The world has managed to largely ignore one of its worst humanitarian crises, unfolding now in central Africa. The Democratic Republic of the Congo holds over a tenth of the globe’s malnourished children; more than 13 million people need aid. Around 4.5 million people are displaced internally, and another 750,000 have fled abroad. The International Crisis Group has warned that deterioration is likely – and the risk of “a steeper descent into chaos” is real. Multiple conflicts across 10 provinces intensify; their roots are complex, but President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to leave office has aggravated them.
Civilians are caught between the brutality of rebel groups and of security forces. There are growing fears of civil war, in a country already so deeply scarred: the 1998-2003 conflict killed millions and sucked in neighbours. Meanwhile, the budget of the UN peacekeeping mission – the world’s largest – has been slashed.
One faint glimmer of hope comes from Geneva on Friday, where the United Nations, European Union and donor nations have convened a funding conference which aims to raise $1.7bn. Last year’s much smaller appeal received less than two-fifths of the money it sought. Oxfam warns that only half a million of the four million people with acute malnourishment received treatment in 2017.
Extraordinarily, the DRC itself will be absent from the table. Mr Kabila’s government is boycotting the meeting, denying there is a crisis. Its estimates of the displaced population are laughably low at 231,000: around a 20th of the UN figure. It has lobbied other countries to dismiss or denounce the aid drive, which it describes as a demonisation campaign. And it justifies all this on the grounds that the desperately needed drive for support will discourage foreign investment. Never mind those fleeing and dying: the DRC is open for business. Of course, Mr Kabila needs no support; his family boasts vast wealth. But more than half of his people still survive on less than a pound a day
As painfully slow and small as the DRC’s progress has been since the war ended, there have been improvements. Poverty and child mortality rates have decreased since the end of the war; more children are in school. Much more is possible. The country holds half of Africa’s forests and water resources, as well as mineral reserves worth trillions of dollars. The vast natural wealth which has attracted so many predators has the potential to enrich its citizens, not merely bring more misery. But the devastating effects of years of malign interference by western powers, regional rivals and powerful foreign businesses are compounded by domestic misrule. The European commission’s humanitarian chief says foreign assistance would be effective only with local government cooperation.
While immediate needs must be met, improving the bigger political picture is essential. Mr Kabila is already two years over his five-year term, and barred from standing again by the constitution. At the end of 2016, internal and external pressure forced him to agree a path to elections in the Saint Sylvester deal. But the 12-month deadline came and went with no sign of such polls. The government has dug in, reliant on its resources, on short-term deals with anyone who looks useful and increasingly on force – while blaming the unrest for the electoral delays.
Now it promises that there will an election in December this year, and that Mr Kabila will not be a candidate. Few place confidence in his pledges. Only sustained, coordinated and forceful diplomacy by western and African partners stands a chance of holding him to them.