If you want to figure out how many people could eventually die in the latest outbreak of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, don’t look at the actual number killed since last August, mostly by the Congolese army and its allies: nearly 4,000. Instead, consider the estimated 1.3 million people in the central Kasai region who are fleeing for their lives.
David Aronson, a longtime DR Congo expert who is presently working in Kinshasa, the capital, points out that 95 percent or more of the estimated 5 million Congolese who have died since 1998 did not perish during actual fighting. Instead, they died of hunger and disease after they fled from the violence, already weakened by their struggle to survive during normal times in one of the poorest countries on earth.
So if we do the cold mathematics, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands more could die, adding to what is already the greatest humanitarian disaster anywhere in the world since the end of World War II.
This awful tragedy is not unfolding in a remote region, disconnected from the rest of the planet. For more than a century, the Congolese people have mined copper, cobalt, and diamonds in industrial quantities, exploited by Europe and America. All they have left to show for their hard work is a devastated hulk instead of a functioning nation. Just last September, a New York hedge fund, Och-Ziff Capital Management, was slapped with a record fine of $412 million for bribing President Joseph Kabila to get mineral concessions. If there is anywhere in the world where the rich nations have a moral, legal, and financial obligation to act, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the place.
It is those very international financial connections that give the outside world considerable leverage over the regime. Kabila has been ruling illegally since last December, when his presidential term expired. Investigations show that his army is mainly responsible for the huge new wave of violence in the Kasai region. The United States and Europe must stop accepting his charade about eventually holding new elections, and increase pressure on him and his clique to leave power.
One proven tactic is targeted sanctions against specific Congolese individuals responsible for crimes against human rights. The United States and the European Union have already struck at two dozen members of Kabila’s entourage. Ida Sawyer, who monitors Central Africa for Human Rights Watch, was in Kinshasa last year when America imposed the first sanctions, and she told a committee of the US Congress: “I can assure you that it had a notable deterrent effect and rattled those implicated in abuses. It seemed that everyone among the political class and senior security force officers was talking about ‘the list’—who was on it, who would be sanctioned next, and what they could do to get off the list.” Sawyer explained later, “Congolese officials travel regularly to Europe and the US. Many of them do their shopping in Brussels and Paris; they have their medical appointments abroad, and their children study at universities in the US and Europe. Many also have homes and other assets as well as foreign bank accounts that could easily be seized or frozen.”