War in the Congo Introduction
Scale of Devastation
According to the BBC, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has led to the loss of more lives than any conflict since World War II. A study by The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, has estimated that between August, 1998 and April, 2004 the war led to 3.9 millions deaths. The study indicated that while less than 2% of these deaths were directly due to violence, conditions of violence kept people from having the food and health care they needed to survive. Most deaths resulted from preventable causes such as malnutrition and infection diseases. One should note that the study was unable to survey the most insecure areas of the DRC and that other observers assert that the war has caused higher numbers of deaths when one places the beginning of the war to 1996 with the overthrow of President Mobutu.
In addition to high death rates, the war has led to the use of child soldiers, child slavery in mines, a rise in HIV/AIDS, the mass displacement of peoples, and the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war. In one province alone, the United Nations has estimated that 45,000 women were raped in the last year. At a hospital that treats women who have been raped, a doctor estimates that approximately 10% of the women have been gang raped and shot in the vagina.
Plundering the Congo
The war in the Congo has been fueled by the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. The DRC has been a source of diamonds, gold, columbite-tantalite, cobalt, copper, uranium, and petroleum. The commonplace significance of some of these resources often goes unnoticed by the general public in the United States. For example, columbite-tantalite, also known as coltan, is a mineral refined into metals for use in capacitors, superconductors, and transistors in a wide range of devices that include cell phones, lap tops, Sony PlayStations, and automotive electronics. Moreover, coltan can be found in missile guided systems. The Pentagon has classified coltan as a strategic mineral, and the US government holds large stockpiles of it.
The DRC is the most mineral resource rich country in Africa. Currently, it is estimated that 64% of the world's coltan reserves are located in the DRC, while 34% of the world's cobalt and 10% of the world's copper reserves are found in the country's Katanga province. Demand for these minerals fluctuates. Copper, cobalt, and uranium are currently experiencing increased demand, while demand for coltan has cooled. Nevertheless, the vast reserves of coltan indicate its potential long-term significance.
The Not So Distant Recent History
To profit from the Congo's resources, Uganda and Rwanda combined with rebel groups to occupy parts of the DRC from 1998 to 2003 when a power sharing agreement was reached with the government of the DRC. Ostensibly, the country was in a period of transition until the current elections. Nevertheless, the eastern part of the country is still not under government control, the country's resources continue to be looted, and violence persists. According to a report by the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa, "Three years of transitional government in the DRC has not led to stability and development. On the contrary, the governing elite are busy enriching themselves, while the situation of the population deteriorates." The report details daily murders at mines by government brigades along with the "slavery" of hundreds of thousands who work "independently" as miners to survive. The only ones who benefit from the situation are "foreign interests."
Responding to the Crisis
The United Nations forces in the DRC have been accused of collusion with business interests, assisting wanted war criminals, looting natural resources, raping local women, and failing to prevent murders in their midst. Still, a United Nations force that is held accountable arguably remains the best immediate hope for bringing the levels of security needed for death rates to drop. Currently, there are 19,500 UN troops in the DRC, but the African Union has argued that possibly 45,000 troops are needed to bring security to the country.
Because the plundering of resources fuels the war, there is a need for the international monitoring, regulating, and certifying of natural resource extraction and sale. Such a goal will only be accomplished by a mobilized public bringing pressure to bear on governments to create the necessary institutions for such a response.
Each of us can play a role in mobilizing public opinion and action by informing and organizing those whom we know.