Congo’s Forgotten Conflict in the Limelight

November 11, 2008

Got to be honest, I’m not too sure what to make of recent coverage of the troubles in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The story shows no sign of disappearing off the world news schedules just yet… and yesterday the BBC propelled it right back up to the top again.

Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda tells the BBC he will topple the government if it refuses to talk to him.

Never mind the fact that government troops basically gave up the eastern city of Goma to Nkunda only to see the renegade army officer say thanks but no thanks, and that he is barely able to hold on to his own territory much less take Kinshasa, reporters seem intent on presenting the story as rebels about to overrun the country.
This would fall down against my former’s editor’s test of: “This might be what they say, but is it true.” Nkunda’s words would be presented in a much more sceptical light if that test were to be used.
Of course it’s great that Congo’s neverending cycle of destruction is in the public gaze for a few days. But that’s the point. This stuff has been going on for years without the rest of the world giving a damn. So why now?
Michela Wrong, author of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, sums it up in Sunday’s Observer…

But Congo’s crisis is not unprecedented, nor is it unrivalled. To people who know the continent, there’s something of an arbitrary quality as to how one crisis seizes the public imagination and others go ignored.
The eastern town of Goma has seen far worse than this, including a biblical flood of Rwandan refugees in 1994, a cholera epidemic that left corpses lining its streets and a lava flow that turned the lake town into a mini-Pompeii. Those episodes made what is happening now seem insignificant. Suddenly, Western politicians are flagellating their electorate with the fact that nearly five million have died in the DRC in the last eight years.

I’m not sure I have an answer. But part of the problem is that Goma is now home to a chunk of Nairobi’s press pack, most of whom are desperate for the sort of career-defining conflict that was common here back in the 1990s – think Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia and so on. Few are now going to talk down what is happening around Goma as business as usual.