited in areas with little state control after years of war, and find their way easily across Congo’s many borders. This not only finances the militias (who often use slave labour to mine), but deprives Congo of much-needed tax revenues. ‘It’s impossible to say categorically where exactly the minerals go,’ says Robertson. ‘It’s a very complicated supply chain. But most of the minerals will end up in Malaysia or China, where they will be smelted, mixed with minerals from other parts of the world and then be sold on to other markets in Europe or elsewhere.’ Damage Many of Congo’s institutions were destroyed, according to historians, by Mobutu, who was President of Congo from 1965-1997. He came to power in a CIA-backed coup that saw Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba (who had freed Congo from colonial rule), assassinated. ‘Mobutu’s looting of state funds, the extravagant life that he lived, the corruption, all accelerated the destruction of Congolese institutions,’ says Musavuli. ‘Anyone who rose up was either imprisoned, killed, or went into exile. All of that happened in front of the international community, while Mobutu was being praised.’ We often think of corrupt dictators in terms of the torture and state-sponsored murder they commit. But often the more profound damage they do is to the country’s culture and infrastructure. ‘Congo’s culture was completely destroyed from Mobutu’s time on,’ says Consol Efomi, a human rights commentator and son of Mobutu’s one-time head of Intelligence. ‘He used to like a quick fix. If you suggested something sustainable and long-term, he wasn’t for that.’ The governments Mobutu appointed systematically stripped Congo of its wealth, aided by foreign banks, in a manner that reminds many historians of what Belgium had done in colonial times. The damage to the psyche of the nation has been immeasurable. ‘Mobutu’s policies were to give people a gun and tell them to earn a living from that by calling them a soldier,’ says Andrews. Peace, Justice... and Prayer A crucial aspect of any potential recovery in Congo, according to many of those interviewed here, is roads. It seems such a mundane thing, but many African countries are hamstrung by their lack of roads. Mobutu and his cronies invested little in them, and successive foreign investors only built them to transport wealth out of Congo. But without roads, industries and agriculture can’t get goods to market, the national army takes too long to reach trouble spots, and Congo’s development is hampered – along with its ability to defend itself. Congo faces an almost insurmountable task in trying to defeat the enemies within its borders. This is partly due to the fact that many of those enemies allegedly receive assistance from the very governments Britain is supporting. But there are things we can do to help. Not least, to pray. ‘Pray for fair elections in Congo in the next few months,’ says Rev Dr Andre Bokundoa, general secretary of the Baptist Community of the River Congo. ‘What Congo needs most is peace and justice.’ ‘Pray for the leaders to treat the people of the country the way they would treat their own children, with compassion,’ says Jeremie Alamazani, ‘And pray for the population.’ But more than anything, campaigners say, we need to talk about Congo. To make sure people know what is going on, and why. Our speaking out could take the form of joining in Friends of the Congo’s annual Congo Week (16th–22nd October), sharing what we’ve learned in church, writing to the press to ask for more coverage, or to our MPs to raise the issue in Parliament. More Than Talk Some of the people interviewed here have suggested campaigning for a UK or European law that would require companies to perform ‘due diligence’ in discovering whether minerals in their products come from Congolese conflict areas (a similar law has just been passed in the US). Others want the UK to cut funding for arms to Uganda and Rwanda. Some suggest supporting aid and development charities working on the ground and others investing in Congolese businesses. All would have us see Congo as a partner, not a child, and do more than just talk. ‘When we finish talking, what is our legacy?’ asks Alamazani. ‘What have we done, what have we changed? What crown will we have?’ He insists that whatever skills we have to offer, we can use them for good. ‘I’m less interested in debates on Congo than hearing what people have done. Where have you invested? What have you sent? Who have you lobbied? As Christians, we are called to heal, to repair the broken wall. We are not just here to be spectators. We are here to be salt and light.’ Healing, salt and light are exactly what Congo needs. And despite what you might think, Congolese activists are hopeful for the future. The question is whether we partner with them in making their hope a reality. Find out more about the voices of the Congolese diaspora, and for web resources click here.