Africa’s Invisible Conflicts: Focus on the DRC

Africa’s Invisible Conflicts: Focus on the DRC

By John Metzler

Over the past three months, the mainstream media in the U.S. have been focused almost entirely on two international stories: The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the crisis in Gaza.

Of course, as reported in other stories in our current newsletter, these reports are all too often biased and incomplete. Erased by our media’s near laser-focus on these two conflicts are serious crises in other regions of the world, including conflicts in Africa that are all too often invisible or sparsely covered by our media. And, when covered, they are most often limited to a few paragraphs that report on, inter alia, the body count of a clash between competing ethnically based militia, providing no background, context, or meaningful analysis.  

As an Africanist, I have been frustrated throughout my professional life with the lack of meaningful coverage of African stories, particularly of stories that focus on the positive developments throughout the continent. In recent years, when African stories are covered in the media, they have often focused on two of our government’s obsessions since 9/11. 

First, “fighting global terrorism,”which in the African context, has been a fixation on the activities of Islamic-affiliated groups such as Boka Haram in northeast Nigeria, al Shabaa in Somalia, a variety of militia in the Sahel, such as al Qaeda in the Maghreb (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso). The current crisis in the Sudan is most often presented to reflect official U.S. concern over the spread of “radical” Islam, and support for global terrorism.

And second, Africa continues to be seen through the lens of a cold war legacy, which in its current manifestation is perceived as competition with China and Russia (e.g. fixation with the work and purported influence of the Wagner Group in countries such as the Central African Republic), which can be a focus of a future newsletter piece.  

Lost in this laser focus are other crises in Africa, including the decades-old conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) which has resulted in the deaths of more than 3 million Congolese since 1996, the current internal displacement of 6.2 million people and more than 1 million Congolese seeking refuge in neighboring countries in east and southern Africa, not to mention widespread endemic hunger and the decimation of health care infrastructure.  

When our news media covers the DRC, as intimated above, it reports gruesome statistics but most often without context or meaningful analysis.  Moreover, when there is an attempt to explain, the media resorts to what social scientists refer to as “explanatory constructs” such as ethnic rivalry (“tribal conflict”) that only serve to obfuscate the reality and reinforce stereotypes that have for more than a century (mis)informed European and American understanding of Africa and Africans. 

As such, reporting on the DRC is not unique in our media’s coverage of Africa. In her much-watched Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” award-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie asserts that the real danger of single stories, single representations, single narratives, is not that they are inaccurate, though often they contain egregious inaccuracies, but that they are incomplete. Adichie’s “single story” is analogous to social scientists’ “social constructs” which inform our interpretations and understandings of African stories, including the three-decade old conflict in the eastern Congo. 

The danger of the single story in the DRC, in this case endemic ethnic (“tribal”) conflict, is not that it has no truth, but that it is totally inadequate, providing us with an excuse to seek a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the historical and, indeed, global context that has informed this tragedy. 

The space understandably allowed a newsletter piece, does not allow for the in-depth interrogation of the historical context that gave rise to the conflict in eastern Congo.  Consequently, I will very briefly list contextual factors that need to be considered:

  1. The unparalleled brutality exercised by King Leopold in the creation of the Congo Free State in the last two decades of the 19th century. 
  2. The legacy of Belgium “paternalism” in their colonial rule of the Congo between 1908-1960, which did not allow for Congolese participation in the political arena, stifled initiative in the civil society and actively promoted divisions along ethnic lines within Congolese (Divide and Rule).
  3. Chaotic transfer of political power at independence in 1960.
  4. Impact of the Cold War in the Congo.  The U.S. and its European allies purposefully murdered Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, supporting and sustaining the autocratic rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, who by the time of his overthrow in 1997 had managed to decimate Congolese civil society, economic infrastructure and political institutions. 
  5. International greed for Congo’s incredible mineral wealth, which includes copper, cobalt, zinc, and many other minerals essential to the production of green energy and modern technology.  The political chaos and lack of social and economic infrastructure, and the legacies of colonialism and the cold war, encouraged international business (including from socialist countries) to engage with local militia in the exploitation of mineral resources, in working with weakened state institutions. The collaboration provided local militia in eastern Congo with funds to purchase arms and ammunition which they used in their contestation with rival militia and the national army.  

This overview is barely introductory.  For interested readers, there is a robust scholarly literature on the Congo. 

For a more accessible overview of the Congo, please consider visiting a website curriculum developed by the MSU African Studies Center.  Module 27 of their Exploring Africa curriculum focuses on the Congo.  Activities Three and Four of that module provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the post-colonial era in the Congo, including an analysis of the current conflict in eastern Congo (1996-present).

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