Media, Mandela, and mayhem in the Congo

A new bout of violence in central Africa is largely ignored by the rest of the world.

A rebel of the M23 group talks to reside
A rebel group called M23 has won a series of victories in the eastern DRC in recent weeks [AFP]

Here in South Africa, major networks have a death watch in place, with houses rented in Nelson Mandela’s ancestral homeland in the Transkei, waiting for him to die. Journalists joke that Mandela has become an FBR – the Freelancer’s Best Friend – because the story demands daily scrutiny and bolsters news budgets and hiring as the waiting game plays out. The bets are on to see whether the icon makes it to his 94th birthday.

Meanwhile, South Africans plan to celebrate his birthday on July 18 with a day of community service. Mandela’s foundation is appealing to individuals to give 67 minutes of their time to a charity or a cause in honour of the 67 years he spent in politics. The day is a UN-sanctioned international occasion with similar initiatives underway in other countries.

Just as his inauguration in 1994 overshadowed the genocide then underway in Rwanda, this so-far non-event is getting more attention than the million Africans now fleeing the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They fear being killed by so-called guerilla groups – that are actually terror armies doing the bidding of other countries, out to wrest control of the resources and wealth of the not-so-Democratic Republic of Congo. The refugees are said to be “spilling” into Uganda, while men identified in the media only as “rebels” seize poorly guarded towns.

 Inside Story – What has flared up the fighting in DR Congo?

Keeping up with daily events seems so hectic that the background and context is often missing even as the story’s momentum increases.

Tragic history

It is too easy to indict news organisations for simplifying because the story itself is so complex. In a book review of two recent studies of the conflict, Adam Hochschild, author of the brilliant Leopold’s Ghost, on the tragic history of the Congo, notes, “One reason we shy away is the conflict’s stunning complexity”.

Journalist Jason Stearns, in his book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, asks: “How do you cover a war that involves at least 20 different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?”

Hochschild calls Stearns’ book the “best account so far: more serious than several recent macho-war-correspondent travelogues, and more lucid and accessible than its nearest competitor, Gérard Prunier’s dense and overwhelming Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe“.

Trying to penetrate the truth is very challenging on the ground. I spent hours interviewing members of competing groups but realised that so many of their references were about fights among obscure internal political factions and hard-to-understand land disputes. They all seemed prepped with a political line but not necessarily a deeper understanding.

What weren’t difficult to appreciate were the consequences of a conflict that has been called a third world war. Not only was there physical destruction amid terrifyingly abject poverty, but the unforgettable look on the faces of women who have been raped and children who have been orphaned.

A recent Reuters report sounded like old news to me:

“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it was investigating reports that some camps for displaced persons had been ‘forcibly emptied, looted and burned’, according to a written statement. He said rebels controlled Rutshuru, where UNHCR has an office. Rutshuru is 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of Goma, the provincial capital.”

One of the self-styled rebel groups has a new name, but many of the old players are still in business even as the world celebrated the conviction of Thomas Lubanga, a warlord accused of recruiting child soldiers. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison by the International Criminal Court. His accomplices and sponsors are still at large.

Colonial legacy

The DRC has been the victim of more than a century of colonial domination and exploitation – first by the Belgians and now by other African countries, including Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe – whose idea of peace in the Congo is spelled “piece”: a piece of that nation’s many minerals, including coltan used in cellphones, and lush land to settle the families that their armies spawn.

Africa also feels the sting of the economic crisis devouring Europe – many who lived on $2 a day now live on $1, and predatory African elites in league with Western partners need to resort to a new round of pillaging to keep their kleptocracies in business. They profit from instability. Their soldiers, meanwhile, have jobs and a licence to loot. In a country with few functioning industries, war has become a big business.

 UN and Congolese troops shell rebels near Goma

CNN reports: “General Nkunda said his soldiers were surrounding the provincial capital of Goma, where thousands have fled from displaced persons’ camps from the north. The soldiers had moved back to about 10 kilometres (6 miles) away, Nkunda said.”

Goma, where I filmed in 2009, has been repeatedly threatened by pressure from armed groups. The presence of armed UN peacekeepers based there has deterred some attacks but the UN, too, lives in fear of being overrun. Recently, an Indian peacekeeper was killed. He had likely been part of a unit whose base I visited next to a camp of internal refugees who had been attacked and raped despite the UN presence. The refugees are living in utter desperation and insecurity.

Goma is also still a centre of rumours and intrigue. Last January, one of the best analysts of the conflict, Georgianne Nienaber, asked about Nkunda:

“Was he a renegade rebel, freedom fighter, dissident, murderer, saint, or saviour? Truth, quote unquote, was whatever the international media and factional interests decreed. This template of ‘truth’ was forged in international strategic and military interests in the Great Lakes region, not to mention gold, coltan, tin, diamonds and oil.

“China was also silently waiting in the wings for the spoils and Nkunda viewed the Chinese as a threat to his country’s heritage and wealth – a robber baron of the future of Congolese children. In our 2009 discussion during a Virunga thunderstorm at Jomba, shielded from its force by a tattered UNICEF tarp, Nkunda predicted deals between DRC’s President, Joseph Kabila, and the Chinese would benefit no one but Kabila.”

When I was there, Nukunda was reportedly under house arrest in Rwanda, held by Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s forces. (Kagame had been seen as one of his benefactors until then.) He had been warring with Bosco Ntaganda, an accused war criminal who is still at large. Now he is back in action, causing mayhem, and always accessible to the media on his cellphone.

And so another cycle of warfare is underway, with the rest of the world – with so many problems of its own – barely paying attention. Perhaps that’s partially because the region has only one “bad guy” like Joseph Kony, but no mediagenic household name “good guy” like Nelson Mandela.

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at His latest books are Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and Blogothon (Cosimo Books). He hosts a programme on Progressive Radio Network.

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