There Is No Congo
Why the only way to help Congo is to stop pretending it exists.
The international community needs to recognize a simple, albeit brutal fact: The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not exist. All of the peacekeeping missions, special envoys, interagency processes, and diplomatic initiatives that are predicated on the Congo myth — the notion that one sovereign power is present in this vast country — are doomed to fail. It is time to stop pretending otherwise.
Much of Congo’s intractability stems from a vast territory that is sparsely populated but packed with natural resources. A mostly landlocked expanse at the heart of Africa, Congo comprises 67 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups. The country is bordered by nine others — among them some of the continent’s weakest states.
A local Kiswahili saying holds, Congo is a big country — you will eat it until you tire away! And indeed, for centuries, this is precisely what Congo’s colonial occupiers, its neighbors, and even some of its people have done: eaten away at Congo’s vast mineral wealth with little concern for the coherency of the country left behind. Congo has none of the things that make a nation-state: interconnectedness, a government that is able to exert authority consistently in territory beyond the capital, a shared culture that promotes national unity, or a common language. Instead, Congo has become a collection of peoples, groups, interests, and pillagers who coexist at best.
Congo today is a product of its troubled history: a century of brutal colonialism, 30 years of Cold War meddling and misrule under U.S. ally Mobutu Sese Seko, and more than a decade of war following his ouster in 1997. That conflict, which embroiled much of southern Africa, brought rebel leader Laurent Kabila, a one-time revolutionary colleague of Che Guevara, to power. Kabila was assassinated just a few short years later, leaving his son, Joseph Kabila, in office in Kinshasa, Congo’s ostensible capital.
The younger Kabila inherited a broken infrastructure and a tenuous national identity shaped on repression and patronage rather than governance and the supply of basic services. Despite winning internationally sponsored elections in 2006, he still struggles to rule over a territory one quarter of the size of the United States, where a nebulous sense of Congolese identity — based on French, music, and a shared oppressive history — has not translated into allegiance to the Congolese state. Innumerable secessionist attempts, including those instigated by his father, have turned Congo into ungovernable fiefdoms tenuously linked to the center. Kabila has few tools at his disposal. There is little in the way of a disciplined army and police force; they are more used to living off than serving the population. Like Mobutu before him, Kabila is dependent on patronage to remain in power and on revenue from aid flows and mining taxes.
Economically, the various outlying parts of Congo are better integrated with their neighbours than with the rest of the country. For instance, it is hard for anyone sitting in Lubumbashi, the capital of mineral-rich Katanga province in the far southeast, to see Kinshasa as ruling. It is a two-day journey from Lubumbashi to South Africa’s Johannesburg; the trip from Katanga to Kinshasa — of similar distance — is seldom attempted, even contemplated. With more in common with its southern Anglophone neighbors than with Kinshasa, no wonder one Zambian minister privately refers to Katanga as Zambia’s 10th province. Congo’s neighbors have learned to ignore its sovereignty.
The Congolese government’s inability to control its territory has resulted in one of the world’s longest and most violent wars. About 4 million people died between 2000 and 2004 — and that was merely one episode of the ongoing conflict. War has led to the predation of the various armies on the civilian populations, the destruction of what were the country’s transport and agrarian systems, and the collapse of any semblance of public health. Internationally, Congo has gained notoriety for the tremendous violence suffered by its civilians and the widespread use of rape as a method of coercion.
The many combatants in today’s Congo have little incentive to form a united country; they benefit from the violent chaos that ensures that so many can pick at the country’s resources. The international community does not have the will or the resources to construct a functional Congo. Nor do neighbors want one Congo, as many find it easier to deal with a plethora of ungoverned parts over which they can exert influence. Rwanda, Angola, and Uganda, for example, have all intervened to protect their security interests over the past decades.
To clean up the mess, the Central African country has been home to one of the world’s largest peacekeeping operations. More than 18,400 United Nations peacekeeping troops and observers are stationed in Congo at an annual cost of $1.24 billion. Yet recent events demonstrate just how impossible their task has become. Early this year, Rwandan troops entered eastern Congo’s two Kivu provinces with Kinshasa’s permission to flush out rebel Hutu militias left over from the Rwandan genocide a decade ago. Despite achieving some military success, reprisals by the Hutu militias left more than 100 civilians dead.
The Kivu provinces are not the only restive areas. Trouble has flared sporadically in the Bas-Congo, Ituri, Katanga, and Kasai provinces of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest state. At January 2008’s peace talks, the government categorized one of the largest rebel groups, the CNDP, as just one of two dozen armed militias not under government control. Nationwide elections in 2006, on which the international community spent more than a billion dollars, did little to mend Congo’s many divisions.
Given the immense human tragedy, it is time to ask if provinces such as the Kivus and Katanga (which are themselves the size of other African countries) can ever be improved as long as they fall under a fictional Congolese state. Although African states recognize the borders on paper, Congo’s neighbors have often acted as if no such lines exist. The international community is the only remaining player devoting large amounts of resources to the idea of one Congo — with dismal returns.
A solution to Congo’s troubles is possible with a reimagined approach. The West could start by making development and order its first priority in the Congolese territory, rather than focusing on the promotion of the Congolese state. This simple distinction immediately casts the Congolese problem in a whole new light. It would mean, for instance, that foreign governments and aid agencies would deal with whomever exerted control on the ground rather than continuing to pretend that Kinshasa is ruling and running the country. Such an approach might bring into the picture a confusing array of governors, traditional leaders, warlords, and others rather than the usual panoply of ministers. But that would finally be a reflection of who is actually running Congo.
Instead of continuing to spend billions of dollars on putting Congo together, the international community could regionally address actual security and political problems. For instance, troubles in eastern Congo have as much to do with continuing Rwandan insecurity than with what the government in Kinshasa is (or is not capable of) doing. A more realistic foreign policy toward eastern Congo would assign a high priority to Rwandan security interests, given that many derive from the wake of the 1994 genocide. Get this right and there might actually be a chance to reduce the violence that has haunted the Kivus. It would also incentivize the Rwandans to see Congo as a natural partner in trade and development rather than a security problem to be managed unilaterally. Joint Congolese-Rwandan operations early this year are a step in this direction.
Congo is rightly notorious for being one of the most pathological instances of the European division of Africa. Perhaps as a result, Western powers have shied away from anything other than reflexively trying to get Congo to work within the boundaries that the king of Belgium helped establish in 1885. Setting aside the scope of human tragedy, there are real reasons that getting things right in Congo matters now more than ever. The country is the region’s vortex; when it has failed in the past, its neighbors have often gone down with it.
The very concept of a Congolese state has outlived its usefulness. For an international community that has far too long made wishful thinking the enemy of pragmatism, acting on reality rather than diplomatic theory would be a good start.