Argument

Time to End the Congo Charade

Hillary Clinton is making the same tragic mistake the world has been making for the past 40 years: imagining that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is real.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

After U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this week, there is no better time to revisit a question that we posed in March on ForeignPolicy.com. Does the "Congo" – a vast, mineral rich and war torn country — really exist as such?

"There Is No Congo," we argued; no sovereign Congolese authority exists. The international community should stop pretending that the DRC is ruled from the putative capital, Kinshasa. Instead, why not act pragmatically and work with those in the different parts of Congo who exercise real power? The country’s problems are difficult enough without having to address them through the façade of a central authority.

In the months since we wrote, many Congo watchers have responded to our argument. And if Clinton were reading, she would seem to be among those who disagree. The secretary met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and implored Kinshasa to do a better job of protecting its people. She promised the country $17 million in aid to combat sexual violence in the eastern part of the country. The United States, at least, continues to believe that a real Congolese government does exist and can be dealt with accordingly.

Certainly, no critic disagrees that Congo has been a disaster on the scale that our piece describes. Critiquing our argument, Ali M Malau, an advisor to the NGO Friend of Congo, wrote on AllAfrica.com, "the level of deliquescence in Congo today is almost unprecedented; not acknowledging that reality would be intellectually dubious." Timothy Raeymaekers of the Conflict Research Group blogged, "Even the most enthusiastic embracers of Congo’s political transition now agree that the country’s conflict reconstruction has been a huge failure." The consensus among our critics seems to support our argument, calling into question whether it is wise to continue doing what the world has done for the last half century: looking to Kinshasa for solutions. After more than four decades of failure, how much longer should the same tragic story go on?

The most common criticism of our argument, especially by Congolese, has been to blame foreigners for the country’s failure. Malau, for instance, says, "The current situation is a direct, calculated, and progressively manufactured result of a long-standing operation by Western nations to maintain a weak state in this vast mineral rich swath of land in the heart of Africa and perpetuate the systematic plunder of Congo’s resources by various foreign interests, and their proxies in the local elite." The minister of communication for Congo, Lambert Mende Omalanga, writing on Congolite.com, a French-language Web site popular among diaspora Congolese, argued that our call to look at Congo realistically was made "by vultures in search of legitimation of their plunders."

But if foreigners are to blame, one of their most grievous offenses is surely supporting the current Kabila government, through aid and investment, for so little in return. The international community also backed Mobutu for many years, even helping him to defeat two attempts at secession. And peacekeeping missions have failed for the same reason that aid to the capital has: Foreign intervention tends to be dysfunctional when the state is weak.  Externally directed peace-building is impossible when there is not an underlying state to deal with.

Delphine Schrank, writing on ForeignPolicy.com, took up another common refrain — which we warned against in our piece — that, against all odds, there is a Congo to be found amongst the people. "The country doesn’t exist because of its government’s monopoly of violence, but the Congolese nation lives in the abstract — it is an ‘imagined political community,’ to borrow anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s formulation. Congo, in short, exists because 68 million Congolese believe they belong to it," Shrank writes. Music, for example, is often cited as the common thread of Congolese identity. But after millions of Congolese have died at the hands of their putative co-nationalists, it is only reasonable to think that the Congolese deserve more than just the "imagined" state they now have.

Secretary Clinton’s brief visit to Congo highlighted all of these problems. She was certainly right to visit eastern Congo, where human rights violations, including mass rape, military reprisals against civilians, and appalling living conditions have outraged the world. She was right to press for more to be done. But that’s precisely the problem; the very agent that the secretary hopes will solve these outrages — the Congolese state — is at the core of the problem. A government that was set on exercising sovereign authority, given the amount of international assistance available, should have been able to make some progress to counter the illicit mineral trade by now. The problem is that too many different groups, including some associated with the government, benefit from the unregulated trade in minerals.

The Kabila government does not exercise anything resembling sovereign authority in eastern Congo, nor will any likely successor government. Worse, Kinshasa’s army – its closest approximation of sovereign control — is often as much of a threat to the people as the other militias and armies operating in the region. So while the international community has recognized the magnitude of the disaster in eastern Congo — Secretary Clinton being the latest of many to publicize the issue — it has handicapped efforts to salve the crisis by believing that Kinshasa is the answer. To truly address the problems of the DRC, the international community will have to confront the very nature and failings of the Congolese state. An administration that prides itself on change should be motivated to do just that and end this 40-year charade.

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