Over the last year inflation has eaten up the purchasing power of the Congo franc. Many people in the cities are severely malnourished or starving and markets are barely functioning. In the capital, there has been sporadic violence, especially after the mass jail-break of about 4000 prisoners who have scattered into hiding in the city of ten million. Traffic police often stop drivers for minor infractions, but now military police frequently stop and search vehicles. Besides the decades of warring militia in eastern Congo, for a year now the central province of Kasai has been a hotbed of fighting between tribal groups and the military (under the dictatorial ex-president Kabila who refuses to leave office). Some UN investigators (including an American and a Swedish national) were captured and murdered; each side blames the other. This Kasai province is the home region of the three most active founders of WCOA and many of its members, so the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and starving people is a special concern to them as well as a destabilizing factor in the country at large.
The New Year’s Eve (St. Sylvester) compromise agreement between Kabila and the non-violent opposition seemed to offer hope that 2017 would be better. The leader of the opposition, Etienne Tshisekedi, 84, was to oversee the transition process moving toward elections in Dec. 2017. He was the only person trusted by almost all Congolese. Sadly, he died on Feb. 1, leaving a terrible vacuum. In mid-summer the Election Committee announced that elections will not be held in December, dashing the fragile hope for political improvement.
DR Congo has been in the news again for political unrest. The campaign to elect a new president was supposed to begin on Sept. 19. Recently the electoral commission declared that no elections can be held until a new census has been taken and Kabila will remain in power until elections. Opposition parties have boycotted the “dialogue” claiming it favors the president; they planned peaceful demonstrations for Sept. 19.
These turned violent when government security forces opened fire; in Kinshasa opposition neighborhoods were surrounded by military. Most people remained within doors, children did not attend school, food was scarce with shops closed. Some calm has now returned but it is precarious.
The Catholic bishops have withdrawn from the “dialogue,” further reducing its claim to be a fair venue for discussion of the situation. International sanctions have targeted major figures behind Kabila; for example, the US has frozen American assets of Maj. General Amisi Kumba and John Numbi, a former senior police official. These sanctions have as their goal encouraging Congo keep to its constitution but as yet they have not had much effect & Kabila is working to change the constitution. Please keep our sisters & brothers in your thoughts & prayers.
See The Guardian, Sept. 28, 2016.
In September 2015 a documentary about Dr. Denis Mukwege brought new attention to the devastating situation of women in the war zones of eastern Congo, where many many thousands have been raped since the fighting began in 1997. The film was entitled “L’homme qui répare les femmes – la colère d’Hippocrate” (The Man Who Repairs Women: the Wrath of Hippocrates”).
It tells the story of Dr. Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from Congo who returned from studying aboard to establish Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC, in 1999. He and his staff have dedicated themselves to the medical treatment of 30,000 survivors of sexual violence. They also assist with legal and psycho-social support. The documentary provides interviews of women and identifies categories of rapists, include the army. For this reason, the DRC government banned the film for a time and required changes before it could be shown in Congo.
Like the women whom he helps bring back to life, Dr. Mukwege has been on the frontlines for many years. After a speech at the UN in Oct. 2012 calling on Congo’s leaders to address the fighting and denouncing sexual violence as a weapon of war, he and his family were attacked and his guard was killed. The family fled from Congo but in Jan. 2013 Dr. Mukwege returned to his work of repairing the ravages of rape, especially fistula. Fistula is a medical condition usually caused by prolonged obstructed childbirth, especially of young girls whose bodies are not mature, but it is frequently one of the consequences of rape by a gang or with brutal instruments (in war zones, guns or sticks may be thrust into a woman as a kind of rape). The abuse tears the wall between uterus and urinary tract or rectum so that waste cannot be controlled. When urine continually runs down her legs a girl is cast out as a disgusting, stinking broken body. Many die. Surgical repair is relatively easy — but it requires the will to see these victims as valuable people — something that Dr. Mukwege and Panzi Hospital do so well.
For more information, see Physicians for Human Rights, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 1997.
The Council on Foreign Relations is a non-partisan think-tank devoted to studying the global situation. Its reporting on Congo is very helpful:
For nearly two decades, the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been the epicenter of the deadliest conflict since World War II. Part of a vast country straddling the heart of central Africa, the eastern Congo continues to defy efforts at pacification. As the conflict has morphed from a regional war to a series of tenacious local insurgencies, the civilians caught in the middle have paid the steepest price.
Read more at www.cfr.org.
For a briefer overview, the Enough Project provides a good summary and offers ways to take action:
Over 5.4 million dead. Over 2 million displaced. Congo is home to the deadliest conflict since World War II. … The conflict in Congo is notorious for serious violations of human rights, including violence against women and the use of child soldiers.
Read more at www.enoughproject.org.
On March 15, 2016, the USA took a step towards a diplomatic means to address justice for girls and the problem of child marriage. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the United States Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls. This directs US diplomats to raise issues such as child marriage in countries where there is a high rate of this practice which is particularly devastating for young girls. USAID is mandated to support “evidence-based” programs which work to delay the age of marriage. Google: “Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.”
Constitutional crisis: Background: Following years of civil war, a new constitution was ratified and in 2006 the DRC successfully held national elections for the first time in decades. Joseph Kabila was elected president. In the 2011 elections President Kabila was re-elected for a second 5-year term, though the voting was marred by many irregularities. The next elections are scheduled for Nov. 2016, and according to the constitution President Kabila cannot stand for a third term.
Crisis: There are increasing tensions and protests, and the major opposition candidate, Moise Katumbi, has been forced to flee the country and sentenced to jail in absentia “for illegally selling a property.” The high court has decreed that President Kabila will stay in power until elections are held, so indefinite postponement is a possibility. The international community has threatened sanctions, which President Kabila labels as imperialism. The EnoughProject says that Congolese activists see economic pressure as the best way to hold Kabila accountable and bring about elections; they urge Americans to ask their Congress members to co-sponsor H.Res.780.
Sources: Jeffrey Gettleman in the NYTimes, May 11, 2016; BBC News, Africa, May 11, 2016; Le monde, May 20 & May 23, 2016; Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2016. EnoughProject.org/ Raise Hope for Congo, June 28, 201