23 Mar 2007
Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba who lost last year’s presidential election in Congo DR is now a wanted man. He sought temporary refuge in the South African embassy in Kinshasa Thursday after militiamen loyal to him engaged in bloody clashes with Congolese government soldiers in Kinshasa. The government of Joseph Kabila is threatening to charge Jean-Pierre Bemba for treason. Bemba, a former vice president to Kabila in the transition government failed to integrate his private army into the national army in accordance with agreements signed prior to the presidential elections. The fighting has cost the lives of more than a dozen Congolese and is seen as the most serious threat yet to the country’s fragile democracy. Storage facilities of the country’s petroleum reserves were bombed and the violence disrupted the lives of people in Kinshasa, most of whom are barely scratching an existence.
Congo DR is a huge country with an unbelievable variety of natural resources. Congo has been an irresistible magnate to all seekers of fortune for long. Since attaining independence in 1960, the country has witnessed bouts of turmoil and suffered from the kleptomania of the regime of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The situation degenerated further during the 90’s following the influx of Hutu militiamen from neighboring Rwanda after the genocide in that country. As the tottering regime of the late Mobutu came crumbling, Congolese rebels led by the late Laurent Kabila (father of current president) and backed by Rwandan Tutsis took over the country. The continuation of the Hutu-Tutsi Rwandan civil war was now taking place in Congo. When Laurent Kabila eventually fell out with his Rwandan Tutsi allies, a new front of the war was opened within Congo DR. This phase of the war sucked in seven other African countries that backed different warring camps. The enlarged war termed ‘Africa’s world war’ ended with the UN deploying a record number of peacekeeping forces to oversee the transition that led to the October 2006 elections. There are still more than 17000 ‘blue helmets’ of the UN in Congo DR today. Their presence has only reduced the incidence but has not eliminated violence and lawlessness that is particularly rife in Eastern Congo. The UN forces do not seem to deter powerful politicians like Bemba that can still turn to their old talents acquired during the years they lived as warlords.
The recent history of Africa is replete with examples of countries that have suffered from instability because they have natural resources, particularly diamonds.
Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone are examples of countries that have gone through the pain of war because of diamonds. In the case of Sierra Leone, the late rebel leader Foday Sankoh preferred to be a warlord roaming around diamond fields than being the vice president of his country. He had more power and more money by controlling some of the country’s diamond wells for himself rather than being a vice president and letting them be exploited by the government. That is the biggest problem facing Congo today. Illegal mining has put a lot of money into the hands of few crafty men. These men have used the money to purchase weapons and build private armies whose members sometimes earn better than the government soldiers. Congo’s case is further complicated by the alleged involvement of highly placed officials of neighboring countries particularly Rwanda and Uganda in the illicit mining business.
Sensing the potential destabilizing effect on the continent if the crisis is not checked, the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana called on Bemba to disarm and also urged Kabila to treat opponents fairly. The UN Security Council expressed “serious concern” and the South African government has called for negotiations. DR Congo with surface area of 2,344,885 sq. km and with a population of 60m is situated in the heart of Africa and shares borders with nine countries. Kinshasa alone has a population of more than seven million people. Africa is least ready for the type of humanitarian crisis that a crumbling Congo can create given the fact that Africans already have their hands full with the problems of Sudan and Somalia. That is the more reason that Congolese leaders must demonstrate a sense of maturity and tolerance.
Njei Moses Timah