Rich country, poor people

Sunday May 20 2012

By Ivan Šimonović

The only way out of Shabunda is to walk 350 km to Bukavu through the jungle or to fly. Residents do not have the money to fly. Many of them live and die without leaving Shabunda. Goods here can cost up to four times more than elsewhere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Residents can rarely afford them.

In Shabunda, a town in South Kivu, I visited a small NGO-run legal clinic established to facilitate access to justice for rape victims. In the jungle area where various armed groups often target civilians, rape is common.

“Last year we took up 30 cases and got seven convictions. We managed to bring victims and witnesses to Bukavu,” proudly says Ismael Wikalilwa who runs the clinic. Just a few years ago, the idea of seeking formal justice for human rights violations was hardly heard of in the area.

“However, until today none of the victims has received any reparation,” Wikaliwa admits. This discourages others from taking legal action. Some people even mock the rape victims involved in litigation, telling them that those who accept out of court settlements at least get something: a goat or two.

Access to justice should not be difficult for the people of Shabunda. The local administrator showed me brand new court premises built and equipped through foreign aid; the government has yet to staff them. With no incentives or housing, magistrates do not want to come to this remote place.

Shabunda is a microcosm for the DRC: a rich country of poor people. The country is rich with mineral resources, oil, timber and fertile land. But the Congolese people may never see these natural resources put to their benefit unless important reforms are made. The riches are now controlled and used by warlords, unscrupulous international businessmen, and a small number of corrupt officials.

The security forces, poorly and irregularly paid, often survive on looting. Soldiers live in mud huts surrounded by children they cannot afford to feed properly nor send to school. It is a dangerous job fighting rebels who are often paid much better than they are. It is no wonder that government soldiers and rebels trade places at an amazing rate.
Communications in the whole country are extremely poor. In Shabunda, the cost of repairing the 350 km access road would, in the long run, be far less than flying people and merchandise in and out. Investment in infrastructure across the country would boost the economy. But it does not create any direct personal profit for anyone. So the government has largely been unable or unwilling, so far, to develop infrastructure.

The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is bad, but it is not hopeless. Like the enthusiasts at the legal clinic, a number of Congolese, including vibrant and articulate NGOs, fight for democracy, rule of law, human rights and social justice. From their government, they demand security and protection, rule of law and the use of natural resources for social development. Some courageous officials of the Congolese military justice system have been instrumental in seeking justice for victims. They are to be credited, in partnership with the UN and NGOs, for an emerging trend of convictions of officers and militia members for rape, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“I fully agree that security and protection of civilians, creating a more professional and efficient army and police force, respecting human rights and strengthening the justice system and the end to chronic impunity are priorities”, the newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Raymond Tshibanda, told me a day after his government was confirmed by parliament.

All this costs money and takes time, but the minister was optimistic.

“Everybody should be equal before the law” he says. For the DRC, this would represent a major step forward.
Curbing corruption and ensuring transparent political processes and business dealings are prerequisites for attracting serious investors. This will not be easy. Corrupt officials who are used to sharing the spoils with foreign sharks will resist reforms.

There is a long way to go before the DRC is able to use its resources for the benefit of its people. It is important for the new government to speedily and visibly take the first steps in the right direction before the honeymoon is over.
With foreign aid shrinking due to the global recession, only demonstrated commitment to priorities like professionalizing the army and police, improving respect for human rights, and strengthening the justice system and rule of law can generate the much needed international support.

The DRC needs to come out of the shadow of its past elections. It is encouraging that the public prosecutor agrees that investigations into human rights violations committed in connection with the recent presidential and parliamentary elections should be completed ahead of the forthcoming local and provincial elections. This is crucial for building popular trust in the electoral process and fostering a culture of accountability.

The new government needs all the support it can get. It will have to earn it.

Mr Šimonović, is the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.