Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What's going on in the Congo?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

As someone who is dedicated to counteracting stereotypes Americans have about foreign countries, this piece is difficult to write. There are long-standing tropes of news coverage about Africa that portray the continent as just a series of wars, natural disasters, and poverty. It’s not. There are a lot of good things happening on the continent of Africa, including innovation, economic growth, and successful peace and reconciliation processes. Africans are engaging in their own mission and charity endeavors, as Monday's post indicated.

At the same time, there are a number of serious problems facing one African country in particular: the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC or the Congo for short. The DRC also happens to be the country with the second-highest number of United Methodists, behind the United States. If United Methodists from elsewhere are to understand our sisters and brothers in the Congo, then it’s important to move beyond vague and stereotyped notions of “problems in Africa” to a more specific understanding of the challenges the DRC faces and how those challenges impact the church.

This post summarizes several of the largest challenges facing the country, and a subsequent post will examine the perhaps surprising ways these challenges are affecting the UMC.

Kivu conflict
One of the longest running armed conflicts in the Congo has been going on in Kivu, an eastern area bordering Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi with a substantial number of United Methodists. This conflict has its roots in the Rwandan Genocide and was the central theater for the First and Second Congo Wars, major conflicts involving numerous African countries. Conflict has continued since the end of the Second Congo War with a varied, shifting, and complicated set of government, militia, and foreign forces. Current conflict between the government and rebel groups have been deemed a “war” by the country’s defense minister. UN Peacekeepers sent to reduce fighting have themselves been the targets of recent attacks.

Hema-Lendu conflict/Ituri conflict
There is a long-standing ethnic conflict between the herding Hema ethnic group and the farming Lendu ethnic group. Like the Kivu conflict, it was exacerbated by international forces during the Second Congo War, leading to a period of intense fighting known as the Ituri conflict, after the region in northwest Congo in which the Hema and Lendu live (an area with relatively few United Methodists). While that intense conflict abated in 2003, low-level conflict continued, and there has been a recent increase in fighting that has left dozens dead and 100,000 displaced.

Bantu-Pygmy conflict
Conflict between the Pygmies, a minority ethnic group in the Congo, and the Bantus, the dominant overarching ethnic group in the Congo that includes numerous specific ethnicities, has been happening at least since colonial times. A recent flare-up of conflict began in 2014 and led to numerous deaths. This violence happened in the southeastern Katanga region of the Congo, a heavily Methodist area. The two sides signed a peace treaty in 2017, but given the long-standing nature of that conflict, the possibility for further conflict still exists.

DRC President Joseph Kabila’s term of office ended in 2016, but he has not stepped down and has delayed calling new elections despite international pressure to hold elections. Elections are now scheduled for December 2018. There are signs that Kabila will run again despite being constitutionally barred from a third term. Opposition to Kabila and uncertainty surrounded elections has been a major factor increasing the country’s conflicts, especially the Kasai conflict described below.

Kasai conflict
Opposition to Kabila has led to a new anti-government movement in the Kasai area of central Congo, an area with relatively few United Methodists. Conflict between the anti-government Kamuina Nsapu movement and government forces has left thousands dead and over a million displaced. While this conflict has emerged within the last two years, it is closely tied to the long-term saga of presidential succession in the Congo.

Resource extraction
The fuel driving these political and military crises – presidential misbehavior, armed opposition, incursion by foreign countries – is the Congo’s vast mineral wealth. The Congo has extensive resources of copper, gold, diamonds, rare elements essential for components of modern electronics, and other minerals. Yet these resources have never served to enrich the people of the Congo. Instead, they have been siphoned off, first by European colonial rulers and then by Western multinational corporations and a “kleptocracy” of corrupt Congolese politicians. Control of mining resources continues to be a major motive for and funding source of armed groups in the country today.

One of the more recent problems in the Congo is an outbreak of Ebola. There have been several dozen cases including numerous deaths, in the northwest area of the country (an area where there are relatively few United Methodists). Ebola has been discovered in the large city of Bikoro. At this point, this outbreak is nowhere near as severe as the outbreak in West Africa in 2015-16. The Congolese government and international agencies are taking steps to prevent the outbreak from spreading and becoming more severe, including vaccinating health workers.

Natural disasters
The Congo is not unique in having natural disasters. All countries have significant natural disasters, including highly developed countries such as the United States. Among the natural disasters affecting the Congo in the last year are landslides and flooding. If the Congo is unique in its natural disasters, its in having a more limited internal capacity to respond to those natural disasters because of a low level of economic development and a high level of political disfunction.

These challenges combined have made the DRC one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world right now. The German United Methodist disaster relief agency, Diakonie, has called it “the largest humanitarian crisis that the world has not noticed.”

Yet, as this post began by saying, it is oversimplifying and stereotyping to say that all is doom and gloom. Much of the country is peaceful. There are good things happening in the Congo, and UMC is one of them. I’ll explain why and how next week.

1 comment:

  1. David, I question your use of the word "Pygmy", which has come to have negative connotations in recent years. An article I wrote for UM Insight last year about conflict in the region referred to the "Pgymy" people as Bashimbi, based on information from district superintendent Rev. Joseph Mulongo. In addition, other ethnic groups such as the Twa are included among "Pygmy" cultures. I hope in future posts you'll be more specific about which ethnic groups are involved. Thank you.