The numbers are difficult to absorb. According to a new IPC report, a record 27 million Congolese – roughly a quarter of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) population – are facing hunger, with 860,000 children under five acutely malnourished. The DRC is home to more starving people than any other country in the world. This could have been prevented.
Without faith that their own president Félix Tshisekedi will act, people are turning to the US president, hoping that lobbying using the hashtag #CongoIsStarving on Twitter will urge Joe Biden to back the creation of an international criminal tribunal for the DRC to end the impunity fuelling violence and famine risk. Shockingly, it could be that simple to bring an end to this suffering; we are asking for solidarity, not charity, to save lives and end this nightmarish crisis.
When I first wrote about famine in the DRC in 2017, 7.7 million people were on the verge. Then the UN said the crisis was on the scale of Syria and Yemen. Earlier this year, the World Food Programme said 22 million Congolese were close to starvation, surpassing Yemen to become the world’s biggest and fastest-deteriorating food crisis. In a little more than nine months, an additional 5 million Congolese have become food insecure.
For the first time, there are similar levels of hunger in towns and cities as remote rural areas, where conflict has pushed things close to breaking point; with more than 40 local and foreign militia gangs fighting for control of minerals that make mobile phones and “green’” cars. The forecast remains bleak through 2022 – suggesting that the worst is yet to come.
Anyone who has studied the DRC will know the cause of this hunger is not drought or the economy, but a calamitous culture of impunity. The problem has worsened since Tshisekedi took office in 2019 because not only has he refused to take action against the war criminals responsible for the violence and the displacement of more than 5.5 million Congolese people, which fuels the hunger, he has promoted them. How can you protect civilians from violence if the very men who caused it are in power?
Less than a year after becoming president, Tshisekedi told France’s TV5Monde: “I am not here to try crimes that happened before me.”
Since then Tshisekedi has rewarded and promoted army officers under UN, US and EU sanctions for human rights violations including Gen Gabriel Amisi – who a 2012 UN report accused of running a network supplying arms to rebel groups – and Gen Muhindo Akili Mundos, under UN sanctions for his part in organising and carrying out civilian massacres. According to a 2015 UN report, not a single individual under Akili has been prosecuted for civilian deaths.
Tshisekedi has promoted other known human rights violators labelled the “red generals” by senior UN officials, including Fall Sikabwe Asinda, Thierry Ilunga Kibambi and Egide Ngoy. In August, Tshisekedi appointed another former rebel leader Tommy Tambwe. Less than three months later, Tambwe’s militia gang M23 attacked Bukavu.
This culture of impunity fuels insecurity and violence, which forces people off their land, closes markets, leads to loss of jobs and income and school dropouts. Food prices spiral upwards and poverty deepens in a country where the most recent figures show 73% of the population live on less than $1.90 (£1.40) a day, creating food insecurity and pushing a country already on the edge of crisis, off the cliff.
Every day this goes on, more and more Congolese are killed, raped, displaced and pushed into poverty. The last mortality report published by the International Rescue Committee was in 2008 and placed the death toll at more than 5.4 million, since 1998, with 45,000 dying every month due to the violence, disease and famine that follow it.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is asking for $65m (£48m) to help 1.1 million of the most vulnerable Congolese who cannot survive without food assistance, including mothers who are too malnourished to breastfeed their babies.
So far only $4.5m (£3.3m) has been raised, leaving countless men, women and children facing desperate choices: should they join one of the many militia gangs to access their land so they don’t starve – compounding the violence – or become displaced, walking vast distances in search of security?
Without an international criminal tribunal for Congo to end this calamitous culture of impunity, the survival of millions of people is at stake. And because our president has chosen to side with killers, the little hope left now lies with Biden to sponsor a UN security council vote for a UN tribunal to act to end the suffering.
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