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5.4 million dead in Congo. Believe it or not, it could have been worse.

I was pleased to see this story about death tolls in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the first page of Reddit this morning. The story is, more or less, a press release from the International Rescue Committee, one of the best organizations doing work on forgotten conflicts and refugee issues. The most recent survey sees a death rate in DRC that’s 60% higher than in similarly impoverished sub-Saharan African countries, suggesting 45,000 “excess” deaths per month – deaths that can be statisically correlated to ongoing violence in DRC and the shattered infrastructure destroyed in ongoing conflict. The study suggests that there have been 5.4 million excess deaths in DRC since 1998, the start of the second Congo war.

IRC has been commissioning these surveys for quite some time. I looked back at an essay I wrote, explaining my interest in the topic of media attention, in August 2003 – the centerpiece of that essay was a 2003 study from IRC that reported 3.3 million excess deaths in DRC, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. A 2006 study put the death toll at 3.8 million. This recent study suggests that elections – which were tainted by violence, but were miraculously carried out successfully – haven’t been able to substantively improve living conditions for people in DRC, which continues to be plagued by violence from Congolese and Rwandan rebels.

“antichrist”, who posted the story to Reddit, notes, “45,000 die in Congo every MONTH and nobody cares”. Sure seems that way from global media coverage. I wrote a piece about 18 months ago titled, “Is Israel a problem for the Democratic Republic of Congo?“, which suggested that overfocus on the Middle East by mainstream media detracts from coverage of violence, refugee issues and death in central Africa. Part of this disparity can be explained by US interests in the Middle East. Part may be explained by racism and systematic disinterest in Africa. And much may be explained by laziness – every international reporter knows the basics of the story of the Intifada, while most need hours of research to identify the basic groups who continue the conflict in eastern DRC. Much as it would be satisfying to write my rant on this topic again, I wrote it 18 months agoand five years ago… and I suspect I’ll be writing it five years from now as well.

I’ll be interested to see if anyone pulls on a particular thread of the IRC report. The method used to calculate these death figures is an estimation method widely used in epidemiological studies, but which has generated a great deal of controversy when applied to the conflict in Iraq. Dr. Les Roberts was one of the authors of the first DRC death estimation study – he’s quoted in the AP story on the report – and he’s a figure who’s become quite controversial for his study in the Lancet of excess deaths after the US invasion of Iraq. Debunking the Roberts study has become a near full-time focus of some critics on the right, who’ve pointed to the political leanings of the authors as well as methodological questions for reasons to disbelieve the survey.

The Congo surveys use much the same methodology that the Iraq studies use – establish a baseline mortality rate (in Iraq, determine household death rate before the US invasion; in Congo, look at mortality rates in similarly underdeveloped nations); randomly select households and conduct interviews to determine mortality rates; compare baseline rates with the rates established via survey. But I haven’t seen any systematic attempts to debunk the Congo statistics, despite their possible vulnerability to the same methodological critiques as the Iraq studies. (I’d love to read any critiques of the DRC studies, if you know of any – please post links in the comments, or send them to me directly – ethan at ethanzuckerman dot com.)

That makes sense as well – the Iraq study was a chilling reminder of the cost of the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, and its release was calculated to influence the 2004 election. Those who believed that the Iraq invasion would have long-term positive effects had a compelling reason to challenge Robert’s et al’s estimates. The ongoing disaster in the DRC doesn’t even register as a foreign policy issue within the US, and therefore there are no knives drawn from the left or the right around the question of whether 3, 4 or 5 million have died in the past decade. 10 million could have died and there’s not a chance it would compel the Bush Administration to make a substantial commitment to support the DRC government or the UN mission in eastern DRC. No possible policy change means nothing to fight over, at least in the US-centered blogosphere and punditsphere.

If there’s any good news in the recent study – and believe me, I’m stretching trying to find any – it’s that death rates appear to have been decreasing in the easternmost parts of DRC. These are the areas where MONUC, the UN mission in DRC, has been on the ground attempting to maintain a buffer group between armed groups. MONUC has not been above reproach – there have been horrific stories of abuse of the local population by some peacekeepers, and the UN’s attempts to control behavior of peacekeepers have not been entirely successful. But the fact that the recent study hasn’t found death tolls even higher is due to the contributions of tens of thousands of troops, exclusively from low and medium development nations, to maintaining the peace in one of the world’s ugliest and most difficult conflicts.

6 thoughts on “5.4 million dead in Congo. Believe it or not, it could have been worse.”

  1. With Iraq, there was many people in the west (almost exclusively USA) with ideological reasons to invent pretexts to undermine the Lancet survey.

    But while the eastern DRC was also subject to a fake “liberation” that caused chaos, destruction and mass death (both direct and indirect), it wasn’t nearly as publicized so the ideologues in Kampala and Kigali feel no pressure to defend their actions.

  2. Ethan, I was actualy looking for commentary from you on this news story I heard on NPR this morning– a Peace Deal struck in the Congo. I was deeply struck by how uniquely optimistic the piece sounded—I couldn’t remember the last time I heard a radio piece on a war or a peace deal that seemed to go looking for pessimists and not actually find any. I was also deeply struck by the intense aural sensation of sincereity and celebration—an easy enough illusion to create (even accidentally) in radio, but very rare on Morning Edition regarding these sorts of topics. I haven’t been following the story (I plead guilty!) more than once a year or so, and hadn’t realized peace talks were in progress. Any comment?

  3. It’s hard for me to be too optimistic, Saheli. There have been a lot of talks, a lot of ceasefires, a lot of turning points in the conflict. What struck me about the release of the IRC report is that the death rate is still profound in DRC after elections took place… which was the event we were all celebrating a bit more than a year ago. I sincerely hope this current peace holds, but I certainly wouldn’t lay bets on it. Until someone holds the international actors behind these rebel groups accountable and until the DRC government is able to control their borders and territory, there’s simply so many riches in eastern DRC that it’s hard to believe that any peace will hold permanently.

  4. The objections to the Lancet study that are made on methodological grounds are laughable. As a professional biologist for decades, with some familiarity with the techniques and statistics in question, the Lancet study relied on methods in widespread use in epidemiology. How does anyone think it would otherwise get into a peer-reviewed journal with Lancet’s standing? The same methodology has been used to estimate excess deaths in the Darfur region, for instance.

    Some of the confusion seems to arise because people think the studies are about violent deaths. No, they’re about all excess deaths, from whatever cause. A woman who dies in childbirth because she cannot reach a hospital due to roadblocks, for instance, would be an excess death. Someone who dies in a mugging because the criminal had no means of livelihood due to war is also an excess death, a violent one in this case, but not directly stemming from a war action.

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