The Congo: Numbers Matter

By Johnanthan Bower

5 Million Dead and still counting


It is sometimes assumed that numbers cannot reflect the value of something so sacred and so mysterious as human life; that statistics are unfit to determine priority and that conflicts cannot be compared. I disagree. Numbers matter, fundamentally. Numbers are a global sanity check and offer crisp, clear perspective. Numbers are important because they can expose, precisely and dramatically, the extent of hypocrisy inherent in the international political system. This has never been more explosively illustrated than in the case of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The conflict in the Congo is so murky, so brutal and so alien that it probably doesn't feature on the radar of the average British person. The distance from the northern tip of the Congo to the southern tip is equivalent to the distance from London to Moscow; and the conflict in this enormous country takes place in a theatre of jungle, mountains and lakes among people who are "not like us", and there are no goodies and there are no baddies, only warring factions bent on keeping power and surviving by exploiting natural resources and terrorising local populations. There are no personal stories with which most of us can truly identify. We simply cannot comprehend the human cost. Congo, to the Western eye, lacks the vividness of apartheid South Africa, it lacks the compelling religious and cultural element of the Palestine conflict, and there is nothing about it that inspires a strong reaction in Western audiences.

But where narrative and psychology fail, numbers tell a powerful and compelling truth. Since 1998, 5.4 million have died due to conflict and humanitarian crises in the Congo, according to the International Rescue Committee. 5.4 million is a staggering 1800 September 11th attacks. It is about 5000 times as many people as who perished in the Gaza conflict of 2009 or the Lebanon war of 2006. It is also almost as many people as died in the Nazi Holocaust. These three events changed the global political landscape in significant ways. September 11th defined the foreign policy of the one global superpower. The Middle East conflict at least drew out global opinion and more locally, galvanised activists all over London into action. And the Holocaust had multiple and profound impacts on the Middle East, on international human rights law and on European and American collective conscience. Can we say that anything changed after the Congolese war? Absolutely not.

We must dare to stare the numbers in the face and recognise that the Congo is the most significant global war since the Second World War, and then ask ourselves what that really means. So, how does this new numerically informed perspective change things? What does it mean?

It has profound implications firstly for our internal map of where the globally significant events are happening. If one life is equal to another, the Congo in particular, and Africa in general, matter far more than we currently think they do.

Secondly it matters because when it comes to the Congo, the relevant parties to the conflict know what to do. The requisite promises have been made. All that is required is the political will, both from regionally involved parties including the relevant national governments, the local armed groups, and the international community which has leverage over these parties, to uphold their part of the deal. If one life was equal to another, we would see the same international determination to end the Congolese conflict as we saw in the NATO efforts that ended the Balkan war in the mid-1990s or that led the US, for good or ill, to oust Saddam Hussein after 9/11.

So what can we do as responsible global citizens? Firstly, we can support organisations that understand the context of atrocities wrought in the Congo and that are taking small, grounded, practical steps to change the situation. One such organisation is Global Witness. It is a tragedy that the Congo is so resource-rich yet so underdeveloped; indeed, famous economist Paul Collier argued in a 2009 lecture that the prospecting process in Africa is so poor that there are many, many minerals yet to be discovered, and that to harness them successfully would transform Africas fortunes. Global Witness works to break the link between natural resources and conflict and to try to harness resources for human development rather than human destruction. Progress on this will be fundamental to the future of the Congo.

A different style of organisation is Save the Congo, driven by Congolese Queen Mary University student Vava Tampa. Vava works tirelessly and passionately to bring this crisis to the attention of fellow citizens and that of the British government. His commitment to the principle that every life is equal is genuinely inspiring. Save the Congo campaigns for international and national justice for the Congo, a bigger and better United Nations peacekeeping force in the region, an arms embargo, an end to sexual violence and to the use of child soldiers. And there are many other organisations doing great work to begin to tackle the unimaginable consequences of such destruction.

Finally it is important that we remember the figure, 5.4 million, remember its context of men, women and children who perished in our lifetime in the Congo, and in doing so, remember that when it comes to global justice, numbers really matter.

July 2010