Unicef has declared the DRC the country most affected by conflict-related displacement in the world.
One might be forgiven for assuming that any country overflowing with valuable natural resources is also, by definition, overflowing with wealth and prosperity. History, however, has taught us otherwise.
This is certainly the case for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Rich in gold, gas, diamonds and other rare minerals, this vast nation is also home to one of the worst – and most under-reported – humanitarian crises of recent times.
Last month, the DRC was declared the country most affected by conflict-related displacement in the world; and according to the United Nations, the crisis there is now on a par with those in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In other words, it has reached grave proportions. At the epicentre of this unfolding disaster is an ongoing deadly conflict in the Kasai region of the DRC.
A United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report released in September this year, (http://ponabana.com/en/humanitarian-situation-report-kasai-crisis-september-2017/) places the need within Kasai in the millions. It warns that 3.2 million people do not have enough food, and 350,000 children are severely malnourished.
Without peace, there can be no end to this humanitarian crisis. If peace had prevailed, food delivered by relief organisations could be channeled to agricultural development, since the DRC has fertile arable land, with predictable rainy seasons that defies climate change conditions prevalent in other parts of the world.
However, peace has not prevailed. Now, 1.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes in 2017 alone, to escape the protracted conflict, which is especially intense within eastern DRC.
The internal fighting has led to loss of lives, sexual violence and an acute lack of essential basic needs such as food, water and shelter.
Ray of hope
The internally displaced people live in precarious conditions, with an estimated 42 per cent of the households facing food insecurity. Fortunately, despite this grim picture, there is a ray of hope.
In Kasai, humanitarian agencies such as Christian Aid, Start Fund, the World Food Programme (WFP and ACT Alliance have been responding to the needs of some of the most vulnerable and hardest-hit civilians. Indeed, it is hard to imagine where local communities would be without the support of local and international organisations, who have helped avert the death of thousands of vulnerable people who rely on relief distributions for their survival.
“In August this year, in partnership with the World Food Programme, we undertook two food distributions that targeted 75,000 people.,” says Salome Ntububa, Regional Emergency Manager for Christian Aid.
The distributions in tonnage included: 60 tonnes maize floor, beans (18), vegetable oil (4.5) and salt (0.75). Each household received an agricultural kit that had vegetable-market garden seeds and farm tools. This humanitarian work is a necessity in a country that is one of Africa’s richest, and has been bedeviled by both bad governance and cross-border ethnic tension that has spilled over to Burundi.
Previously, neighbouring Rwanda also faced the worst genocide on the continent that claimed the lives of around 800,000 people.
Conflicts such as these make humanitarian work within this area risky. On December 7, 15 Tanzanian UN peacekeepers were killed in eastern DRC, by gunmen suspected to have been from the Allied Democratic Forces, a Ugandan Muslim rebel force. According to the United Nations, this attack was the biggest single loss of peacekeepers in nearly a quarter of a century.
Many humanitarian organisations are running peace initiatives that address the root causes of the conflict, to help bring an end to the violence.
These are being run by agencies such as ACT Alliance – a global network of faith-based humanitarian and development agencies, which includes Christian Aid.
A major reason for the conflict is high unemployment rates, especially among the youth, who are driven to join rebel and militia groups.
ACT Alliance is helping to address ethnic tension between Luba and the Tshokwe communities. It is also reaching out to the Pende and Batetela ethnic groups, which have at times been involved in violent conflicts. ACT Alliance’s Protection and Peace-building project promotes conflict resolution and peace-building techniques. Its activities include training traditional and church leaders on conflict transformation techniques, sensitisation of representatives from local civil society organisations (CSOs) and the media. This has helped raise awareness, promoted peace, and facilitated dialogue and reconciliation within communities, including churches.
There is clear evidence of life-saving work by humanitarian organisations within Kasai Province.
However, their relief efforts – no matter how effective – can only ever go so far. Unless we address the root causes of the crisis, the plight of the Congolese people can only deepen in 2018.
- The writer, a humanitarian communications specialist based in Nairobi, is managing director at MA Advance. He has worked in hostile environments across Africa, including DRC.