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Opinion Opinion

Posted on Mon, Apr. 28, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
World ignores crisis in the Congo


Perhaps 3.5 million people have died in the five-year Congo civil war, mostly of malnutrition and starvation. The humanitarian crisis there is far and away the worst in the world; some observers say that it is the bloodiest conflict since World War II. Congolese children have the earth's highest mortality rate.

But no one on the rest of the planet seems to care much. There is a barely noticed U.N. mission in Congo, which has been spending $600 million a year doing very little other than getting its members shots against tropical diseases and buying bottled water. The peacekeepers "observe" the rampages, or their grisly aftermaths. They get out of the way as the combatants - which include Congolese, Rwandan, Ugandan and other African troops; members of various allied tribes; and gangs of free-lance criminals - wend their merry way through Congolese villages, stealing, raping and killing.

That tribal affiliations are often far more important than national boundaries complicates matters further. There are 700 different languages and about 250 ethnic groups in Congo, which has 50 million people (twice Iraq's population). No wonder alliances constantly shift in the war, which involves most of the eastern Congo. But then, the boundaries of most African countries were preposterously drawn by colonial powers, in London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin - specifically, by mapmakers in stiff collars around mahogany (from their tropical colonies) tables, sipping wine and smoking fine cigars (also from the colonies).

What is most urgently needed is for one real regional power to come in and enforce a peace - Angola or South Africa? Enforcement efforts by U.N. committee are unlikely to work any better in Africa than they have in, say, Iraq. A decisive and unified command is needed.

Unfortunately, the most powerful nations, including the United States and Britain, don't want to get involved in the Congo quagmire - despite the horrors there, far worse than in Iraq, or even Afghanistan, and despite the immense mineral and botanical wealth of the huge country. (One of the few major interests of the West in the civil-war area is tantalum, a rare metal used in chips of mobile phones; 60 percent of the ore is in Congo. Perhaps the threat to this unpleasant communications mode will someday elicit more interest in, and more publicity about, the civil war. After all, foreign correspondents live and die by their cell phones. A phone crisis might be just the thing to lure journalists to the vivid visuals of the Congolese bloodbath.)

To the West - with the exception of France, which tries to maintain a semblance of its West African empire, often flying in troops without benefit of U.N. Security Council permission - Africa just seems too alien and confused. The Mideast seems far more comprehensible, if hostile, with its open landscapes and clearly defined Abrahamic religions.

Such Mideast dictators as Saddam Hussein, awful as they are, seem more intellectually manageable than such kleptocratic if well-costumed thugs as Congolese President Joseph Kabila, or his most famous, if always rather mysterious and diffuse, predecessor, the longtime dictator Mobutu Seke Seso (loved his monarchical hats!). The fellow was perhaps the greatest thief in history - maybe even greater than the just-deposed thief of Baghdad (perhaps spirited out of Iraq in that Baghdad-Damascus Russian convoy we "accidentally" bombed the other day).

Maybe the "modern-day Saladin" should move to Congo - no one would ever find him there, or care. To go into Congo is to disappear.

To the West, Africa, especially central Africa, still seems like something out of Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" - brutalized and brutal, dense and impenetrable, animistically anxious. But then I guess jungles are more menacing than deserts - much more water but many more diseases and deadly creatures. Is it that the news media find it all too complicated - too many trees, too many snakes, too many tribes, too many gods to try to cover?

Or is it that the people have dark skins? We dehumanize the suffering of Africans by ignoring it - or even making a joke of it: as if the victims of African anarchy and tyranny were comic, like the black figures in a silent film or Al Jolson in blackface, instead of being the victims of tribalism, graft, ruthless foreign exploitation and the perverse use of modern weaponry in places where the restraints of society have mostly evaporated. Indeed, current African life all too often seems to combine the worst aspects of Western and traditional African societies. (V.S. Naipaul writes well on this; e.g., "A Bend in the River.")

The disinclination of the rest of the world to get seriously involved dooms much of the continent to poverty and violence. Lesser catastrophes in places dearer to the West, and with easier camera shots - and more easily drilled oil - will continue to get the attention and the money. As Conrad wrote, "The horror, the horror," in describing an earlier Congo in his richly romantic but deeply pessimistic way. But at least Westerners used to read him.

Robert Whitcomb is editorial page editor of the Providence Journal. Contact him at The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.
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