Congo Watch: July 2006

Sunday, July 30, 2006

BBC's DRC election reporters' log

For regular updates on the election, visit Ali's blog The Salon. Ali is a young Congolese chap living in America. His mother works for the UN.

A team of BBC reporters is covering the polls and journalists are sending their observations. Keep an eye out for updates at Congo election reporters' log.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Daily Telegraph's Africa Correspondent David Blair visits DRC

David Blair, the Daily Telegraph's Africa Correspondent, has just returned to Johannesburg from a week in DR Congo. See his latest blog entries, great photos and his blogroll - my blogs on Sudan, Congo and Uganda are listed... thanks David!

Jul 24 2006 re the search for water: Congo looks to the future - On Sunday, Congo will hold its first contested elections in 46 years. The importance of this event is hard to exaggerate. Congo is arguably the most important country in Africa, endowed with more mineral wealth than anywhere else in the continent ...

Jul 25 2006 re Joseph Kabila, an international player: The man for the job? - Sitting in Kinshasa the other day, I jotted down the key facts about the Democratic Republic of Congo's election. Here's what you need to know ...

Jul 26 2006 re Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and a place called the "Inner Station": Kisangani marks the spot - Kisangani, where Conrad spent three unhappy months...

Jul 28 2006 re being arrested by soldiers of Congo's elite presidential guard: Arrested on board a dugout canoe - River travel isn't always this tranquil...

DR Congo: The trickiest election ever?

Election workers in Democratic Republic of Congo are putting the finishing touches to possibly the most complex and challenging elections the world has ever seen.

Helicopters, canoes, motorbikes and porters have been used to transport election material to almost 50,000 polling stations across a country two-thirds the size of western Europe, with just 300 miles of paved roads.

Behind the barbed wire which surrounds the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) headquarters in the capital, Kinshasa, officials were scurrying around with just hours to go before the polls open at 0600 (0500GMT) on Sunday. Full story BBC 29 July 2006.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

DRC: Police disperse anti-poll demonstrators

Police used teargas to disperse thousands of placard-carrying demonstrators, who vowed to disrupt general elections, in Kinshasa, capital of the DRC, on Tuesday. Full report IRIN 25 July 2006.

DRC: Lead-up to elections - backgrounder

NAIROBI, 24 Jul 2006 (IRIN) via VOGP - The general elections due on Sunday in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are billed as the first fully democratic vote to be held in the country since Patrice Lumumba became prime minister in 1960. Beginning with his murder a year later, and the coup in 1965 staged by Mobutu Sese Seko, who introduced a one-party system, the past 40 years have witnessed the systematic impoverishment of one of the potentially wealthiest countries on the African continent.

Turning the country around is vital for the continent as a whole, not just because of its sheer size - 2.5 million square kilometres, bordering nine countries - but because of its mineral wealth; it holds one-third of the world's cobalt reserves; two-thirds of its coltan, used in mobile phones; and one-tenth of its copper; as well as diamonds, gold, oil, silver, timber, uranium and zinc. Its river system could power the entire continent and the country contains 50 percent of Africa's forests. And yet, the DRC is one of the world's poorest countries, ranked 167 out of 177 in the 2005 United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) human development index.

The potential rewards of peace and stability are high. But so are the risks. While human rights groups have accused some foreign companies mining in the DRC of exploitation and corruption, encouraging investment is not straightforward in a country whose physical infrastructure is virtually non-existent - of 145,000 km of roads, only 2,500 km are asphalt - and poor governance is endemic.

Indeed, the weakness of state institutions, in particular the security forces, courts and parliament, and the fact that the Congolese state has suffered from corruption before and after independence in 1960, means that restructuring the economy and addressing issues of capacity-building are of particular importance if the new government is to effect meaningful change for its population.

Poor governance is of particular concern to aid agencies as the impact is severe in humanitarian terms: corruption means revenue losses, so state employees, such as soldiers, go unpaid and intimidate and harangue civilians, often brutally; continued fighting over mineral rights and cross-border raids result in displaced civilians. UN agencies and NGOs estimate that at least 1,000 people continue to die every day in the DRC as a result of non-existent health services and preventable diseases.

The legacy of Mobutu's 32-year Western-backed rule extends beyond endemic corruption; to offset potential political opposition his rule was absolute, with the 1974 constitution granting him authority over the executive, legislature and judiciary branches of government. Furthermore, he maintained a system of patronage while maintaining the loyalty of the police and army, all of which required money. By 1990, the country was US $14 billion in debt. With the end of the cold war, Mobutu was no longer of any use to the US in its fight against Soviet influence in Africa, and his lines of credit were cut off.

The first war was prompted by an invasion of Rwandan and Ugandan troops in a bid to flush out Hutu militia - at the same time capitalising on popular discontent to oust Mobutu. However Laurent-Desire Kabila's coup in 1997 did little to change the prevailing political and economic climate. He banned political activity, issuing laws by presidential decree. By 2000, inflation was 511 percent and GDP $100 per capita, compared with a rate of $259 at independence. When Kabila attempted to limit the influence of Rwanda and Uganda on the economy, a second war opened up in what has been called Africa's first world war. This involved Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe on Kabila's side against Uganda and Rwanda. A study by the International Rescue Committee in December 2004 estimates that 3.8 million people died, nearly half of them children, from disease, famine and violence, mainly in the east. An additional three million are in acute need of assistance, according to the UN.

The first peace accord was signed in 1999 and foreign armies agreed to withdraw troops but a power-sharing agreement between the rebel factions was not implemented until 2003. The resulting transitional government comprised three main factions: the DRC government (PPRD supported by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia), the RCD-Goma (Rwanda) and the MLC (Uganda). Fighting, however, continues in eastern DRC.

The present incumbent, Joseph Kabila, 35, who took over from his father, Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was assassinated in January 2001, is the favourite to win the presidential vote, which is being contested by 33 candidates. Another 9,000 politicians are vying for 500 parliamentary seats. However, security remains a problem, despite the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, comprising 17,000 troops, which will be backed up by 2,000 EU forces over the election period. In addition, 5,000 national and 500 international observers will oversee the polls.

Etienne Tshisekedi, 73, the veteran opposition leader, originally boycotted the polls only to change his mind - but too late to be included in the electoral process. His withdrawal means millions of his traditional supporters will be effectively disenfranchised.

Campaigning is a logistical nightmare in a country with poor transport facilities; most of the 50,000 voting stations are deep in the forest or along the river and accessible to officials only by air. The budget for the elections is put at $500 million, most of it donated by the UN, EU and others. While the results will not be known until September, analysts are concerned that international interest will wane once the immediate goal of successful elections is achieved. Programmes in support of good governance and strengthening state institutions and helping to repair the country's infrastructure need to be backed up by increased aid if a return to conflict is to be avoided.

Every day 1,200 people die from violence, disease in the DR of Congo: UNICEF

July 24 2006 UN News Centre report, excerpt:
Every day 1,200 people, half of them children, are killed in the conflict-hit Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) because of violence, disease and malnutrition, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in a report issued today.

The report, Child Alert: DRC, also states that more children under age five die each year in the African country than in China - a country with 23 times the population. It draws attention to the to the appalling fact that the total countrywide death toll every six months is similar to that for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people in 12 countries.

Despite such grim statistics, the author of the report, UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell, says that Sunday's landmark elections in the war-ravaged country could be a turning point.

"It is easy to be overwhelmed by what has happened in DRC because of the sheer scale of it. But we owe it to the children to give them the future they deserve and these elections may be the opportunity of their lifetime."

UNICEF says that around four million people have been killed in the almost decade-long conflict in the DRC, making it the world's deadliest, humanitarian crisis, but despite the scale of the suffering it has not received the attention it deserves.

"Children bear the brunt of conflict, disease and death, but not only as casualties," said UNICEF DRC Representative Tony Bloomberg, who attended the report's launch in London. "They are also witnesses to, and sometimes forced participants in, atrocities and crimes that inflict physical and psychological harm."

"While DRC has experienced death rates like that of the tsunami every six months, it has not received the attention it deserves, either from the media or the public. UNICEF issued this report to call attention to this hidden emergency and its impact on children. We stand ready to work with the elected government and all other actors to begin immediately improving the lives of Congo's children."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Cross your fingers for DR Congo election July 30 - Rwanda's Shadow, From Darfur to Congo (NYT Lydia Polgreen)

Cross your fingers for DR Congo.
On 30 July 30 2006 one of the largest countries of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, is due to hold what should be its first free presidential election. The country has known mostly dictatorship or war for more than a century, first under colonial rule and then under African rule.
Please note, the New York Times report here below, relates to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) not Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).
Democratic Republic of Congo: A vast country with immense economic resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has been at the centre of what could be termed Africa's world war. This has left it in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. The five-year conflict pitted government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, the threat of civil war remains.

congomap.jpg

Congo (Brazzaville): Brazzaville, the political capital of Congo, is routinely appended to the country's name so as to distinguish it from the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire) next door.
Most of the posts at this blog relate to DR Congo.

Congo

Photo: Neena Ngosi, 3 months old, in a looted hospital with her mother, Ngava. They were displaced by the rampant fighting in Congo (Lynsey Addario NYT)

Rwanda' Shadow, From Darfur to Congo by Lydia Polgreen New York Times July 23 2006. Excerpt:
The crisis in Darfur, long neglected, finally burst into the world's consciousness. Congo remains largely forgotten. It is hard to understand why. Four million people have died in Congo since 1998, half of them children under 5, according to the International Rescue Committee. Though the war in Congo officially ended in 2002, its deadly legacy of violence and decay will kill twice as many people this year as have died in the entire Darfur conflict, which began in 2003.

But such numerical comparisons belie a deeper truth. Darfur holds the world's gaze because of that magic word, genocide. The word, implying that there are clear criminals and clear victims, has been perhaps the single greatest attention-getter for efforts, however feeble, to end the fighting and organize relief efforts, even though the fighting has lately turned in directions that indicate the situation was never so clear-cut.

The conflict in Congo, by contrast, long ago descended into a free-for-all with many sides. Instead of Darfur's seeming moral clarity, it offers a mind-numbing collection of combatants known by a jumble of acronyms. And that has been a particularly cruel fate, since the long-lasting war there in fact had its roots in the greatest mass killing since the Holocaust - the unambiguous genocide of 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda in the spring of 1994.

After Rwanda's civil war ended, Hutus who had carried out the genocide fled into Zaire, as Congo was then known, followed by their Rwandan enemies, bent on revenge. The rest of the world, wracked by guilt because it stood by as Rwanda bled, did not intervene in Rwanda's Congolese conquests. This fighting touched off the next decade of killing. Rwandan military leaders, with help from Uganda, decided to enrich themselves at Congo's expense, and rival home-grown militias soon joined the fray.

"A lot of the killings and horrors were in large part overlooked, either deliberately or not," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch for Congo. "The Rwandan genocide was initially why there was limited criticism of Rwanda and Uganda coming in."

Nearly a decade later, the memory of how little the world did to stop the slaughter has been invoked in efforts to end the newest atrocities, in Darfur.

Darfur seemed to present a clear moral choice. The crisis began in 2003 with a rebellion that sought to end the marginalization of non-Arab tribes by the Arab-dominated government. The Sudanese government's brutal military response, aided by murderous Arab militias, turned into a campaign that killed more than 200,000 people and drove millions from their homes.

In taking up the cause, many activists and politicians made the conflict into a morality play -- a clear example of genocide in which one group, the Arabs, was determined to slaughter another, Africans. The Bush administration, which had already intervened to end the Muslim-led government's suppression of Christians, describes the killings in Darfur as genocide. [edit]

On July 30, Congo will hold an election, the first real chance for the people to choose their own leaders since 1965. The world hopes this event will finally draw a line between the tragic past and an unknown future. The journey from mass murder to peace, by way of a gruesome civil war, has been long and deadly.
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See Mar 18 2005 The savagery in the Congo is beyond imagination

Friday, July 21, 2006

EU force shows muscle ahead of Congo polls

EU troops in DR Congo

Photo: French and Portuguese troops from a European Union Force perform military exercises in the Congolese capital Kinshasa July 20, 2006. The EU has sent some 1,000 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of this month's presidential and parliamentary elections aimed at ending more than a decade of conflict in the central African nation. Reuters/David Lewis

July 20, 2006 Reuters report by David Lewis [via The Salon]
A European Union military force sent to Congo showed off its firepower and technology on Thursday, saying it was ready to help U.N. peacekeepers maintain security during this month's elections.

Soldiers parachuted into their Kinshasa base from helicopters before special forces teams performed a simulated hostage rescue and the force illustrated how it could quickly deploy men and armoured vehicles.

Congolese politicians, military personnel, as well as foreign and local media were also shown the unmanned surveillance planes and weaponry the force has as its disposal.

"We have tried to show you that we are credible and ready to fulfil our mission," German General Karlheinz Viereck, commander of the EU mission, told the audience after the display at N'Dodo airport.

The EU has sent some 1,000 soldiers to the Democratic Republic of Congo, meant to act as a deterrent against anyone disrupting or challenging the result of the elections.

The July 30 polls are the cornerstone of peace deals that ended Congo's 1998-2003 war, which has killed some four million people, and are billed as the former Belgian colony's first free and fair elections in over 40 years.

Despite the world's biggest U.N. peacekeeping force, voting will take place amid tension. Thousands of rebels operate in Congo's east, many candidates say the process is unfair and opposition parties are calling for demonstrations and boycotts.

"At the end of the month, my men will be ready to fulfil their task of securing the elections if there is trouble and the UN cannot deal with it," Viereck added.

FOUR-MONTH MISSION

The EU force has a four-month mission, starting the first day of voting, but will only intervene if the Congolese police and army, as well as the U.N. are unable to control violence.

Some 33 presidential candidates and nearly 10,000 parliamentary candidates will contest the polls, which are costing the international community over $400 million and are the most complicated the U.N. has ever helped organise.

Commanders have been reluctant to give details on what sort of operations the European soldiers would carry out, stressing however, that they were not in Congo to support any candidate and would do more than just evacuate expatriates.

During the demonstration, French and Portuguese special forces teams simulated a rescue mission, roping down from helicopters to free hostages in a bus before airlifting them to safety.

A Hercules C130 transport plane then flew in soldiers and armoured trucks, showing how the EU could deploy men equipment across the vast country, which is the size of Western Europe, at short notice.

Meanwhile, Belgian surveillance drones and an array of sniper rifles, machine guns and mortars were put on display.

The EU has a reserve force of 1,200 soldiers stationed in nearby Gabon but, with only one company of combat troops in Kinshasa, analysts say a successful mission would be one that does not have to act.

Some Congolese, however, believe the international community is tacitly backing incumbent President Joseph Kabila while others fear the Europeans have come ready to fight a war.

"Don't speak about war," Viereck told local journalists. "We have just showed a few options for dissuasion."

Illegal uranium mining at shuttered Congo site-UN

July 21, 2006 Reuters report by Irwin Arieff [via The Salon]:
Uranium is being mined illegally at a site in Congo that provided the radioactive material for the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, U.N. experts reported on Thursday.

The Shinkolobwe mine in mineral-rich Katanga province in southwestern Congo was ordered shut down by U.N. investigators in 2004 who found it unsafe to operate.

The investigators, sent in after a partial collapse of the mine killed eight people that year, concluded it was likely to collapse further and miners were in danger of chronic exposure to radiation.

But a team of experts monitoring a U.N. arms embargo on the Democratic Republic of Congo said they found ample signs of "artisan mining" by small groups of private individuals during a recent visit.

Local police and residents told them "local agents of the mining police and of the National Intelligence Agency not only encourage but also charge fees from the miners," the experts said in a report to the U.N. Security Council.

"These observations stand in stark contrast to the assurances given to the Group of Experts by officials of the Ministry of Mines and of the National Intelligence Agency," the experts said.

"They assured the group that the mine is secured and that no artisan mining is taking place," their report said.

Some 14,000 miners, mainly youths under 18 living in the adjacent village of Shinkolobwe, once earned their living in the mine. The United States used uranium from the site to make the first nuclear weapons used in warfare.

The Congolese authorities destroyed the village in August 2004, at the same time the U.N. investigators ordered the mine closed.

But the U.N. experts said they found seven villages within a few miles of the mine, with a total population of nearly 10,000 people. They said they were able to drive their all-terrain vehicles right up to the mine and encountered "no barriers or even simple warning signs."

Part of the experts' work is to advise the Security Council on how to prevent Congo's rich supply of natural resources from being used to fuel internal conflict that has long plagued the vast central African nation.

Monday, July 03, 2006

DRC: Thousands flee army-militia showdown in Ituri

BUNIA, 3 Jul 2006 (IRIN) - Thousands of civilians have fled advancing militiamen who have now retaken the town of Tcheyi in the northeastern district of Ituri in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a United Nations local humanitarian official said on Monday.

"UN helicopters located a column of displaced people heading towards Geti, north of Tcheyi; and others heading to Bukiringi, about 12 km southeast of Tcheyi," Arsene Kirero, the liaison officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said in Bunia, the main town in Ituri.

"We do not have the actual figures of the displaced as there are no humanitarian actors in the militia-occupied areas," he added.

To the west of Tcheyi, all of Nyankunde's 5,000 panic-stricken residents fled on Saturday to Marabo, 40 km south of Bunia, Kirero said. Most of the residents of Aveba also fled.

On Monday, the army spokesman in Ituri, Capt Olivier Mputu, said: "We have killed about 100 militias in Aveba although we have counted 12 dead and 33 wounded. Each time we attack the militias, they take away their dead; it is therefore difficult to get an exact count."

He said fighting was still raging in Songolo, a village northeast of Tcheyi.

The militias, thought to be members of the Forces nationalistes et intégrationnistes (FNI), took advantage of the country's independence day festivities on Friday to launch their attack on Tcheyi and Aveba.

On 22 June, OCHA had identified 938 people displaced by previous fighting in Tcheyi, 305 of whom are children; and another 6,788 people in Aveba, 100 km south of Bunia.

Ituri has remained volatile due to continued militia activity. The latest fighting continues as the country gears up towards the first democratic elections in 45 years, scheduled for 30 July.

In an effort to crush the militias and secure the district for the elections, the army recently appointed Gen Mbuayama Nsiona as the commander for Ituri.

At least 2,000 militiamen had surrendered by Friday, at the end of a government and UN ultimatum for the militias to disarm voluntarily and join a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme.