Nick Kristof on the Congo

Nicholas Kristof just spent a week in the eastern Congo and has begun publishing a series of Op-Eds in The New York Times. This first one is here, and is less than illuminating. He talks about the how women raped and children are orphaned. He says that he has come to the Kivus, “where militias rape, mutilate and kill civilians with a savagery that is almost incomprehensible.” Unfortunately, Kristof does not do much in his Op-Ed to make it any more comprehensible. Instead, he slips from one stock image to the next, without providing much explanation at all – in fact, that might be antithetical to the piece, as he states: “This is a pointless war — now a dozen years old — driven by warlords, greed for minerals, ethnic tensions and complete impunity.” A pointless war. Perhaps. But does it defy reason? Is there any way to explain in simple terms what the war is about? Here are some suggestions to slip into the piece:

    • The Congo war has many causes, but two on the main ones were the collapse of the Congolese state after 32 years of misrule by a western-backed dictator; and the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, which drove a million people across the border into the Congo, where some of the commanders involved in the genocide still terrorize the Congolese population, along with many new non-genocidaire recruits.
    • In 1996, a Rwandan-backed coalition invaded the Congo to topple the this dictator, Mobutu. After Laurent Kabila came to power on the back of this rebellion, he fell out with his Rwandan backers, who then launched a new rebellion. The war lasted until 2003, when all belligerents joined a transitional government. Elections were held in 2006 and Joseph Kabila was elected president. However, his presidency has been marred by corruption, abuse and state weakness. In the East, former Rwandan allies went back to war, driving an insurrection that morphed through various phases and continues until today.
    • This violence is compounded by struggles over local political and economic resources that often take place along ethnic lines. Faced with a weak state, many ethnic-based militias have emerged. The motives of the fighters vary from self-defense to trying to make money to asserting manhood. [It would be very nice if journalists took more to interview perpetrators and not just victims, it helps to dispel the specter of African savagery.]

This is still hopelessly reductive; the point is, a journalist’s job is to provide intelligent context and analysis, to illuminate, not stultify. Some say that it is better that Kristof is writing even these simple tidbits – it helps mobilize interest in the West and people like myself are lost in the stratosphere. I am certainly lost in the stratosphere, but I do think there is a way of writing an Op-Ed that better reflects the conflict’s dimensions. After all, it’s supposed to be an opinion piece. The only opinion I could find here was: “The Congo is messed up. Please help.” Imagine writing a similar piece about America’s school system or health care. It would never be published in the NYT.

I am not convinced that just making people care more will solve the problem. After all, caring could lead to bad policy. There is ample precedent for this. Or, people could just shake their head when confronted with such “pointless” violence and throw their hands up in the air.

Kristof also could have spoken about policy. There are currently two pieces of important legislation in Congress on helping to regulate the mining sector in the Congo. The US Defense Department is considering how to help reform the Congolese army through AFRICOM. Several organizations are considering how to intervene to help combat sexual violence through initiatives in the justice sector. This is what an opinion piece is supposed to do: influence opinion and policy. Not reinforce stereotypes.

Maybe I spoke to soon – after all, this is his first piece. Maybe he was just prepping us for cogent policy pieces to come. I certainly hope so.