Foreign Policy: Hope But No Change In The DRC

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M23 rebels sit at the back of a pick-up truck captured a week before and formerly used by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo as they carry supplies through Bunagana on July 15. i i

hide captionM23 rebels sit at the back of a pick-up truck captured a week before and formerly used by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo as they carry supplies through Bunagana on July 15.

Michele Sibiloni/AFP/Getty Images
M23 rebels sit at the back of a pick-up truck captured a week before and formerly used by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo as they carry supplies through Bunagana on July 15.

M23 rebels sit at the back of a pick-up truck captured a week before and formerly used by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo as they carry supplies through Bunagana on July 15.

Michele Sibiloni/AFP/Getty Images

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace

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.

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