Great Lakes crisis: A Q&A

Posted by Sam Dixon Aid Policy Advisor, DR Congo

29th Aug 2012

Right now, more people are displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) than at any time over the past three years. Tens of thousands more people have fled to neighbouring countries. Oxfam's Policy Advisor in DRC, Samuel Dixon, explains the current crisis and what the international community can do to help ease the suffering:

How serious is the crisis?

Nearly half a million people have been displaced by conflict since the start of the year, and there are now over 2.2 million displaced people within DRC - the highest number since 2009.

Thousands are staying in crowded, overstretched homes with relatives or friends, while others have sought refuge in rapidly growing camps as aid agencies struggle to provide food, safe water and shelter to the swelling populations. The most affected are often those people who are unable to flee - elderly, infirm and  handicapped people.

People are also increasingly feeling the humanitarian consequences in neighbouring countries - nearly 60,000 refugees have fled to camps in Uganda and Rwanda. Oxfam is scaling up our emergency response across the region.

How are ordinary people affected?

Civilians are facing an increase in killings, forced recruitment (including children), extortion, pillaging and sexual violence at the hands of numerous armed groups, as well as by the Congolese army itself.

Farmers fear being attacked if they go to their fields. Women are raped on their way to collect water. People with guns benefit financially from the insecurity - armed groups profit from forced labour in some areas and traders and farmers are forced to pay taxes at illegal checkpoints along the roads to markets, meaning that these lucrative roads are often fought over. Food prices have risen because crops are looted. People tell Oxfam they don't grow crops to sell because they will just be stolen before they can reach the market.

The crisis is pushing many people into hunger in one of the most fertile regions in the world.

Why is the situation getting worse now?

In April, former fighters from rebel NCDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) who had been integrated into the Congolese army mutinied and took control of areas close to the border with Rwanda. In response, the army deployed troops from across the east to fight this rebellion and protect major towns.

Tens of thousands have fled the resulting conflict, while the redeployment of the army has left a massive security vacuum which has allowed rebel groups to reassert their control.

Eastern DRC has been a story of conflict, exploitation and impunity for decades. A large number of armed groups are battling for control over territory and resources, exacerbating ethnic tensions. Military operations by the Congolese army against militia over recent years have had enormous humanitarian fallout. Within this fragile context, the rebellion poses a significant and new threat to stability, government control, and communities' protection against further abuse.

What do people need most urgently?

People need security and humanitarian aid. Without immediate support, people will suffer even further. Donors and aid agencies need to step up their response. People also need better protection from the Congolese government and the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO. Given the severity of the new conflict dynamic in the Kivus, MONUSCO needs to reassess its use of resources in order to better protect civilians where they need it the most - including areas where armed groups have reasserted control.

What are the long-term solutions to the crisis?

The current crisis is the latest in a long line of emergencies in this extremely fragile environment, and people's ability to cope with cyclical crises has eroded. To date, responses to the chronic emergency in the DRC have been piecemeal and achieved very little, often because they are imposed from above and do not take local opinions and solutions into account. Only by tackling the root causes of conflict, marginalisation, and poverty will DRC achieve lasting peace.

The urgent reform of the FARDC is crucial so that the security forces can protect communities. Preparations should be made for free and fair provincial and local elections to address a situation in which people have little to no say over decisions affecting them. Underlying tensions over land and other resources also must be resolved between communities through grassroots peace-building, supported at the provincial and national levels.

What can the international community do?

The DRC government must lead with political and army reform, but lasting solutions require external support and recognition that this is a regional crisis. Donors should reinforce and better coordinate efforts to reform the army, and increase funding to better enable Congolese civil society to hold their government to account.

Numerous regional agreements made over the past decade remain unimplemented. More international pressure is needed to ensure that regional agreements prioritise the protection of civilians, cooperation between states, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. These agreements must be made in a transparent manner and finally turned into action on the ground that will bring people real stability.

Blog post written by Sam Dixon

Aid Policy Advisor, DR Congo

More by Sam Dixon