As America Focuses on Trivia, Congolese Die

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 19, 2009, issue of August 28, 2009.
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Given the gravity of her mission, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tour of Africa in early August should have been a rare teaching moment, focusing the world’s attention and its conscience on its poorest continent. Instead, it became an object lesson — mostly unlearned — in the tabloid trivialization of American news media. And, perhaps, in the fickle nature of conscience.

The secretary of state spent 11 days visiting seven nations across sub-Saharan Africa. At every stop she tried to train a spotlight on some of humanity’s most pressing crises, from the AIDS epidemic to the chaos of failed states.

So what was the big story emerging from the trip? A 20-second flare-up in Congo, where she snapped at a student for seeming to ask about her husband’s opinion rather than hers. That was the high point, aired over and over and seared into America’s consciousness. Trailing behind was her unfortunate rumination in Nigeria on the 2000 Florida presidential tally, in the middle of a pointed exchange on how democracy works.

Bringing up the rear was actual reporting on the issues. What little there was came mostly in dutiful round-ups by which news outlets lent their coverage a touch of gravitas. Typically, these featured a sentence or two on each of Clinton’s stops: AIDS in South Africa; corruption in Kenya; troubled democracy in Nigeria, where regional unrest threatens oil production; a mass epidemic of rape and sexual mutilation in Congo, the latest ugly twist in an 11-year civil war that has caused some 5.4 million deaths and shows no sign of ending; indications of economic progress in Angola; a celebratory meeting with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state; showcase achievements in Cape Verde.

But wait. Let’s rewind to Congo. Yes, you read that correctly: Roughly 5,400,000 persons, by the widely accepted calculations of the impeccably button-down International Rescue Committee, have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998 in the course of a horrific, unending orgy of brutality.

Why, the careful reader might ask, are we talking about anything else?

There are explanations. August has been a busy month for news, what with health care reform, town halls, the midair crash over the Hudson River and the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Yes, the press has a duty to keep the citizenry informed. But this duty entails painful choices.

More immediately, Congo was just one of seven nations on the tour. While each stop had a local message, the overall trip was aimed at larger goals. One was to draw American public attention to the troubles of a continent that all but embodies human suffering. The other was to show the peoples of Africa a new American determination to step in. With all the continent’s Dante-esque troubles, any American engagement is urgent and much overdue.

It remains to be seen whether Clinton made significant progress toward either of her main goals. America’s attention, as we’ve noted, is limited and easily diverted. As for impressing Africans, commentators there were wary. The respected, Kenya-based daily The East African argued in a news analysis that the trip just showed how low Clinton was in the Obama administration’s pecking order, having been “relegated, as it were, to this sort-out-the-Africans role when more pressing hotspots are flaring around the world.”

The critical question is why Congo isn’t one of those pressing hotspots. A favored explanation among the well-informed is that, humanitarian concerns aside, eastern Congo is not a matter of American national security comparable to, say, Afghanistan or North Korea. It doesn’t disrupt trade routes, pinch off essential resources or threaten nuclear winter.

That explanation might have washed when the war was new and the body count hadn’t yet topped a million. But that was a decade ago. By 2005 the toll had reached 4 million and the crisis was already known in diplomatic circles as the deadliest human catastrophe since World War II. Now the number is nearing 6 million, and the parallels are getting too close to be ignored. Especially the part about the world sitting by and watching.

Some knowledgeable observers downplay the scope of the tragedy by questioning the body count. As they correctly note, the rescue committee’s calculations include not only direct victims of violence but also deaths from starvation and disease caused by the war. Counting only victims of violence, the toll doesn’t even reach 1 million.

By that same math, incidentally, the toll of the Holocaust was around 3 million. Anne Frank died of typhus.

It’s also true that protests falter because there’s no easily identifiable villain like Saddam Hussein or Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. This war started almost benignly as an avenging echo to the genocide in next-door Rwanda in 1994. In the beginning, Rwanda’s Hutu majority turned on minority Tutsis and slaughtered 800,000 in just six weeks. When foreign troops arrived, masses of Hutus fled across the border to Congo. Refugee camps there became bases for Hutu gangs raiding Rwanda.

In 1998, Rwandan troops invaded Congo to stop the raiders, ironically making the victims of one blood-letting the initiators of another. The Congolese army fought back. So did the Hutu raiders. Seven nearby countries sent in troops to help. What followed was a bloody free-for-all. It might have petered out years ago if not for the region’s real prize: rich deposits of vital minerals, including tantalum, a rare substance needed for cell phones. The neighbors’ armies eventually left, but dozens of militias and armed gangs stayed to fight over the mines, the smuggling routes and the villagers’ crops, wives and children. The worst perpetrators today are said to be Congolese and Rwandan regular troops.

Among diplomats in New York and Geneva it’s conventional wisdom that this catastrophe is simply too vast and complicated for easy resolution. The United Nations has 17,000 soldiers there, its largest peacekeeping force anywhere, and they’re barely able to protect themselves. Countless negotiated agreements have fallen apart days after signing.

It’s really not that complicated, though. After all, a similarly savage free-for-all wracked Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2001, taking 50,000 lives. It was ended by a U.N. force of 13,000, led by French rangers. Another war in Liberia claimed more than 100,000 victims between 1999 and 2003. The U.N. sent in 15,000 troops with backing from the United States Marines. Now Liberia is a democracy in progress.

The crisis in Congo is vastly larger in scope. The 17,000 U.N. troops there, mostly ill-trained Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis, are hopelessly inadequate to the task. What’s needed are more troops, and better ones. But that would require someone to care. That’s a tough one.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

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