Congo Is Too Big to Fail

We've already tried breaking up the DRC -- and more than 1 million people died. 


For the past four years, political scientists Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills have been pushing the idea that breaking up the Democratic Republic of the Congo into smaller states would make the country easier to govern. It’s an argument Herbst and Mills — an American and a South African, respectively — have repeatedly voiced in Foreign Policy. See: “There Is No Congo” (March 18, 2009), “Time to End the Congo Charade” (Aug. 14, 2009), and most recently, “The Invisible State,” in the July/August 2013 issue. But as tempting as the Balkanization of Congo may be, its intellectual foundation stands on lazy scholarship and a misreading of Congo’s history and people.

This approach is not new. It has been tested in the past, and it failed. During the secession movements of the 1960s, the country became a mosaic of majorities and minorities. The secessionist, genocidal war that erupted in the regions of Katanga and South Kasai following their decisions to break off from Congo proper in 1960 resulted in an estimated 1 million deaths in four years. Despite their mineral wealth, neither region became a model of development, and today both should chasten the idea of Congo’s breakup as a road map to peace.

And consider the latest in a long line of attempts to partition Congo: the Rwandan-backed M23 rebellion. Despite an aggressive public relations campaign and impressive logistical and political support, reportedly from both Rwanda and Uganda, the mono-ethnic, Tutsi-supported initiative has failed to rally Congolese support at the local and national levels. In 2012, M23’s emergence caused thousands to protest around the country. But the protesters weren’t rallying in support of M23; many were denouncing it as another sham to break up the country.

Congo belongs to a sovereign people who are proud of their nation and its history, culture, and wealth. Taken in full measure, Congo’s ethnic groups, large and small, live peacefully together. But a new crop of non-Congolese analysts peddles a Conrad-esque narrative that portrays Congo as a primitive land pulled straight from Heart of Darkness and casts the Congolese people as incapable of determining their own destiny. These analysts emphasize local conflict, militias, state failure, sexual violence, and poverty. Their essays rarely mention Congo’s strong civil society and resourceful population, instead relying on surveys and rankings like Foreign Policy‘s Failed States Index. But Congo is not a string of statistics, and no country can be reduced to such numbers. In fact, it is impossible to get a meaningful reading of developments in Congo through indices and surveys due to lack of accurate data.

There is no easy solution to Congo’s problems, and no one understands these challenges better than the Congolese. But each crisis has made Congo stronger and better and brings the Congolese together as a nation. Analysts with no greater stake in Congo than their careers ought to be mindful of the ramifications of the narrative and solutions they promote. Congo, my home country, is not the property of an amorphous international community. Neither is it a proving ground for old, toxic ideas conceived in far-flung places.

Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills reply:

It is notable that some Congolese are so attached to a country and state that has treated them so badly. It is even more remarkable that in the 21st century, when faced with endemic, often state-led violence against the population and a loss of life of world war proportions, all this is apparently deemed an inevitable and acceptable part of a “nation” finding its feet. There is little empiricism and considerable coldheartedness in believing that “each crisis has made Congo stronger and better and brings the Congolese together as a nation” in the face of such misery and death. Dismissing as unreliable the statistics available to describe Congo’s plight is in itself a reflection of the scale of Congo’s governance challenge.

Our article did not call for the Balkanization or breakup of Congo, a typically knee-jerk accusation of those responding to external critiques. Defense of the Congolese status quo based on reverting to Heart of Darkness symbolism is as crude and off the mark as it is inappropriate. We argue that, if violence and governance are any indication, international efforts to assist Congo have done very poorly — and at great cost. The same could be said for attempts to govern the country’s vast territory from Kinshasa. We think that Congo’s fate should not be determined by the international community’s refusal to contemplate alternatives to the current government. Congo’s fate will not hinge on what that community thinks from the safety of Brussels, Washington, Johannesburg, or Palo Alto, but on how Congolese in Kinshasa, Bukavu, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, and elsewhere design a better system for their own citizens. To get there, Congolese should be given the political space to imagine what would be best for themselves.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola