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Hope But No Change

Why has President Obama abandoned the one country in Africa he promised to help?

By , a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a lecturer in African Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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.

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 crisis.

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.

Incidentally, Obama’s 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.

In 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.

This 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 Kashmir.

Starting 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.

This 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.

When 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.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a lecturer in African Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.

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