Africa’s black hole

2008-01-30 00:00

Should South Africans be concerned about what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? In the heyday of decolonisation it was held by the whites of southern Africa to be an awful warning of things to come. History has subsequently unfolded in different, but no less concerning, ways.

The DRC possesses great wealth in natural resources. Perhaps the most important is the rain forest. This acts as an enormous sponge for 30 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to current world emissions over four years. Logging concessions are being granted at an alarming rate by the DRC, and its government is asking for $1,5 billion to stop new applications. This has been described as blackmail, but disappearance of the forest could be calamitous for the continental climate.

The future of massive reserves of base metals, gold, diamonds and uranium is at risk. Sixty concessions granted during the civil war years are regarded as dodgy and are being reviewed against criteria such as environmental damage and conflict of interest. But some observers reckon the process is flawed and might simply result in arrangements with Africa’s new colonisers, the Chinese, who have offered $5 billion in credit as an incentive. Legitimate diamond mining is already in crisis because of insecurity.

The Congo River has the hydro-electric power potential to produce 39 000 megawatts of cheap electricity at Grand Inga, enough to make a significant difference to the energy needs of the entire continent. But development is stalled and only six percent of the DRC’s people benefit from electric power.

A United Nations mission head recently described the DRC’s riches as its curse. Worldwide, oil tends to spell trouble and serious prospecting is now going on along the eastern border. A British geologist was recently shot dead and four Ugandan soldiers were captured near a disputed island in Lake Albert.

It is in this area that the DRC’s recent wars have started and their immediate roots go back to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The Interahamwe, Hutu extremists responsible for nearly one million deaths, still operate in Kivu province and are opposed by Laurent Nkunda’s ethnic Tutsi forces that have set up a parallel government to the north, collecting taxes at roadblocks and recruiting child soldiers.

No hands are clean in the eastern DRC. The national army stands accused of siding with the Interahamwe and local militias, and contains questionable elements incorporated in the name of national unity. All the local forces involved have committed human rights violations, including widespread rape. Alliances are in constant flux and there is speculation that continued instability suits neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. It is a matter of both irony and tragedy that in a region of rich resources, war is a major, long-term economic activity.

Internationally supervised elections in 2006 produced a government prepared to use the iron fist and too many powerful outcasts. The main loser, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was forced into exile. At the time, Angolan forces were rumoured to be in Kinshasa and this makes sense of the chilling claim that the “Savimbi option” — killing Bemba — was considered.

DRC President Laurent Kabila’s government suffers endemic corruption and lacks the competence to put together a credible national budget. Its national army is theoretically five years away from stability and South Africa has offered additional training resources. But of 28 agreements between the two countries, less than a quarter have been ratified by the DRC. A year after elections, and with the United Nations force of 17 600 still in place, there is frustration at a lack of progress coupled with concern at the DRC’s relationships with Angola and China.

President Thabo Mbeki believes that the DRC is central to the African Renaissance. Peace and stability, good governance and greater socio-economic justice would benefit the Congolese people, their neighbours and the continent. Yet the DRC continues to be eaten away by internal politics and poor foreign relations. The BBC recently quoted a European diplomat who described the country as a “black hole at the heart of Africa”, a disturbing judgment considering it is geographically and economically central to African development. As long ago as 1979, Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul in his book A Bend in the River described the city of Kisangani (the former Stanleyville) as “a place where the future had come and gone”. The DRC has suffered a brutal colonial past and venal post-independence rulers, but if its future has truly disappeared Africa faces a severe problem.

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