KYANGWALI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda—“What I left behind is so precious, so much more important than what I am left with here,” said the 37-year-old Congolese refugee we’ll call Edward. “When I arrived in the refugee camp, I fell to the ground in grief, traumatized by all that I had lost.”
Edward was a businessman who sold clothing before large-scale violence returned to the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the last several months, well over 400,000 people from Ituri have been driven from their homes, the bulk of them ending up in refugee camps in neighboring Uganda, bereft of everything but the clothes on their backs. They join the 4.8 million people already displaced by Congo’s waves of violence, the second highest total in the world after Syria.
“A year ago we heard rumors that [Congolese President Joseph] Kabila wanted to create violence to delay elections,” Edward told me. “The day before Christmas of this past year, two of my relatives were murdered. Then the killings accelerated. The militias would come and seal off a village, then go house to house with machetes. Very few people escaped. Eventually they would burn the village. At one point, there were so many bodies you could hardly walk.”
Edward said that Congolese soldiers who tried to intervene to protect villagers were themselves “chopped up” by the militias. Edward said he witnessed a woman in a nearby village being pursued by a militia. She ran and physically clung to a nearby policeman, but the militia “pulled her away and chopped her up.” When Edward was told by a Congolese soldier that he and his fellow soldiers were given instructions not to intervene, “My first thought was that Kabila had sold us out. I felt we had to run for our lives. We were so traumatized, we could not fight back. What we have known most of our lives is war.”
So Edward and 20 of his neighbors put their money together to hire a boat to escape. The price of a ride across Lake Albert to Uganda had doubled due to the heavy demand of those wanting to flee, which meant that many spent all the money they had just to get away. “I witnessed one boat with seven people which capsized. They all drowned.”
Nearly every refugee we have met in Uganda laid the responsibility for the violence at the feet of President Kabila and his strategy of chaos which could provide the pretext for an indefinite delay in elections that were originally scheduled for 2016 but have been postponed repeatedly. Constitutionally, Kabila is mandated to hand over power to his elected successor.
Not one person ascribed the atrocities in the gold- and oil-rich Ituri Province to inter-ethnic or “inter-tribal” violence, the reason cited in most international media and diplomatic accounts. Similar spasms of violence—with alleged state government complicity—have occurred in other regions of Congo over the last year, including in the Kasai region in the center of the country and North and South Kivu in the east. As another refugee said, “I did not flee the Hema-Lendu conflict,” referring to the two main ethnic groups in Ituri where the refugees come from. “I fled the conflict caused by the government.”
The use of extreme violence by the leaders of successive Congolese regimes (and Belgian King Leopold II before them) has been a central part of a strategy to maintain power by any means necessary.
The current governmental institutions have been captured by President Kabila, some of his close family members, senior political and military officials, and their foreign commercial collaborators in order to loot the vast natural resources of the country.
Instead of providing security, delivering services, and dispensing justice, the state has been repurposed to privatize Congo’s extraordinary wealth in the hands of the head of state and his small network of beneficiaries. To solidify this arrangement, Congo’s military and police foment violence and repress independent voices in a classic divide and conquer political strategy.
In order to secure that wealth and immunity from prosecution, President Kabila seeks to extend his presidency as long as he is able to, preferably for life, just as some of his savvier Central African neighbors have done before him.
As the rule of law is subverted and those with the biggest guns grab the loot, there are winners and losers.
The losers are the vast majority of the Congolese people, 77 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations, and with more and more ending up in the displaced and refugee camps like the one I am visiting.
The winners are most conspicuously President Kabila and his commercial, political, military, and paramilitary co-conspirators. But the real money from this looting and killing machine is being made outside the country, by Congo’s neighbors and international corporate collaborators.
Regionally, commercial actors and/or officials in Rwanda and Uganda continue to benefit tremendously from smuggled minerals, particularly gold, as they compete over the illicit spoils of Congo’s vast natural resource wealth. These two neighbors have a sordid history over the past two and a half decades of intervening militarily or through proxy militias in Congo’s mineral-rich east. Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Angola, among others, have also taken advantage of Congo’s compromised sovereignty during the past two decades.
Internationally, a host of parasitic financiers, mining companies, banks, and mineral smugglers have earned spectacular profits on the back of Congo’s misery. As if to punctuate this, while I had lunch on a veranda overlooking Lake Victoria before journeying to the refugee camp, I overheard a group of foreign businessmen from a few different countries devising a plan for circumventing regulatory controls in their mineral sector investments.
In response to the death, displacement, and destruction in Congo, which has few post-World War II parallels globally, the international community has spent billions of dollars to provide emergency aid and deploy the largest and most expensive United Nations peacekeeping operation in the world. These are humanitarian band-aids attempting to cover gaping human rights and governance wounds. Instead of just treating symptoms, we need to begin to attack the root causes of this spiraling crisis.
After many delays, the elections scheduled for December represent Congo’s veritable fork in the road. If they are stolen or Kabila remains in power beyond December, violence and regional instability will escalate, and the kleptocracy will be reinforced. The warning signs are apparent now: billboards and videos campaigning for Kabila are going up in Congo, and the government is preventing parties and protestors from holding rallies. On the other hand, if a credible election and transition are held, a major first step will be taken on Congo’s long and difficult road to an accountable and transparent government, the critical prerequisite for peace and human rights.
There may be no greater challenge on the African continent today than supporting such a system change, a far different goal than the regime change that the Kabila government regularly accuses its adversaries of fomenting. There are internal and external elements to a strategy that could successfully see the dismantling of the violent kleptocratic system in Congo today.
Inside the country, civil society, media, legal, and parliamentary efforts at reform are critical. Exposing human rights abuses, combating corrosive corruption by pressing for mining deals and companies to be fully transparent, advocating for prosecuting those responsible for atrocities, demanding opportunities for women and youth, pushing for the delivery of social services and reform of the military, mediating disputes before they explode into violence, and other such efforts are all building blocks for meaningful system change.
Outside the country, governments around the world should ramp up pressure on President Kabila’s kleptocratic network, which will do all it can to avoid serious reform or change. The international community should focus on using its tools of financial pressure now, ahead of a critical period: June 23 to August 8, when candidates must register.
If Kabila unconstitutionally puts himself on the ballot then, it will spell disaster and will be much harder for the international community to positively influence the situation and for a credible democratic transition of power to occur in Congo.
There must be meaningful consequences for the regional and international commercial enablers who profit from the exploitation of natural resources while sustaining those directly responsible for this horrific violence, and preventive sanctions to send a clear message to Kabila that his candidacy is unacceptable and stop him before he makes a disastrous electoral decision.
In order to disincentivize financial motivations for perpetuating these atrocities and promote a credible democratic transition, the international community should aggressively escalate the use of financial tools of leverage such as targeted network sanctions focused not just on those carrying the guns and machetes but also the checkbooks and briefcases of cash for Kabila and his cronies. Earlier sanctions helped get the government and opposition to sign a key deal in December 2016, but more pressure is needed now for the larger goal, a democratic transition.
A major building block for an escalation strategy was the U.S. sanctioning Israeli mining and oil tycoon Dan Gertler, a major facilitator of and profiteer from Kabila’s kleptocracy, along with 19 of his companies and one of his business associates.
While targeting Gertler was an important first step, more sanctions against other commercial enablers are urgently needed now in order to prevent Kabila from running in the elections and to enable a credible democratic transition.
In addition, strict anti-money-laundering standards should be applied by financial institutions conducting business in the region or who process transactions on behalf of other banks that do. Until we cut off the ability of the kleptocratic elites to enjoy the spoils of the misery that they sow in Congo, the innocent will continue to suffer.
As it stands now, war crimes pay. Dictatorship and conflict facilitate the looting. Unless we target that equation, the mass suffering will continue.
As one refugee told me simply, “My hope is to leave this camp and go home in peace.” In order for peace to have any chance, those benefiting from human misery inside and outside Congo need to pay a price, whether financial, legal, or political, and the kleptocratic system that favors violence and repression needs to be steadily and systematically dismantled.