In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country of 63 million people in the heart of Africa, a peace agreement signed more than four years ago pledged to put an end to hostilities from within the DRC and its relations with at least eight other countries. The international Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates that four million people have died from the war and its causes since it began in 1998, making it the world’s most deadly conflict since World War II.
In theory, the conflict is over. DRC is no longer a playing field for foreign armies but the misery of its people continues. Fighting persists in the east, where rebel groups loot, rape and murder. Millions of refugees live without proper health care, safe water or education. The Congolese army, which claims to defend the reunited country, has cut its own murderous swath, carrying out executions and razing villages. Yet deadlier are the side effects of war, the scars left by years of violence that have damaged DRC’s society and infrastructure. The nation is overwhelmed by illness, malnutrition and dislocation. According to the IRC, which has conducted a series of detailed mortality surveys over the past six years, 1250 Congolese die every day of war-related causes – a huge majority dying from diseases and starvation that wouldn’t exist in peaceful times.
Yet the DRC’s difficulties hardly ever make daily news headlines and the country is often low on the lists of international aid providers. After Sudan, the DRC is the second largest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, a land so immense and unmanageable that it has long been perceived as one of the worst-off countries in Africa. It is in part because of that harmful reputation – and because the nation’s incompetent rulers that have consistently reinforced it – that the world has been willing to let DRC bleed.
Since 2000, the UN has spent billions on its peacekeeping mission in the Congo and is at the moment the largest UN force anywhere in the world. But troops number just 17,500, an insignificant presence in such a large country. There are a variety of explanations for the neglect. Perhaps the international reservoir of wealth and goodwill runs only so deep. Maybe the concentration and indignation directed toward other African disasters, such as the genocide in Darfur, has left the world too exhausted to take on DRC’s problems. But such a choice comes at a cost. DRC symbolises the promise of Africa as much as it does its desolation. Its soil is full of diamonds, gold, copper, tantalum and uranium. The waters of its river could one day power the continent. Yet because DRC is so rich in resources, its problems, when left to aggravate, tend to suck its neighbours into a current state of abuse and chaos. Fixing Congo is essential to fixing Africa.