Janine Jackson interviewed Maurice Carney about the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the July 14, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: The fighting between the coalitions of President Joseph Kabila—who refused to step down December 19 as the constitution mandates—and opposition forces is devastating the Democratic Republic of Congo. The UN has just reported 80,000 people fleeing the latest fighting in Fizi Territory, joining nearly 4 million people already uprooted by violence. In the central Kasai region, the Catholic Church reports more than 3,300 people killed since October. Accounts include two-year-olds with limbs chopped off and babies with machete wounds, as well as whole villages destroyed. And now the fighting is being presented as reason to postpone elections still further.
Like other African nations, Congo is of limited and irregular interest to US media. That isn’t justified by the scale of the crisis the country is enduring: More than 5 million people have died since 1998 from violence and mostly from hunger and disease faced while trying to flee violence.
Nor can US media plausibly claim that the US isn’t implicated in Congo’s hardship, though you’d be hard pressed to understand the US role—past or present—from media accounts.
Here to help us understand what’s happening is Maurice Carney, co-founder and executive director of the group Friends of the Congo. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Maurice Carney.
Maurice Carney: Hi, it’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for having us.
JJ: The current violence between the government coalition and opposition forces that’s having such a shattering impact on the people—is that connected, or how much is it connected, to Kabila’s refusal to step down last December?
Maurice Carney: “Kabila has benefited, he has been strengthened, by his support from the West over the last decade and a half.” (image: Democracy Now!)
MC: Well, the overall instability in the country is overwhelmingly due to the fact that President Kabila wants to stay in power, and stay in power by any means necessary. This is critical for people to understand, that you have a president whose term is expired, but yet he wants to remain in power against the will of the people, and in contradistinction to the constitution of the country. So that’s really the crux of the instability in the country today.
And when you have this leader that lacks legitimacy, local issues that would normally remain local issues, they’re quickly escalated to be national issues. Thus the disputes that you find that occur locally, the federal government, the national government, usually intervenes on one side or the other, and the question then becomes, are you in support of the president or against the president? And when you have a grouping or formations that are against the interests of the president, then the president and the Kabila regime itself sends in military forces to try and clamp down on any kind of dissension that we may see. And this is what has been the source of the issue in the Kasai, for example, the region that you mentioned at the outset.
JJ: Yes, what happened in Kasai, was that a traditional leader, they tried to remove him and folks protested?
MC: Yes, a traditional leader who was supposed to assume the position of chief. However, this leader was against the Kabila regime and against the way the government had been running things. So the federal government, through the Ministry of Interior, tried to intervene in what was a traditional process, and intervene to the point where they wound up killing the chief.
And this spiraled out of control, to where the followers of the chief then started to resist by any means that they could. They saw that the chief had been killed, and it was done at the behest of the Congolese government, and the people were not going to stand for that.
And in an effort to show that the government was in control, the regime was in control, the Kabila regime sent in military forces that, as you stated at the outset, were killing women and children, babies, and even, many believe, played a role in the assassination of two United Nations investigators, who had gone in to document the crimes that were being committed in the Kasai region. Recently, this week, the United Nations reported that there’s some 80-plus mass graves that have been found in the region as a result of the instability.
JJ: When the Washington Post reported in late June on the reports which came from the Catholic Church, which has been doing this research on the killings in Kasai, they told the story, and then when it was time to give some context, the Washington Post said this:
Wars and explosive ethnic rivalries have riven Congo for decades, reaching a peak in the 1990s and 2000s when conflict in neighboring Rwanda spilled across the border.
That strikes me as incomplete, to say it nicely.
MC: Oh, yeah, totally incomplete. In fact, not only the Washington Post, the BBC and other corporate media, they lead with the ethnic narrative. And at the core, this is a political question. And not solely a political question, but also a geopolitical one. Because you have President Kabila, who has been supported by the West since 2001, when he took over from his father; they stood behind him in 2011 when he cheated in the election, and basically appropriated what was a fraudulent election.
So they backed Kabila for the last 16 years, and now when Kabila wants to stay, he’s developed such a strength that it’s difficult for him to step down, or for the people to remove him from power. So the West has been complicit in the situation that we see today. In fact, we see the West, some of the nations in the West who are trying to impose sanctions on Kabila, and we’re saying, well, they’re the arsonists, how can they be the firefighters today? So that’s really critical for people to understand, that Kabila has benefited, he has been strengthened, by his support from the West over the last decade and a half.
JJ: Yes, there’s a very strange feeling when you read Nikki Haley, our UN representative, saying that the United States is extremely interested in a democratic transfer of power in Congo.
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, assassinated in 1961 with the help of the CIA.
MC: What you’ll see in the media, you often see that it’s said that there hasn’t been a peaceful transfer of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there’s a part that’s left off of that. There hasn’t been a peaceful transfer in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the United States overthrew the first democratically elected leader in the country, and that was Patrice Emery Lumumba in 1960, one of Congo’s independence heroes and first democratically elected prime minister.
And since that time, every leader that has risen to power in the Congo has done so with the backing of the United States. There hasn’t been a leader since Lumumba who’s assumed power without the backing of the United States. So to your listening audience, it’s important for them to understand the role that the West, and the United States in particular, has played in what has transpired in the Congo.
And part of the reason for the destructive role that Western institutions and nations have played is because of Congo’s tremendous wealth. It’s a storehouse of precious and strategic minerals that are vital to major industries in the West. Even today, one of the burgeoning industries is the automotive industry, the green industry, where we’re seeing more electric cars, like Tesla and Prius and others. Well, Congo has a key mineral that’s vital to the functioning of that industry, and that’s cobalt. And Congo’s the largest producer of cobalt, largest reserves of cobalt, and it’s one of the hottest minerals on the market today. So that’s part of the reason why there’s so much interest in what happens in the Congo, from the corporate sector in particular in the West.
JJ: I just wanted to ask you, finally, I know that Friends of the Congo has been taking part in demonstrations there in DC, the Women’s March and the various marches since the inauguration, in which you are bringing together these global concerns and concern with what’s happening in the DRC and local concerns. And you see every reason to see connections there, between the economic and political struggles we have here and what’s happening there. I mean, is that the way forward?
MC: Oh, absolutely. And it’s probably best exemplified by the social justice movement we see unfolding in the Congo today among Congolese youth. The organizing and the mobilizing that we see in the streets of the United States, they’re happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well, where young people are standing up. However, and unfortunately, the stakes are much higher in the Congo, because the police, who have been equipped in part by the United States, the Congolese police, they shoot to kill. They jail young people at the drop of a hat.
In fact, as I’m speaking to you today, we have two of our young people, Jean-Marie Kalonji and Sylva Mbikay, who were picked up by the Congolese military and placed into a detention camp, and they’ve been there since June 23, for three weeks now.
And we don’t know why. They haven’t done anything. These are young people who provide services to the local community. Like the Black Lives Matter movement here has the bail project where they bail mothers out of jail, that’s what the youth are doing in the Congo, they go in and they bail mothers and their babies out of jail. They provide services to the handicapped community, and they provide scholarships to young people. They support education and health of their communities. But yet they’ve been picked up and placed into a military detention camp.
So the kind of resistance that you see here in the US also exists there. And that’s really critical for people who are here in the movement to understand, that the issues are not fundamentally different. And that what Dr. King said is so true, when he stated that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And it’s the injustices that the youth in the Congo are fighting, and they’re not fundamentally different from the injustices that are being fought here in the United States.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Maurice Carney of Friends of the Congo. You can find their work online at FriendsOfTheCongo.org, and they’re on Twitter at @congofriends. Thank you so much, Maurice Carney, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MC: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
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