The Democratic Republic of Congo may discover in 2011 whether it’s getting better or worse. For the past few years, it’s been too tricky to tell. Mass rapes, unprecedented attacks on UN peacekeeping bases and more than 2 million people displaced in the past two years in this vast and conflict-wracked country undermine claims that things are getting better – thanks to the integration of a powerful rebel group in the army and broadly democratic elections – since the end of a war that left 5 million dead.
Congo has far too much going for it to be so poor and unstable. Layered with minerals, thick in forest and with the spectre of oil and the sort of population size (67 million) that makes marketers of everything from bank accounts to toothpaste delight at their ability to sell to scale, it is among the world’s richest resource spots. But far from proving enough to catapult it into high growth and spread the wealth among the 80 per cent of the nation who survive on less than $2 a day, the resources are instead the focus for bad deals, territory takeovers and twisted justice. UN experts say the army is responsible for some of the worst abuses: raping, looting and illegally mining gold and tin ore.
The crux of 2011 will be the election in November. President Joseph Kabila, whose own father Laurent was president before him (and was shot dead on the job 10 years ago), will almost certainly win should he stand again. But he may be nervy. At least three heavyweights are gearing up to stand against Kabila, including one 79-year-old ex-prime minister, Etienne Tshisekedi, who returned to the country after a prolonged absence to such a fanfare – and hundreds of thousands of supporters – that he upstaged the president’s annual address to the nation unfolding at the same time.
Kabila also faces dissent from within his parliamentary umbrella group, and donors and humanitarians are less sure than before about how suitable an option Kabila is after a spate of attacks on local human rights activists including the death of the most high profile campaigner, Floribert Chebeya.
The other crackdown set for 2011 is on the illegal minerals trade that funds rebel groups and the more venal, violent elements of the army. The move is aimed at making it harder to smuggle minerals that keep these groups going and are used in everything from paint pigment to camera lenses, from knee replacements to laptops and cell phones. The US, the UN and even some minerals traders say they want to clean up their act.
The last worry is that the army, made up of ex-rebels and still recruiting children to its ranks, will split and go back to fighting. But Congo’s bad guys are usually too smart for that. They tend to avoid harm themselves and reserve their worst violence for civilians.