"There is much worry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Especially in the eastern part, I think the WAR is too much Once more, for more than a week, the rebel Nkunda has been attacking villages near Goma, about 2km distant. As usual, the result is that millions of people are homeless, displaced, starving, injured, some others even died, and women raped. This is life in the east of DRC."
-- (Email received from Goma, DRC, September 24, 2008)
Image: Broken Baby in Goma (2007)
All politics is local, to paraphrase the venerable Bostonian and Democratic, Tip O'Neill. To human rights workers, journalists, writers, and humanitarians who have intimate knowledge of the Great Lakes Region of Equatorial Africa, this short email conjures a place, people, and tragedy that has been met with a wall of silence on the campaign trail. Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has addressed this great humanitarian breakdown, except in the context of political squabbling.
After Obama's promise in Israel this year to "never again" allow genocide to occur, the McCain camp quickly pounced, issuing a press release saying that if Obama were sincere in that statement, he would have voted to allow the troop surge in Iraq.
The media immediately published Obama's response: "Well, look, if that's the criteria [genocide or humanitarian crisis] by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in Congo right now--where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife--which we haven't done."
On the surface, this political exchange of rhetoric seems straightforward, but upon deeper analysis it reveals the lack of understanding in the press and the campaigns about what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and by extrapolation, the rest of the African continent. The press corps missed a glaring error in Obama's response, and that error is illustrative of the ignorance America has regarding Africa.
Friends of the Congo issued a strong response to Obama's statement, objecting to the stereotypical notion that tribal bloodletting is responsible for this travesty. The United Nations has termed the humanitarian crisis in Congo the "deadliest in the world since World War II." Nearly 6 million people have died in the region since 1996 due to the war and conflict related causes such as treatable disease, malnutrition and related violence, including the documented rapes of 200,000 women and children. Doctors Without Borders has consistently reported that the Congo conflict is one of the top ten most under reported stories in the world.
Image: Photo of woman who was tortured by secret police. Emailed to author in 2007
"The central reason for the nearly six million dead in the Congo since 1996 is not ethnic strife but rather the scramble for Congo's enormous treasure trove of diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, coltan, tin, timber and more," says Maurice Carney of Friends of the Congo.
Carney is not alone. Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai has assessed these misconceptions and said "these wars when you look at them, they are all about resources and who is going to control them."
DRC harbors the richest, purest minerals in the world, many of them vital to the U.S. defense industry. There is not one person who is reading this article who does not benefit by mineral extraction and exploitation in DRC. For example, Congo has from 64%-80% of the world's reserve of coltan. Oil may arguably be the non-renewable resource which is front and center in every American's mind, but coltan is found in cell phones, laptops, digital cameras, and video game consoles. Coltan is the engine behind our communications systems, and 1500 people a day are dying in this region while Americans profit from corporate greed, take Congolese resources, turn our backs, and power-up our cellphones.
Make no mistake about it, there is a violent resource war happening in Congo and a great wall of silence has been erected around it. While foreign corporations and American consumers benefit, 1.5 million people are in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps in Kivu Province alone. This is the WAR addressed in the email that introduced this commentary.
Tim Butcher, Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph writes: "There has not been a single day in post-Saddam Iraq or Taliban-infested Afghanistan when 1,500 souls have perished."
Yet, the candidates are mute during this campaign, seemingly unengaged in Africa's problems.
"Eradicating poverty, particularly in Africa, is the greatest global challenge facing the world today," read a declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly Monday evening. Congo has vast reserves of mineral wealth and the Congolese people are living on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day.
Image: Congolese School Room
Image: Rat infested bags of ground grain for children
The World Bank has estimated that a whopping 75 % of Congo's copper and cobalt reserves were basically given away to multi-national corporations.
Novelist John le Carre's (The Mission Song) op-ed in the Boston Globe "Getting the Congo's Wealth to Its People" explains, "As the deals presently stand, the main profit Congo state will make is from taxing the operations and exports of the mining companies. For a minimal return, it has signed away millions -- if not billions -- of dollars' worth of copper and cobalt for 35 years."
Both the Democratic and Republican parties have close ties with questionable mineral extraction both in the United States and in developing countries. This may or may not explain the lack of dialogue on the exploitation of Congo's resources.
The UK Guardian reported on September 23 that Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, appears unaffected by the financial market meltdown. Freeport has a major new project, the Tenke Fungurume copper/cobalt operation in Democratic Congo. This project is moving forward despite longstanding allegations of financial and environmental abuse in Indonesia, as first reported by the New York Times in 2005.
Last year, Freeport paid off nearly half the debt it incurred from its takeover of Phelps Dodge in March, 2007. Freeport pulled out of its base in New Orleans and moved to Phoenix. The acquisition expanded Freeport's mining assets beyond its copper, gold and silver mining facility in Papua, Indonesia, to include Phelps Dodge's eight mines in the western United States, including Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico; three mines in South America; and the project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to BNet.
Phelps Dodge was tied to McCain"s 2000 Presidential run by the Center for Public Integrity.
Phelps Dodge Corporation, a copper mining and manufacturing company, is the largest copper producer in the United States. It is also McCain's number ten career patron, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Phelps Dodge is also a major polluter, ranking number 23 in the "Toxic 100" as ranked by the Political economy research Institute.
A third of all the copper in the United States comes from the Arizona Morenci mine, making Phelps Dodge the largest copper producer in North America. In 1996 the San Carlos Apache tribe accused Phelps Dodge of abusing a water rights agreement.
A compromise agreement which required congressional approval was brokered by McCain. "We were very successful," a spokesman for Phelps Dodge told the Center.
At about the same time in 1997, the Austin Chronicle reported that Ruth Harkin of The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) convinced colorful Freeport Chairman James R. Moffett to contribute "$100,000 to the Democratic National Committee. According to Federal Election Commission documents, Freeport-McMoRan gave the DNC $40,000 on August 26. On September 6, the wives of Freeport's top executives, Chief Financial Officer Richard Adkerson, Vice Chairman Rene Latiolais, and Chief Investment Officer Charles Goodyear, wrote checks to the DNC totalling $35,000. Four days later, Moffett's wife Louise wrote a check to the DNC for $2,500." Grand total? $77,500.
Freeport has donated large sums to several Louisiana universities, including: $4.1 million to Louisiana State University; $1.1 million to Loyola, plus an endowed chair in Environmental Studies; and $1.25 million to Tulane. When students from an Environmental Studies program actively protested Freeport's actions in Indonesia, Freeport CEO Moffett threatened to take back six hundred thousand dollars which had been donated for that program, according to an article in New Orleans Loyola University ''Maroon'' on Friday, April 11, 1997.
Moffett is also legendary for his attempts in 1987 attempt to dump 12 million tons of low-level radioactive gypsum into the Mississippi River. (SPINNING GOLD
by Robert Bryce, Mother Jones Magazine; September/October 1996)
According to the Center for Public Integrity, "The top five mining contributors to the political parties in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles -- Peabody Energy, Addington Enterprises, Freeport-McMoRan, Boich Group, and the National Mining Association -- gave more than $3.4 million, 89 percent of their party donations, to the Republican national committees and just $809,000 to the Democrats."
Long-term copper markets have soared in recent years on demand from China and other developing countries building their infrastructure. The merger of the Phelps Dodge and Freeport created the world's second-largest copper company, according to the Bloomberg news service.
There is no indication that either candidate has questioned mining concessions in Africa, as well as environmental and social impacts on the poorest people in the world.
The rapidly dwindling Congo rainforest, a great source of potential wealth for the Congolese is now floating down the Congo River on barges belonging to multi-national corporations. Obama has addressed this issue.
In a letter to the World Bank on August 17, 2007, Obama questioned the WB's involvement in DRC and the potential destruction of the rainforest. "We are concerned that irrevocably destructive logging practices are currently expanding in the DRC at an alarming rate. We believe that this policy directly threatens the long term viability of the local communities that are sustained by the rainforest and undermines the long-term development of the DRC."
The letter was signed by Obama, Senators Russel Feingold (D-WI), Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Susan M. Collins (R-ME) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
Both McCain and Obama support the International Criminal Court, and this may provide a window to their world view.
The ICC is an independent adjudicator that investigates and prosecutes international crimes including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The ICC is actively involved in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Northern Uganda, the Darfur Region of Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
The ICC is required to give first opportunity to investigate and prosecute a case to the nation/state involved, and will step in only when it concludes the nation is not making a good-faith effort to hold anyone accountable. So far, it has issued arrest warrants in only three cases, from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.
It is assumed that the ICC wants to move against General Laurent Nkunda in DRC, but to do so would interfere with the cozy relationship the United States has with Rwanda. Nkunda is believed to be Rwanda's proxy army in DRC. DRC is strategically important for US access to the mineral wealth, and Rwanda also has an eye on what Congo has to offer.
Citizens for Global Solutions issued a white paper on the similarities between the Obama and McCain campaigns on the issue of whether or not the United States should join the ICC. Believe it or not, although 106 nations have joined the ICC, the United States has not, and George Bush has refused to consider membership.
According to Citizens for Global Solutions, "the president has not only refused to join, but has attempted to undermine the Court's legitimacy. During his tenure, President Bush has coerced more than 100 countries into signing Bilateral Immunity Agreements (BIAs). These agreements withhold important financial aid unless the country agrees never to bring a U.S. service member to the ICC."
Obama and McCain have indicated that they would support the ICC, but have made no commitments yet as to whether the United States would become a full member.
According to a September 2008 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 68% of Americans believe that the United States should participate in the Rome Statute treaty on the International Criminal Court. The Rome Statute gives the ICC the authority to try individuals for war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity if their own country won't try them.
Obama appears to be the more reticent of the two candidates. His endorsement of membership is tepid at best: ""the United States should cooperate with the ICC investigation in a way that reflects American sovereignty and promotes our national security interests," Obama says.
McCain appears to be much more supportive in his public statements, but is worried about safeguards. Both he and Democratic Vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden stood in bi-partisan agreement in 2005 to join the ICC.
"U.S. and allied intelligence assets, including satellite technology, should be dedicated to record any atrocities that occur in Darfur so that future prosecutions can take place. We should publicly remind Khartoum that the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes in Darfur and that Sudanese leaders will be held personally accountable for attacks on civilians," McCain said in 2006 in the Washington Post.
What is notable in McCain's response is that satellite imaging already blankets this region because of strategic interests. One can actually Google Ugandan "refugee" (activists would say "concentration") camps in northern Uganda. Darfur is McCain's focus in his public statements, and the wall of silence remains around Congo.
Kambale Musavuli, a student intern with Friends of the Congo, was at a National Press Club meeting in Washington on Wednesday. Representatives from the Obama and McCain campaigns answered questions about their policies with regard to the DRC.
Musavuli told OffTheBus that the Obama campaign "wants to understand the root cause of the conflict and learn more about illegal exploitation of the resources." The Obama campaign also said it wants the United States to enter the international criminal court system.
The McCain campaign, "spoke more about Darfur and nothing about the Congo," Musavuli reports. "When asked questions about the Congo, they did not answer it directly."
"Genocide" is the driving word behind the "popularity" of the slaughter in Sudan. There are also clear cut "good guys" and bad guys, and the Arabs wear the metaphorical black hats in Darfur. Still, half a million people have died in Darfur vs. 6 million in the last ten years in DRC. Add to that number 15-25 million Congolese deaths during the rule of Belgian King Leopold, and the numbers defy imagination.
But pundits are unapologetic about perpetuating the silence surrounding DRC. In June of 2007, Nickolas Kristoff wrote an op-ed which explained why he would not focus on DRC.
"My answer has been that Darfur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty. And now that I'm here in Congo, I think that's exactly right. It's terrible to see kids dying here in eastern Congo of malaria, malnutrition and simple ailments like diarrhea. But there is still a big difference. Congo is essentially a tale of chaos and poverty and civil war. Militias slaughter each other, but it's not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about: An Arab government in Khartoum arming Arab militias to kill members of black African tribes," Kristoff wrote.
American media has not aggressively investigated the vast oil reserves under Sudan and its connection to lack of political will in this conflict. Leopold killed 25 million Africans in DRC because of greed. Are the deaths of 25 million any less than the deaths of 4 million because "greed' does not equate with "genocide" in the international lexicon? Or are the numbers just too big for rational minds to grasp without inducing an intellectual insanity?
Why should the American public care?
According to a GAO report: "In fiscal years 2006 and 2007, respectively, USDA, DOD, HHS, DOL, State, Treasury, and USAID allocated a total of about $217.9 million and $181.5 million for the DRC. About 70 percent of the funds supported humanitarian and social development objectives, and about 30 percent of the funds supported economic and natural resources, governance, and security objectives."
This is DRC alone and does not reflect the billions spent on the African continent.
The GAO report makes it clear that the bulk of expenditures in DRC have included emergency supplies, food, water, and sanitation improvements. Still, 1500 people per day are dying in this region. It is either a failed program, or the money is not going where it is allocated. The latter seems to be the obvious possibly. This is not surprising; given the financial chaos and mismanagement that is gripping the world's markets. If we cannot keep track of expenditures on Wall Street, how can we expect to have transparency and accountability in DRC, where the government is nothing more than a scrim for Mafioso type skimming of humanitarian and conservation aid?
A Congolese conservation official described the looting of conservation funding provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as Conservation International and other large conservation organizations as "Hyenas gathering for the kill."
I have written this before, in a column for the Society of Professional Journalists' Quill Magazine Online. It cannot be said enough.
If 6 million people were killed or simply vanished off the face of the Earth, you might expect an immediate international outcry, and in-depth analysis of this humanitarian catastrophe. You'd expect the story to be on the front page of every newspaper and magazine in the world. You'd expect broadcast and photojournalists to take every opportunity to document this story. This population represents the number of people in the State of Colorado or the country of Ireland.
Yet, they, and the candidates remain silent, while "there is much worry in the Democratic Republic of Congo."
All photos except torture image taken by Georgianne Nienaber, DRC (2007)