- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009

BUKAVU, Congo | To understand what is wrong with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you need only try driving here.

Properly paved roads are scarce, and the few miles of macadam often don’t seem to connect to anything.

Most streets are, at best, hard-packed dirt with swirling dust that cannot stand up to fierce, nearly daily storms. Some roads are cratered with potholes so wide and deep they could almost swallow a Land Cruiser. The puddles are breeding pools for malarial mosquitoes.

One persistent rumor among weary Congolese has local officials canceling paving contracts because their slice of graft is too small.

“My country is broken,” said Hortense Barholere, a Congolese coordinator for the Washington-based Women For Women International. “Without a road, we have no mail. How can you receive a letter when you have no address?”

Despite abundant natural beauty and fertility, armed conflict — and related hunger and disease — have killed an estimated 5 million people here since 1998 — a veritable second Holocaust that the International Rescue Committee says claims 45,000 new victims every month in a country of 67 million people.

In comparison, the highly publicized death toll in the Darfur region of Sudan is thought to be between 200,000 and 500,000.

“By any yardstick, [Congo] has been a humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored,” John Holmes, undersecretary-general of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the U.N. Security Council earlier this year.

Few communities here have the most basic services: electricity, sanitation, potable water, honest police and access to more than rudimentary education.

The army, which in many developing nations is the key national institution, collapsed years ago. Today, its ragtag soldiers and their former rebel adversaries are only very slowly learning how to function as a cohesive force that could eventually defend Congo against foreign incursions and domestic instability.

Congo lacks other key qualities that make a nation: interconnectedness, a government that is able to exert authority consistently in territory beyond the capital, a shared culture that promotes national unity and a common language.

In a state without civil services, law or cohesion, bandits and militias rule with fear and fire. Impunity is widespread for crimes ranging from petty theft to gang rapes.

Law enforcement and the justice system are so weak that only the most unlucky offenders are apprehended, let alone convicted.

“If you look around, including places where society has broken down, you’ve got a generation of boys and men who have grown up without effective state order,” said Tony Gambino, an international consultant and aid specialist who has followed this country since he was a Peace Corps volunteer here 30 years ago.

The United Nations has stationed more than 20,000 troops and civilians in far eastern Congo, in an effort to train the disastrously unprofessional Congolese army and protect scores of tiny, isolated villages.

Known by its French acronym as MONUC, the $1.2 billion a year Congo mission is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping effort in U.N. history.

It is also one of the least effective, according to people who live in the rebel-infested Kivu area, many of whom now live in squalid camps after being driven from their homes.

Sexual violence, killing and displacement are not diminishing. Perpetrators include the Congolese army and insurgent groups.

The government has not paid the army since November, encouraging soldiers to “live off the land,” a common euphemism for stealing food, money and goods from the people they are supposed to protect.

Even when officials are paid, salaries are so low that they promote corruption. A major in the Bukavu police force makes $50 a month, while teachers are said to make about half that. Children are forced into traffic by their parents to beg for money or to sell tissues and match books.

Donor countries are so wary about the Congo’s culture of extortion and double-dealing that they send relief and development money to the United Nations or NGOs, rather than the Kinshasa government. Corruption is so widespread that a functionary in the government’s Ministry of Communications not only demands a $200 bribe for a press card, he writes out a receipt for it.

By any reasonable expectation, Congo should be unfathomably rich. Thick veins of minerals run underneath some of the most fertile soil in Africa. Lush jungles are filled with fruit that could be exported to Europe and beyond.

North Kivu and South Kivu provinces, in Congo’s volatile east, are remarkably verdant, choked with banana and avocado trees, corn and potato plants, peanut vines, sugar cane and tomatoes.

And yet, 3 million Congolese rely on food from the U.N. World Food Program.

The government in Kinshasa has focused on lucrative contracts with Chinese companies to extract oil and minerals. To the extent there are roads in the country, it is because the Chinese are paving them.

Big exports include coltan (columbite-tantalite), a mineral vital for making cell phones and Xboxes, and cassiterite, the base metal in tin cans and tinfoil.

Despite these abundant natural resources, Congo malingers at the rock bottom of the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Report. The gross domestic product per capita is about $300, or less than a dollar a day.

The Security Council’s panel of Congo specialists, who have been monitoring the effects of a weapons embargo, recently reaffirmed the connections between economic exploitation, trafficking and human rights abuses.

“It is no accident that the majority of the violence in eastern Congo has been carried out in areas rich with minerals,” the panel said. “Conflict minerals remain a key source of financing for some of the most reprehensible armed groups in the world.”

And yet this year, there has been some relatively good news.

Most of the Rwanda-backed National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) militia that swept murderously through North Kivu in January have either slipped into civilian life or voluntarily remobilized into the Congolese army.

In the spring, President Joseph Kabila forged secret agreements to hold joint operations with Rwanda and Uganda, slightly improving the cooperation of all three armies and governments.

However, the anti-Rwanda Rwandan Liberation Democratic Forces (FDLR) militia and Uganda’s merciless Lord’s Resistance Army are still in Congo’s jungles, regularly swooping down on communities to raid supplies.

An estimated 1.7 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting. At least a quarter of a million have fled violence in North Kivu in the first six months of 2009, and nongovernmental organizations are anticipating a similar exodus from South Kivu.

Given the unbreachable distance between the Kivus and Kinshasa, many Congolese identify more closely with their foreign neighbors than with their capital.

One possible solution is the ultimate African taboo: to break up the DRC into more manageably sized pieces, even hiving off some of its outlying areas for neighbors to annex.

Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills, writing earlier this year in Foreign Policy magazine, make a passionate case for international aid groups to emphasize regional problem-solving and security, rather than funding elections to choose central governments with no national credibility.

“The very concept of a Congolese state has outlived its usefulness,” they write. “Congo has become a collection of peoples, groups, interests and pillagers who co-exist at best.”

Without a strong central government or professional army, land- or energy-starved neighbors and trade partners have treated Congo’s riches as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“Congo will not know peace until our neighbors are richer,” said Kalume Bernard Buleri, a Goma-based human rights activist who has worked with MONUC and nongovernmental organizations. “It is like a man eating a fish in front of a starving cat.”

• Betsy Pisik can be reached at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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