THE BLOG
02/05/2014 04:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

Congo: The Patchwork Country

When the United Nations troops and Congo's ragtag army defeated the M23 rebels last November, only those who don't understand the complexities and anatomy of Congo's tragedy could celebrate. As Koffi Olomide, the famous Congolese singer once said "Lies take the elevator. The truth takes the stairs but gets there eventually." It seems that the truth didn't take that long; it got there as fast as the elevator could probably have. It has arrived in the manifestation of atrocity and human tragedy in Katanga Province, proving wrong those who think of the Kivus - either by will or by ignorance, or both - as the sole culprit of Congo's mess.

The powerful UN mission in Congo, or MONUSCO as it is known, which basically runs the country, if anything is run, promised to disarm rebel groups and fix the country with guns and drones. But disarming rebel groups and replacing them with Congo's army is hardly a change. They all do the same thing: terrorize people.

As all eyes and guns and drones and diplomatic rumblings focused on the troubled east of the country, another disaster unfolded in the Katanga province, largely off the radar of media and reports. But now the "humanitarian catastrophe" is so obvious that even the blind have no other option but to see.

The trouble with Congo has never been confined to the east of the country. Its root cause is the absence of government, entrenched corruption, and a sad history of a succession of commanders-in-thief from its inception. All of this prevented the country from developing any sense of nationhood or belonging to a common ideal

Over the past three months, 400,000 people have been displaced and over 600 homes destroyed or burnt down as conflict rages on between the infamously undisciplined army (FARDC) and the Kata Katanga rebels seeking independence of the province from Kinshasa. This is embarrassing to Kinshasa because it is the home province of Congo's current president, Mr. Joseph Kabila, whose inefficient and absent government is embroiled in corruption and unabated looting. Not even the United Nations, whose backing Mr. Kabila relies on to stay in power, blames him or his government. The fault is always on rebels, who spring up like mushrooms in cow dung during the rainy season, because the government is nowhere to be seen. And so the tragedy marches on, and only the people keep paying the price.

Katanga is the richest province in Congo, with a third of the world's cobalt reserves and a tenth of the world copper reserves. Like Congo, Katanga is a massive ungoverned territory, more than twice the size of the United Kingdom, sitting a thousand miles away from Kinshasa. Katanga's people are displaying an increasing feeling of uneasiness and anger, like the rest of the country, that Kinshasa comes to take away their resources and does nothing to fulfill the basic roles of governance. Security is non-existent.

In such a situation, you might expect a government to try to tackle the underlying causes of instability. Not in Congo. Instead, Mr. Kabila's government stays in power by two means. First, by the patchwork method: buying off rebels and enemies, sharing the never-ending pie of Congo's resources with them for a few years before they go back into opposition and repeat the whole cycle again and again and again.

Second, when the patchwork method fails and the government starts losing its grip on power, they substitute the governance of the country to outside actors. The UN mission has been doing the heavy lifting, and without their presence, Mr. Kabila and his government would probably have lost power long ago.

The UN presence seems to have not been enough, despite numbering well over 20,000 troops. Kabila's government has brought in troops from Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries when his unpaid and mob-like army, whose commanders sell ammunitions to rebels they are fighting, couldn't accomplish anything.

People in Katanga want to feel that the wealth under their feet actually exists. They arguably sit on the world's wealthiest resources and yet, like the rest of Congo, they are among the poorest on earth. But when such concerns are raised, well, more patchwork gets done. Instead of responding to their needs, Mr. Kabila's government is proposing to divide the province into three or four to retain a grip on his native province, which only adds fuel to fire. If he can get a chance to nominate three or four governors, the patchwork might work. Three more ways to loot.

But, alas, in Congo the word 'loot' no longer exists. Mobutu abolished it long ago when he ruled the country, then known as Zaire, for 32 years until he collapsed with it in 1997. He is reportedly once said that "In Zaire we do not loot, we merely displace." What he meant was that when you loot, as long as it stays in Zaire, you have merely "displaced" whatever it is that you looted. This was the purest defense of evil, an official acceptance of a vice into society that has become so deeply ingrained in the country.

As Katanga descends into chaos, so does the Oriental Province which similarly harbors a growing number Mai Mai rebel groups, or to put it as it is, hopelessly disenfranchised mob-like youth armed groups controlling large swaths of lands where the government never reach.

But because it is not the Kivus, it took years to recognize that the trouble is deeper and widespread. The government is neither present nor responsive to the most basic needs of its people (think of security and safety here, Congolese people are the most patient and don't ask for much). The army behaves just like the militias it is supposed to be fighting. The trouble springs from this old-age source: the utter failure and lack of government. Tragically, that very failure is what the international community continues to support and make possible.

"I feel an element of guilt when I think of Katanga because we have concentrated our military activity on the Kivus but it is important not to neglect Katanga," Martin Kobler, the head of MONUSCO, told reporters in Kinshasa, referring to worsening situation in Katanga.

The guilt should be bigger than Katanga. The real guilt and tragedy is propping up a government of such a failed state that can't fulfill the very basic needs of its people. When the international community focuses on the Kivus and a handful of rebel groups, while ignoring the reasons why Congo is a failed state, it is just another patchwork which inevitably allows the conflict to drag on.