The trouble with Congo

Since August this year at least 250,000 people have been left homeless in Eastern Congo in the latest outbreak of a civil war described here as between government troups and a rebel group claiming to protect ethnic Tutsis. At least 2 million people are refugees from that war which dates back to 1996.

Trying to get good analyses of that conflict in American newspapers or from US television news, is a useless exercise. There’s a better debate in British papers as to what’s at stake in that war and also how we look at it.

Two opinion pieces are now circulating widely: one by the prominent British journalists, Michela Wrong, a former BBC and Reuters Africa correspondent, and the other by Johann Hari of The Independent.


Writing in The Guardian, Michela Wrong suggests:

“.. The spell the word ‘Congo’ continues to cast over Western audiences should prompt some self-examination. Behind every well-meaning ‘isn’t it dreadful?’ reaction lies a host of unstated and unappetising assumptions about Africans.”

Hari, who has reported on the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa for The Independent, writes:

“… When we glance at the holocaust in Congo, with 5.4 million dead, the clichés of Africa reporting tumble out: this is a ‘tribal conflict’ in ‘the Heart of Darkness.’ It isn’t. The United Nations investigation found it was a war led by ‘armies of business’ to seize the metals that make our 21st-century society zing and bling. The war in Congo is a war about you.”

I asked a friend Ingrid Samset, a political science graduate student from the University of Bergen in Norway on a Fubright at Columbia University who does research in the Congo and Angola, what she thought:

Ingrid thinks Michela Wrong is right:

“… This is exactly my point of view as well. Congo has become “our” ultimate other. The media coverage of the Congo again and again repeats, almost on auto-pilot it seems, this myth about the heart of darkness. As I said in an op-ed I wrote about this last year (in Norwegian), “Africa’s darkness is not about Africa. The heart of darkness is not about the Congo. It’s about us.” It’s about how “we”, the dominant discourse, choose to represent Africa and its “heart”. One reason why I have trouble reading the Western (and even African!) press coverage of the Congo is that this myth about the Congo as the heart of darkness so permeates it. The idea affects our ability to see the Congo as it is, in all its variety. And as is often the case in coverage of Africa they also often don’t bother to ask the Congolese what they think. One myth within the myth is that, as The Economist says in its current issue’s editorial, “There is a scant sense of nationhood in the Congo“. That’s simply not true, there is a strong national identity among most Congolese. The Economist also informs us that the Congo “is a hideous mess and always has been”. How helpful.

So when Western politicians go to the Congo today they tend to portray it as the white man’s burden. One may ask though who’s shouldering the heaviest burden. If the so-called international community could simply start treating Congo not as the ultimate other but as a country just like any other country, with a troublesome history to be sure, but a history that can be fully understood and where internal and external actors all contributed both problems and solutions, then this international community would do the Congo a much greater favor than by continuing to portray the country they want to help as helpless, hopeless and dark.”

And her view on Johann Hari:

“… My main reaction is that you cannot dichotomize the debate into two poles and call the one pole a set of lies and the other pole all truth. The conflicts are not only about natural resources. Appetite for those resources can be a driving force, but what I found in my own research investigating the links between resources and conflict in the Congo and Angola was that the resources are more important in explaining why wars continue and last as long as they do than why they break out.

It’s important to get this right because this economic reductionism has been very fashionable in both research and journalism over the last ten years. Yet though a lot of the ensuing policy recommendations have been tailored to respond to those economic aspects – e.g. conflict diamonds, Kimberley Process (a joint governments, industry and civil society initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds ), the Extractive Industry Transparency Ininitiative (which sets a global standard for companies to publish what they pay and for governments to disclose what they receive), etcetera. – the conflicts continue in eastern Congo.

Just to take one example, Hari is wrong when he says that Rwandan forces did not go after Hutu refugees when they first invaded the Congo in 1996. Those atrocities are documented. I think his chief mistake though is failing to acknowledge two things: how the character of any armed conflict changes over time, i.e. how resources can explain different things and be more or less important in explaining conflict at different stages of the conflict. Secondly he ignores how resources would not have been a part of the explanation had it not been for a whole bunch of other issues in the Congo case, related to the Rwanda genocide, to unresolved issues regarding land and citizenship, to the general absence of state authority in eastern Congo, to gender roles, and to generalized, deep poverty. Though it’s catchy in an op-ed, it simply doesn’t hold to say that the conflict is all about us and the insatiable demand of the global rich. It’s part of it but that explanation does not explain why there is not the same level and types of violence in other resource-rich areas of the world. It doesn’t explain the timing of the different incidents and periods of violence, and also it doesn’t explain why some resource-rich areas within the Congo are far more violence-prone than other, similarly resource-rich but more peaceful areas.”

What do you think?

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