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Still the deadliest

Posted in conflict, conflict death tolls, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 16 February, 2010 by Virgil

Don’t let the media’s silence fool you. Conflict and insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remain at horrifying levels.

When Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) stepped up its offensives in eastern DRC in late 2008, positioning itself to take the city of Goma, and making grandiose statements about heading for Kinshasa to take over the running of the entire country, the Western media paid some attention – not much, but at least a few murmurs that could be distinguished from the usual silence. This all came to an end when Rwanda did an aboutface, making a secret deal with its enemy in Kinshasa that saw the arrest of Nkunda and the ambiguous adoption of the CNDP by the armed forces of the DRC. For the Western media, the show was now over and it was time to go home. Besides, much more ‘important’ things were happening in Gaza.

The official international phase of the conflict (the nine-nation continental war) had ended in 2003, and now with the largest remaining rebel group having been dismantled (and Rwanda being ‘friendly’ with the DRC), one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the violence in the DRC was at last coming to an end.

But alas, this was not to be. In spite of military campaigns against remnants of the FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – a group including, but certainly not limited to, some of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide) and Uganda’s LRA, these groups have not been reigned in, and revenge attacks (for being hounded) on the local civilian population remain rife (international boundaries don’t seem to matter all that much in this conflict). As many other observers have noted, in the absence of serious political measures, a military solution simply does not exist. Several other armed groups have continued to be active in eastern DRC, and the actions of some sections of the armed forces of the DRC mean that they remain seen by many as a threat to the security of the civilian population.

Recently released figures are reflective of just how damaging this conflict still is. More than 1 million people have been driven from their homes in 2009 (see here). I doubt there is another conflict in the world that produced such a high number of freshly displaced persons in 2009. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has recently estimated that more than 8,000 women were raped by warring factions in eastern DRC in the same year. While these figures are undoubtedly conservative, as they are they should be seen as a serious reason for concern. More recently, in one series of attacks by the LRA on 13 January this year alone, 100 people were reportedly massacred.

Speaking of figures, the Human Security Report has attacked the death toll figures (5.4 million by the latest count in 2007) for the conflict in the DRC produced by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), declaring that they have been considerably overestimated. I am in no position to verify which figures are closer to the reality (see this analysis), but given the highly misleading presentation of some of the Human Security Report’s conclusions (the apparent ‘paradox’ that “nationwide morality rates actually decline during periods of warfare” (p.17) – simply explained by long-term decreases in mortality rates due to general improvements in health), I find their motives somewhat suspect. I get the impression that they are determined to prove that the damage from conflict throughout the world is decreasing, and the IRC’s death toll figures for the conflict in the DRC were proving to be a major challenge to this notion.

Nicholas Kristof (the New York Times’ chief salesman of humanitarian indignation) has also recently made his own contribution, taking the liberty of using his calculator to update the IRC’s death toll in the DRC, putting the current toll at 6.9 million.

Unfortunately, we will never know the real death toll from the conflict in the DRC. But whichever figures we choose to use, I think it is probably safe to say that this conflict remains the deadliest of our times, and is still very worthy of our attention and concern.

And yet the Western media are, as usual,  missing in action. The conflict in the DRC remains the ‘greatest’ stealth conflict of all time.

Chaos and African conflict

Posted in Africa, conflict, natural resource exploitation, terminology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 4 January, 2009 by Virgil

‘Chaos’ is a word frequently used to describe conflict in Africa, in particular, that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (see this article and this article, for example). But what does this term tell us about a conflict? What images does it conjure up? A look in any dictionary under “chaos” gives us the picture – “a state of utter confusion or disorder”, “a jumble”, “a gaping void”. But is it appropriate to describe any conflict it this way?

 

Conflicts are social activities – they happen for a reason (or more often, reasons) and they are organized. It doesn’t matter if there are 2 ‘sides’ or 22 ‘sides’ (at varying degrees of cohesion), each group and each actor has its own reasons and motives, be they based on grievance, greed, need, creed or any combination thereof. And each group has its own strategies and tactics. The agendas of many of the players in conflicts are certainly murky, and the more players there are, the more difficult a conflict can be to understand. But do murky agendas and multiple players mean that there is utter confusion and disorder? I think not. It simply means that the conflict is more complex – that the units for analysis are smaller than they might be with other state-on-state conflicts, for example. Labelling a conflict with the term chaos suggests that the conflict has not been understood. But more disturbingly, the term seems to serve as a licence to ignore the conflict in question – a very convenient way to help us wash our hands and turn away (another variation of the ‘chaos’ write-off is the ‘heart of darkness’ line, dealt with in this article).

 

But washing our hands and turning away is hardly an option when we face the deadliest conflict the world has seen in more than half a century. By this I don’t mean that I am going to proceed to lay down plans for military intervention or major humanitarian airlifts. But if we are capable of demonstrating humanitarian concern for the suffering of people affected by conflict in Israel-Palestine or in Darfur, then we should be capable also of doing so for those suffering in the DRC. That said, actions based on humanitarian concern need to be based on solid knowledge of the situation, otherwise they risk being ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. That is, we need to know more about the conflict and what is behind it.

 

It was quite disturbing to see the responses to a BBC website debate question asking “Can Congo be saved from crisis?” (issues with the term ‘saved’ can wait for another day). A recurring line of thinking in the comments in the debate (many of which ended up generalizing for the entire African continent, not the DRC) was something like this: Africa is a mess despite having been given their independence and despite having been given so much aid by the West – Africans should be sorting themselves out instead of begging for any more help from the West. It is difficult to know where to begin in a addressing this highly simplistic line of reasoning, but importantly here, the notion that Western actors are detached and disinterested observers that do no more than charitably offer assistance to the often ungrateful needy is something that needs to be addressed. It ignores an incredibly important point – powerful Western actors are key players in the conflict.

 

Many of the direct belligerents in the conflict in the DRC could be called warlords – controlling a certain geographic area and relying on force and the threat of force to enable the extraction of resources for their own benefit. But warlords need to export the resources they extract and import the weapons they use. Foreign corporations come in here. But foreign players are not merely facilitators. To ensure greater control over and greater profits from resources, foreign players (hiding behind the scenes) involve themselves in the manipulation of politics and the use of force. You might be surprised at how broad and deep the connections are between the plunder of resources, Western corporations, Western policymakers, and even NGOs. Take a look at the articles on the site All Things Pass by Keith Harmon Snow for some very hard-hitting and in-depth analysis on this subject. The notion of chaos serves as an effective smokescreen for this state of affairs. 

Takeshi Kuno)
Rebel patrol in Eastern DRC (Photo: Takeshi Kuno)

 

Complexity also seems to sap us of our humanitarian strength. In an entry in his blog, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof responded to questions on why he chooses to focus more on the conflict in Darfur than on that in the DRC, despite the fact that the conflict in DRC is far deadlier, saying that:

 

“Congo is essentially a tale of chaos and poverty and civil war. Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about …We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur”.

 

This argument is far from convincing. While it is clearly difficult to measure “human evil”, one wonders why killing because of so-called ethnicity is any worse than killing for any other reason. And how “chaos and poverty and civil war” serve as an explanation in this sense is a little perplexing. Reading between the lines, I would think the difference in response has much to do with the issue of simplicity versus complexity. Darfur came into the spotlight because it was painted with a simplistic brush: bad guys (Arabs) killing innocent victims (blacks) which constituted genocide (the fact that the conflict rose to prominence at the time of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is no accident). Without such an easy-to-follow storyline, the conflict in the DRC loses its attraction, especially when the storyline has the word chaos attached to it.

 

But the victims of conflict and their suffering in the DRC are very real. Just because there are more than two groups involved; and just because we cannot easily distinguish groups based on their skin colour, so-called ‘ethnicity’ and/or religion, or come up with notions on how ‘evil’ or ‘good’ an entire group apparently is, this does not make the victims any less deserving.

 

Conflict in the DRC happens to be by the far the deadliest conflict of our times, so dismissing it as chaotic and writing it off is hardly an option. The conflict is not chaotic, it is complex. Let’s not let something like complexity get in the way of concern. Let us instead work towards getting a clearer picture of what is really going on there.

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