To fix eastern DRC, take away guns and allow the creme of society to rise to the top

Saturday May 13 2023

How many guns – or soldiers – does it take to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo? ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

How many people does it take to change a light bulb?" says the old joke. There are hundreds of variations, and answers, to this joke. The original answer to the joke is reportedly "three"one to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder.

So, we ask, “How many guns – or soldiers – does it take to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)?”

On Monday, the 16-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), meeting in the Namibian capital Windhoek, announced it would send troops to eastern DRC "to restore peace and security" in that long-conflict-plagued region of the East African Community's newest and most populous member.

The seven-member EAC already has a response force in eastern DRC, which has been trying to do the same thing since early in the year. The gold medal for peacekeeping in DRC, though, goes to the United Nations and its Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Monusco.

In eastern DRC since 2000, Monusco is the UN's longest and at its height, largest and most expensive mission with nearly 20,000 troops and an annual operating budget of over $1.1 billion. The mission has since been whittled down to about 4,000 peacekeepers and, 23 years later, it has little to show for it.

A 50-country contribution


A record 50 countries, at least, have contributed personnel to Monusco over the past two decades-plus, in alphabetical order: Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, the Netherlands, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uruguay, Yemen and Zambia.

Some countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa have deployed to two separate missions. If counted separately, 73 nations, a few short of half the 195 independent countries in the world, have tried to bring peace to DRC — and failed. Over the past 25 years, the number of Congolese and foreign militia active in the country's eastern part has risen to nearly 120!

It would seem natural to give up and leave DRC to the gods and other supernatural forces. It is a fate it doesn't deserve.

DRC is different

DRC is different from the rest of the EAC countries in several striking ways. For several years I have been neck-deep in a project to memorialise, especially, the unsung heroes of African history of the past 2,500 years. When you put these figures and their stories in a timeline, sometimes surprising trends emerge.

Several of the most impressive figures in the arts, literature, civil society and academia (we shall mention the music, which would skew the picture even more) in DRC not only were born outside the capital Kinshasa but also lived and created their magic away from it. The opposite is the case in the rest of the EAC and, indeed, most of Africa.

If you are born outside the capital, as soon as you show a spark as a musician, artist or intellectual, you move to the big city and set up your stall there. In DRC, upcountry cities like Bukavu and Lubumbashi have a cultural depth their regional peers cannot even dream of.

Celine Fariala Mangaza was a remarkable Congolese disabilities activist in Bukavu. Contracting polio at the age of three, she still went on to become one of the first girls to attend a local school in 1974. Fed up with women sexually assaulted and beaten while home alone or forced to beg on the street because they were disabled, she formed a sewing cooperative that lifted hundreds of them out of poverty and isolation. She also co-led an organisation that taught them digital skills.

Dorine Mokha was an LGBTQ activist and was considered one of the greatest Congolese contemporary choreographers. He had an impressive local and international performance resume. He didn't move to Kinshasa. He died of malaria on January 8, 2021, in Lubumbashi, aged 31.

Antoinette Lubaki was the only significant documented Congolese female artist of the 1920s. She did her thing in Lubumbashi. Her paintings today sell internationally for five-figure sums.

Rebecca Masika Katsuva was an inspirational activist and survivor of sexual assault. She founded the important Association des Personnes Desherites Unies pour le Development (APDUD) in the South Kivu region.

She and her 13 and 14-year-old daughters were raped by armed attackers in 1999. She didn't stop her campaign. In all, she was raped four times by soldiers, the fourth time for the "crime" of accusing them of assaulting women.

She established a sanctuary in rural South Kivu and took in 20 children born of mothers who were sexually assaulted. By the time of her death in 2016, it had 50 houses sheltering about 180 women and had helped 6,000 rape survivors.

These remarkable people in the provinces cut off from the centre are just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of them are all over "rural" DRC, defying the odds. Collectively, unleashed, they have more than what it takes to build a good Congo society and to end the nightmare in the east.

What eastern DRC needs is for all the guns and soldiers to be taken away and allow the cream of its society to rise to the top.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3