Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has experienced decades of almost continuous conflict. Africa’s largest country, with a burgeoning population of more than 79 million people, has arguably been the site of the deadliest war in the post-WW2 era: a brutal conflict which has taken place beyond the view of the western news media; remaining far from the eyes of western publics and politicians. Despite more than 6 million civilians killed and millions more displaced, the neglect of the DRC’s devastation has been striking: there have been few front-page headlines, and even fewer calls for intervention in a country deemed strategically unimportant to western powers.
Since the most deadly period of the conflict ended with a peace agreement in 2003, low-intensity violence has continued in the East of the country largely un-noticed by the outside world, barring a few brief moments of heightened publicity such as the ‘Kony 2012’ social media campaign, and after the 2013 military defeat of the notorious M23 rebel group. At present, the risk of escalation and a return to full-scale conflict is higher than at any time in recent memory, as the country is fast becoming engulfed in political instability.
The renewed fears of violence come amid concerns that President Joseph Kabila, who has won two previous elections and been in office since 2001, is attempting to cling to power despite a two-term constitutional limit on the length of time a president can serve. In May, opposition leader Moise Katumbi was charged with plotting a coup against the incumbent regime, just hours after he declared his intention to run as a candidate in November’s presidential election.
The situation is creating an increasingly hostile political environment within the country, with critics accusing President Kabila of seeking to delay the vote in an attempt to remain in power whilst the constitution is amended. National Assembly member Olivier Kamitatu Etsu has accessed Kabila of ‘’deliberately sabotaging the electoral process’’. However the President has consistently denied this, with the DRC’s Ambassador to the United States, Francois Balumuene, stating that Kabila remains committed to holding free and fair elections. In May, the country’s highest court ruled that Kabila should stay in power until elections are held, and the government has claimed that the poll is simply being delayed whilst logistical issues are resolved and the electoral register is updated. The division amongst the political elite is already causing tensions amongst the general population, leading to fears of renewed violence based on political affiliation. There were reports of clashes between police and Katumbi supporters at several of his rallies earlier this year, with tear gas being fired on at least one occasion.
The current political environment is especially concerning when considering the DRC’s continuing violence and perpetual climate of instability. An estimated 70 armed groups are believed to be currently active in the East of the country, despite the presence of 19,000 UN peacekeepers. In particular, the stronger armed groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) continue to terrorize civilians and retain control of rural areas characterized by weak state presence. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the violence: the UN estimates that there are currently 2.7 million people internally displaced, along with another 450,000 refugees who now reside in neighbouring countries.
The violence in the East of the country is worsening, as armed groups increase in number 13 years on from the end of the ‘Second Congo War’ which lasted from 1998-2003. During the main stage of the conflict, Congolese government forces backed by troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought rebels supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Five million people were killed during this period alone, until a peace deal was signed in 2003 and a transitional government ushered in. Despite these developments, the war-ravaged country has been plagued by frail governance, weak institutional presence, pervasive corruption and widespread absence of the rule of law. The government did achieve a notable success in 2013, when the largest rebel group M23 was defeated and removed from a key provincial capital, Goma. However, the many remaining rebel groups have splintered further, leading to a more complex situation and a climate of lawlessness in which ordinary civilians have been subjected to rape, sexual violence, extreme poverty and horrific human rights violations.
In hindsight, 2003 offered only a brief flicker of hope for a country reeling from decades of war. The Democratic Republic of Congo has since descended into further chaos: it has resisted all internal and external efforts to set it on a path towards peace, and has become an increasingly complex web of inter-related and over-lapping local conflicts. Remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) persist in some parts of the country, whilst Bakata separatists operate in Katanga province; numerous other rebel groups are active in Maniema and Nyunzu. The extensive number of armed groups adds to an increasingly complex and volatile picture of a country which even after billions of dollars in development aid and the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history, remains incapable of providing even the most basic requirement for citizens of a functioning sovereign state: security. A combination of impunity and continuing economic stagnation, have led to the emergence of yet more armed groups, making the DRC an increasingly fragmented and ungovernable space.
Whilst western attention has remained almost exclusively focused on the civil war in Syria – where over 250,000 civilians have been killed during five years of devastation – the victims of the DRC’s long-running conflict have been comparably neglected when considering the scope of the violence: decades of upheaval with more than 6 million people killed, and hundreds-of-thousands more raped, tortured and maimed. In addition, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked at 176 on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). Since the war officially ended in 2003, starvation and disease have claimed millions more lives, whilst living standards and health provision have plummeted in many communities still trapped in cycles of violence.
Some analysts contend that the conflict in the DRC is ‘too complicated’ to be taken-up by mainstream news organizations and presented to western audiences, with a distinct lack of the simple ‘good vs evil’ narrative which is often prevalent in western news reporting. For example, in the DRC there is no single ‘aggressor’ to whom blame can be predominantly assigned, such as was the case with Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, given the sheer scale of violence in the DRC, there must also be alternative underlying factors which account for the distinct lack of media coverage: for example, sub-Saharan Africa is viewed as being of little strategic importance to the west, whilst stereotypical assumptions of Africa as a space of uncivilized barbarism remain prevalent in many dominant discourses, leading to the complex roots of diverse conflicts across an entire continent being downplayed and under-examined.
This continued media invisibility is especially concerning given the most recent developments in the DRC. Firstly, presidential candidate Moise Katumbi was sentenced in June to 3 years in prison on charges which the opposition contends were fabricated and politically-motivated. Secondly, despite renewed calls for dialogue between political parties to ensure a peaceful electoral process, President Kabila has refused to say if he will step-down (as is constitutionally required), and is yet to confirm that the general election will go ahead as scheduled in November.
The main concern amongst observers is that if the current political instability worsens, the complex web of local conflicts in the DRC could be set to rapidly intensify, leading to violence on a nationwide scale in the event of an election-related crisis. This worst-case scenario has not yet materialized and may still be avoided; however if a wave of political violence does spread across the country, Africa’s deadliest civil war could re-emerge to inflict mass suffering on civilians, whose predicament will again remain largely invisible to an outside world focused on developments elsewhere.