During President Barack Obama's short term as a senator, one of two
bills he authored which eventually became law was the Democratic Republic of
the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. Senator Hillary Clinton was a co-sponsor, along
with 11 others.
The DRC-focused bill includes
specific provisions on conflict minerals and sexual violence; sanctions on
armed groups and their state-sponsors; and support for democracy. Section 105
of the Obama-written law authorizes the secretary of state to withhold assistance from
a foreign country if she determines that the foreign government is taking
actions to destabilize the DRC. Obama's six-year-old law is still the only
official policy the United States has on the books for dealing with the Congo
Given his past
interest in the country, many Congolese were hopeful when Obama came to power
that he would continue to prioritize the country. Those hopes seemed to be
confirmed three years ago, when Obama spoke movingly in Accra, Ghana, on
his first -- and so far only -- presidential trip to Sub-Saharan Africa. He
exhorted Africans to assume responsibility for their destiny. He promised that
the United States would no longer support strongmen or tolerate corruption.
Instead, his government would work to promote strong institutions.
Congo is a
dysfunctional state with weak political leadership, an incompetent army, and failing
security institutions. Over the past decade, the DRC government has failed to
restore the state's authority over its territory, enabling the proliferation of
armed groups and warlords -- like the recently convicted Thomas Lubanga -- who recruit children,
systematically rape women, and loot mineral resources. Some of these militias receive
financial and logistical support from neighboring states. As of the end of 2011, the conflict has displaced nearly two
million civilians both internally and outside the DRC.
When Obama addressed
the conflicts in Congo and Sudan's Darfur region in his Accra speech, he
denounced the criminality and cowardice of systematic rape and the forced
conscription of children as soldiers. He pledged U.S. support to efforts to
hold war criminals accountable.
Yet when it comes to Congo, it seems that Obama is running from his
own record. For the past three years the president has never implemented the
law he himself authored, despite abundant evidence of abuses. The
administration's tentative approach to containing the Congo crisis has spawned
a schizophrenic and incongruous diplomacy, which fuels a longstanding conflict
and has not stopped the killing.
Perhaps hoping to rectify the scant attention his administration has
paid to Africa as a whole, Obama unveiled a new plan on June 14 to strengthen the continent's democratic
institutions, spur economic growth, advance peace and security, and promote
economic development. But coming at the end of his term, the strategy offers
too little, too late.
When it comes to history, Congolese have the collective memory of an elephant.
Starting in 1960, when the DRC gained independence from Belgium, the United States
sought to play a role in shaping the future of the young nation to exploit its
strategic geographical position and natural resources for the Cold War. U.S.
involvement led to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, the ensuing civil
war, and the deployment of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission at the time, as
well as the rise and fall of Field Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the
country for 32 years.
Over the past five decades, the United States has been at least
partially involved in every major Congolese political development. This includes
President Jimmy Carter's support for the emergence of political opposition to
Mobutu in the late 1970s and 1980s, as well as the 1997 invasion of the country
by a coalition of foreign armies led by Rwanda and Uganda -- with U.S. support --
to drive the dictator and onetime U.S. ally out of power. The current conflict
in eastern Congo is an extension of Washington's concern for the security of President
Paul Kagame's Tutsi-dominated regime in Rwanda. But U.S. reluctance to be a
fair broker between the grieving parties prolongs regional instability, which
also diminishes the long-term prospect for real peace in Rwanda.
Thus, the Congolese see Obama's latest initiative as just another
short-term public relations tactic that's long on rhetoric and short on
strategic planning; no different from the Clinton administration's plan to
promote democratic rule in Congo through a war that forced a dying Mobutu into
exile -- only to have Mobutu replaced with another strongman.
Congo has been
muddling through a series of crises for nearly two decades. The causes are
well-known: An inept government with a weak leadership, no articulated vision,
and no legitimacy after the botched 2011 election, predatory designs of
neighbors (Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola), proliferation of armed groups, and an
underachieving and over-politicized U.N. peacekeeping mission. This cocktail of
problems is topped by an apathetic diplomatic community motivated by the short-term
interests of the countries it represents, rather than the long-term
stabilization of Congo and Central Africa.
It's hard to know where to start in reforming
a state as dysfunctional as the DRC, but security sector reform is probably the
most pressing of the country's needs. Without a competent professional military, the DRC will continue to be
unable to stop the proliferation of militias. Instead, the government has
chosen to compromise with militiamen and co-opt them into the national army. The
lack of an adequate national integration program has resulted in the
establishment of parallel command structures within the military. This means
that many of the militias who join the national army remain in their areas of
control and keep their command structures nearly intact. This arrangement
allows the "former" militiamen to perpetrate abuses on the civilian populations
and keep their access to local resources all under the protection of a
Congolese military uniform.
This haphazard integration approach prolongs human rights abuses by
militias and other integrated elements of the national army and makes the
prosecution of leaders of armed groups and their associates difficult. Now is
the perfect time to press the government of the DRC to present a detailed and
comprehensive security sector reform plan that donors can help implement. Only
after the DRC undertakes a deep and meaningful security sector reform can the
Congolese people enjoy real peace.
2006 legislation would help accomplish this goal. It demands greater
accountability of the DRC government and provides guidelines for U.S. and
multilateral assistance to help restore the state's capacity to govern. The
bill provides useful guidance on security sector reform, as well as democratic
transition and the prosecution of war criminals and their state sponsors.
As Congo's largest donor, the United States channels nearly $1 billion
in foreign aid into the country. But the U.S. government almost never uses the
money as leverage to induce better governance. The State Department's narrative
is pessimistic. Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African
affairs, is quick to point
to Congo's size, its intractable problems, and DRC government's unreliability
as a partner. The reality is that Carson has relied on quiet and tepid
diplomacy that has yielded little tangible result for the Congolese.
Donors, including the United States, pay for half of Congo's national budget. With such an enormous investment, America is
entitled to ask more of the Congolese leadership, of the U.N. peacekeeping
mission, and of its own diplomats in Kinshasa and neighboring countries.
Instead, the world's most powerful nation has mostly stayed on the sidelines.
the vacuum of diplomacy, NGOs, academics, and activists have stepped in. But
most of them avoid addressing the root causes of the problems. Their narrative
is fixated on two symptoms of a larger illness: sexual violence and conflict
minerals. But this oversimplifies the problem, making American taxpayers and
donors believe that if only the challenges of sexual violence and conflict
minerals were solved, Congo would get back on track and peace would follow.
minimalist narrative is wrong and has led to several ineffective initiatives. For
instance, Section 1502 of the Financial Reform Act
of 2010 requires that
the U.S. Securities Exchange ensure that American companies do not source
minerals from Congo's conflict zones -- referring in practice to North and
South Kivu regions in DRC's east -- as a critical step to achieving peace. This
would be akin to centering Washington's Pakistan policy on the conflict in
with the influx of nearly 2 million Rwandan refugees fleeing the 1994 genocide,
the Kivu areas have been the primary theater of ethnic violence, war crimes,
systematic mass rape, and the looting of mineral resources. But the Kivus
represent no more than one-fifteenth of Congo. Their problems stem from the
failure of the state to discharge its duties and should be treated only as a
part of a comprehensive national policymaking.
NGO-academic-activist approach also reinforces the bleakest images of Congo. It
disenfranchises the Congolese people before the world, casting them as incompetent
and incapable to solve their own problems. It then becomes imperative that they
be rescued from their hopeless situation by the good peoples of the world.
Congo has now become a victim of the bigotry of low expectations.
Their good intentions and activism notwithstanding, NGOs cannot
compensate for the Congolese state's inability to serve and protect the
Congolese people. Nor can activism replace policymaking by U.S. government and
Congress. Unlike governments that are accountable to their citizens, NGOs do
not answer to the people they purport to serve. They are only beholden to their
donors and boards. Yet, for better or for worse, they tend to play a
disproportionate role in the formulation of government initiatives in Congo.
Secretary of State Clinton visited the Congolese cities of Kinshasa and Goma in 2009, she
denounced sexual violence and called for arrests, prosecutions, and punishment
of the perpetrators. In Goma, she offered $17 million for the training of more
gynecologists and the provision of medical care, and suggested handing out
video camera recorders to document violence against women. In Kinshasa, she
encouraged the students to speak out to end the corruption, violence, and
conflict. It was a comforting gesture, but her words hardly amounted
to real pressure on DRC government and the state sponsors of the militias who
were actually perpetrating the abuses.
Still, Clinton's words did not fall on deaf ears. Two years later, the
Congolese spoke out against corruption and violence through a contentious
election marred with allegations of fraud, logistical deficiencies, and
violence. Yet, throughout the electoral debacle, the State Department showed
little commitment to the fairness or transparency of the process. When the
pro-Kabila majority in parliament passed a constitutional revision that
scrapped the two-round presidential election for a one-round process more
favorable to the incumbent, the U.S. Ambassador James Entwistle called it an
internal affair. When DRC's Supreme Court upheld the contested results of the
polls last December and confirmed Kabila as the victor, Clinton issued a statement expressing her disappointment in the
court's decision and called for a review of the process by Congolese
authorities and international experts. But a few weeks later, in the midst of
post-electoral violence, Entwistle dismissed the democratic recourse, recognized the incumbent as the winner and
president for the next five years, and told the Congolese that democracy was
more than the election. A stronger statement from the U.S. State Department
condemning the perversion of the process would have signaled greater commitment
to fair, credible, and transparent elections.
Clinton could do
more for the victims of sexual violence by going after the militias and their
backers in Congo and elsewhere. Under the law she co-sponsored with Obama as a
senator, she has the power to do so. She could designate militia leaders and
their individual and state patrons for sanctions and refer them to the
international criminal justice system. The sanctions would include travel bans,
freezing of assets, and other punitive measures.
Without a strong
U.S. policy, Congo's neighbors also have stepped into the policy void. Rwanda
has emerged as a primary instigator of rebellions in Congo and a supporter of
some of the most brutal militias. In 2009, the Netherlands and Sweden suspended aid to Rwanda after a report by a U.N. group of experts provided evidence of
Rwanda's support to Laurent Nkunda's CNDP militia, which had committed gross human
rights violations against the civilian population, including mass killings and
rapes. Following the suspension of aid, Nkunda was arrested in a raid by
the Rwandan Defense Forces. He has yet to face charges.
Today, North Kivu is in the midst of yet another rebellion by an
offshoot of CNDP calling itself M23 Movement. It started as a mutiny of
"former" CNDP elements integrated into DRC army led by Bosco Ntaganda, a
notorious war criminal who has been indicted in absentia at The Hague and
previously served as Nkunda's deputy. Several reports, including by the U.N. Group of Experts, have linked this militia to high-ranking
officials in the Kagame government. Rwanda's continuous military adventurism in
Congo has contributed to millions of deaths and exacerbated tensions between
ethnic groups that once lived in relative harmony. Kagame has repeatedly denied
the morbid impact of his actions on the local populations. Instead, he often blames
the crisis on King Leopold II of Belgium.
The United States, which maintains friendly relations with Kagame's
government, has reportedly sought to block or delay the publication of the damning part of the U.N. investigation, undercutting Obama's
Africa strategy and his law. Impunity fuels the conflict, emboldening war
criminals and destabilizing the region. In keeping with its reluctant and
inequitable approach to the conflict, the State Department issued a measured communiqué urging all parties to respond
constructively to the report, as if everyone were equally at fault. The United States
has reportedly "quietly" asked Rwanda to halt its support to the rebellion, but
the fighting goes on unabated and pushes the DRC on the verge of a greater war.
The U.S. response is neither true to its declared intention to promote
peace nor the spirit of the Obama law, which seeks to end impunity. On the
contrary, this prejudiced diplomacy, which has gone on for nearly two decades,
sows the seed of the next round of violence and atrocities and condemns the
region to perpetual instability. The United States should go farther than the
Netherlands and Sweden by withholding foreign assistance to Rwanda and placing
sanctions on the individuals cited in the report. Rwanda is looking to hold a
rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council next year and will need U.S. support.
The U.S. administration should condition its backing for Rwanda's membership on
the resolution of the current rebellion.
The DRC has to take critical steps to restore state authority and
control over its territory. But without legitimacy, it is impossible for the
current pro-Kabila majority to govern. The United States and other donors ought
to push the Kabila government to hold free, fair, and transparent provincial
elections to offset the paralyzing effect of the 2011 polls.
For now, the Obama administration is under no pressure to act.
Congress does not seem to care. NGOs cannot generate enough public support. But
the American resolve to promote democracy and peace in the region is being
tested in Congo, and Obama's new Africa strategy will make sense only when
action backs up his words. Thankfully, Obama doesn't need an entirely new
strategy. The one he himself authored six years ago will suffice.