behind the news

The Conflict in the Congo

It belongs on Page One
November 14, 2008

The ethnic and political free-for-all in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has raged for over a decade, and has pitted over a half-dozen countries and numerous other paramilitary and militia groups against each other. An estimated five million people have been killed in the conflict.

In mid-October of this year, the UN brokered a tenuous cease-fire between the Congolese government and rebel leaders. A week later, that case-fire fell apart. And on October 24, Congolese rebels, led by General Laurent Nkunda, renewed fighting in the DRC’s eastern province of North Kivu.

This is a big story–a story deserving of front-page, in-depth coverage. Instead, we’ve gotten broad and relatively short articles on the subject buried in our newspapers of record. On November 10, The New York Times reported on the most recent of the conflicts between rebels and government-backed militias in Eastern Congo. But the piece did little to demystify the conflict. Take this paragraph about the DRC’s latest cassus belli:

Local Mai-Mai militias, who are aligned with the Congolese government and see themselves as protectors of their land, ambushed rebel soldiers with assault rifles. Several dozen men from the two sides then battled each other at close range, Colonel Dietrich said.

Readers wondering exactly who the Mai-Mai are (other than “protectors of their land,” apparently)–why they’re fighting the government, what they want, and how they’ve managed to displace a quarter-million people in the past few weeks–are given some help a few paragraphs down. But, at that, not much:

There are dozens of local militias in eastern Congo who call themselves Mai-Mai, a reference to a belief in spiritual powers, such as holy oil and amulets, which the fighters often wear in battle.

United Nations officials have said that Mai-Mai fighters are getting increasingly aggressive, in contrast to Congolese troops who seem to have calmed down.

“The government wants to stick to the agreement,” Colonel Dietrich said. But, he added, “the Mai-Mai seem to be getting frustrated. This is a problem.”

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Now, this is slightly insulting to the Mai-Mai, whose ugly, decade-long war belies the seemly disorganized “dozens of local militias” characterization. But it’s even more insulting to readers. If these disparate “dozens of local militias” have gotten universally more “aggressive,” there is, assumedly, some kind of political or military development spurring them forward.

There is, but you’d have to be a pretty astute reader of the Times‘s international page to know what it is. On November 3, Jeffrey Gettleman took a close look at the regional implications of renewed violence in Eastern Congo. In discussing Nkunda, he effectively distilled the causes of one of the most complicated conflicts on earth down to a few paragraphs:

Congo analysts say that Mr. Nkunda may have some legitimate political goals — and Congolese ones at that. For starters, he seems determined to eliminate the Hutu death squads who participated in the massacre of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 and then fled into Congo, where they continue to brutalize with impunity. The Congolese government has promised to disarm the squads. But the rebels — and many Western diplomats — say the government is actually giving the Hutu death squads guns.

“The Congolese Army is working hand in hand with these killers,” said Babu Amani, a spokesman for the rebels.

The rebels want to play a bigger role in governing eastern Congo and even possibly to carve the territory into ethnic fiefs.

The rest of the article is no less sobering, and the Congo is apparently so dysfunctional that a jolting bit about a rebel takeover of a UN base is given only parenthetical treatment. If this doesn’t represent “the brink”—and if Congo is really “on the brink again”—then the Times or some other paper with a large foreign press corps should run a page-one story explaining exactly how the “Great African War” has gotten to this point, and where it appears to be going.

Such a story should also look at how the Obama administration plans on dealing with problems as dire but apparently intractable as the situation in the Congo—the next time the President-Elect talks to reporters, I’d like to see one of them ask him whether he supports the prospect of EU peacekeepers being dispatched to the region. Even a question on where the Congo ranks in his short-term foreign policy priorities would give the issue more prominence than it’s thus far received in the American press. But with articles on the subject both vague and buried in our papers, don’t count on it.

News outlets should also strive to emulate the BBC. On November 11, the British outlet posted an on-location interview with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, which gave readers and listeners an unmistakable sense of the stakes involved in the struggle:

I asked General Nkunda if he was seriously suggesting that he would take over the whole of Congo.

Peering through his thin-rimed spectacles, the tall ethnic Tutsi general stared at me for a moment and bluntly replied: “Of course.”

Armin Rosen is a former CJR intern.