Congolese children gather in front of a UN peacekeeping tank during the One Billion Rising rally. Rather than engaging with an actual place, the world seems to want to believe in the idea of the DRC, say the writers. Picture: Jana Asenbrennerova / Reuters

‘The international community needs to recognise a simple, albeit brutal, fact: The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not exist. All of the peacekeeping missions, special envoys, interagency processes and diplomatic initiatives that are predicated on the Congo myth – the notion that one sovereign power is present in this vast country – are doomed to fail. It is time to stop pretending otherwise.”

We wrote those words on four years ago, and they ring even more true today. The DRC is not a failed state; it is a non-state, incessantly at war for the past 17 years, and home to some of the world’s worst violence.

Perhaps as many as 5 million people (no one really knows, given the chaos in the country) have died since president Mobutu Sese Seko’s removal from power in May 1997, and the horror continues with “children murdering in gangs, civilians massacred by the thousand, rape as common as petty thievery”, as the Economist described it more recently.

Not only does the DRC rank second (behind only Somalia) on this year’s Failed States Index, but it ranks 186th (tied with Niger for dead last) on the UN Human Development Index; 229th out of 229 in GDP per capita (behind even Somalia and South Sudan); 160th out of 176 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index; and 171st out of 177 countries on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. If there is a prize for the worst place on Earth, Congo has a strong claim.

Unfortunately the international community’s response to the DRC myth has been to continue to support the existing government, despite an astonishing record of failure, while avoiding any consideration of an alternative. Even though the DRC has received an enormous $27 billion in development assistance since 2000 – making it perhaps the world’s largest recipient of international aid after Afghanistan – the state remains mostly irrelevant outside the country’s capital.

This is not for lack of money, but at least in part because donors have continually rewarded the central government’s failure to rule, ignored corruption and dismissed concerns about questionable elections.

It’s as if the world wishes to believe in the idea of the DRC rather than engage with the actual place that exists – a certain prescription for disaster.

But why? The DRC myth persists for several reasons. First, African leaders in the DRC’s neighbourhood who should be most concerned about the country’s catastrophe dislike any questioning of state sovereignty, given that many of them do not have full control of their own territories.

The international community, reluctant to devote anything like the diplomatic energy and political capital that would be necessary to think about a real solution in the DRC, is happy to oblige. Despite all the protestations about the horrific war, systematic violence against women and regional instability, the DRC hardly receives attention from the powers-that-be in Washington or the UN, where worries about sovereignty tend to be discussed only when they happen to fall on a geopolitical fault line like the Middle East (see: the Palestinian territories) or right in the heart of Europe (like Kosovo).

Finally, there are a great many people inside and outside the country who profit immensely from a large, barely governed territory full of minerals and opportunities for extortion, trafficking, and smuggling.

They have a profound interest in ensuring that the DRC doesn’t become anything more than the pseudo-country it is today.

And in today’s DRC, let’s be clear: There is no sovereign power at all outside the urban areas, leaving two-thirds of the country’s estimated 75 million people beyond the purview of a central government.

In November 2012, the M23 rebel group (widely thought to be backed by Rwanda, something Kigali vehemently denies) seemingly walked past UN peacekeepers to occupy Goma, capital of North Kivu province and generally seen as the gateway to the DRC’s east. After mocking the Congolese state, the rebels left 10 days later and melted into the forest. In March, in the province of Katanga, fighters of the Mai-Mai Bakata Katanga (whose name in Swahili aptly translates as “Dividers of Katanga”) briefly entered Lubumbashi, the DRC’s second-largest city, and clashed with government forces before surrendering.

The attack rattled many as it harked back to old fears that the province would try to secede, given that it broke away from the newly independent Congolese state for three years in the early 1960s and foreign allies had to intervene twice in the 1970s to help maintain Kinshasa’s rule over the mineral-rich area. There are many other such insurgencies, from the Mai-Mai Morgan to the Mai-Mai Raia Mutomboki.

But US policy towards the DRC seems to ignore this widespread lawlessness. In 2009, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s brief visit to the DRC underscored all the facets of the DRC myth. The very agent she hoped would solve the outrages of rape and appalling living conditions – the Congolese state – is in fact at the core of the problem.

US backing of Kinshasa inevitably became associated with the cruel dysfunction of the Congolese state three years later, when members of a Congolese army battalion trained by the US were accused of raping 130 women and girls last year – a charge corroborated by a recent UN investigation.

The US Defense Department, of course, duly condemned the crimes and said that its training had included respect for human rights, especially for women. But such training is designed for militaries that function as hierarchical structures in which soldiers are motivated to protect their fellow citizens.

In the DRC, nothing could be further from reality. The UN special representative for sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, couldn’t initially determine who in the military was responsible because, she said: “The military was in disarray. There was no command structure”.

This is what Washington has reaped from aiding the Congolese state.

Yet, determined to try and preserve the DRC, the UN Security Council in March authorised a 3 000-strong “intervention” brigade with an unprecedented “offensive” mandate to tackle rebels in the eastern DRC. These troops are nonetheless too few and the territory too vast to ensure peace.

Instead, they are more proof that the international community is merely pretending that a state exists, a dangerous mistake that leads inevitably to pathologies that do the most harm to the defenceless.

At some point, the world must recognise that trying to aid the notional government of the DRC in the hope that something will change is a bad play. Until now, the world has either turned a blind eye or, worse, for strategic or commercial advantage, indulged Kinshasa by providing aid, meanwhile taking on ever more of the responsibilities that should be the central government’s preserve.

Granted, there are no easy or quick solutions. And despite the DRC’s almost uninterrupted record of failure, there is no strong consensus about developing alternatives to the current government.

But that is largely because the world has not provided any incentives to think about alternative scenarios: a DRC divided into different states, a Kinshasa with varying levels of sovereign control over different regions, more formal responsibilities for the international community in the provision of security and services, or any other idea that might move away from the 50-year fixation on aiding a failed state.

Simply admitting that there is no such thing as the DRC would be a good start. – Washington Post

* Herbst is president of Colgate University. Mills is director of the Brenthurst Foundation in Joburg.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers