How Should the U.S. Respond to Congo's Troubles?
ED GORDON, host:
Now for more on the broader implications of what's happening in the Congo, we're joined by Emira Woods. She's the Institute for Policy Studies co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. She joins us via phone from Washington. Welcome.
Ms. EMIRA WOODS (Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies): Pleasure to be with you.
GORDON: Ms. Woods, let me ask you as it relates to what this means, if anything, to surrounding countries and the continent in general, trying to bring this area in order.
Ms. WOODS: Well, the clearest thing to remember about the Congo is that it is in the heart of Africa; it's the center of Africa, and it's an incredibly wealthy country. It's got copper, diamond, gold, rubber - the list is endless. But the key materials for computers, for cell phones, all can be found within the Congo.
And it is this richness that has really been the curse of the country since pre-independence days, for really the last 100 days under the colonial rule of Belgium when the resources were completely stripped and the people were quite literally raped of their resources and of their dignity all the way through to the last election.
Let's talk about that, Ed, because the last election was 46 years ago. The last election was with Patrice Lumumba coming out as the victor. Clearly someone that the people throughout the country rally around. A populist who was looking to the interest of this people won the election. And what happened? The international community, because of the wealth of that land, it was, you know, reports, films, all have documented clearly the U.S. and the U.K. complicit in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, bringing forward the kleptocracy of Mobutu, who, you know, some say had $6 billion in his own wealth, let alone the wealth that he expropriated from corporations as they stole the richness of the land.
So this is the context. It is at the heart of Africa. If you can get things stable within this critical region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo -it's so hard to even say that word democratic when you see how things have gone, particularly over the last few decades.
But clearly if you can get things stable there, you will be able to bring stability to not only its neighbors Angola to the south and Sudan to the north, but really that entire central Africa region.
GORDON: Won't that be part of the rub, though? The historical perspective. Because, as you say, people rallied around Lumumba and really had hopes of the country coming together and moving forward, even being on par with some Western countries. And then the idea of these foreign interlopers coming in, putting the hiccup in the movement, I would suspect is still looked at with a jaundice eye.
Ms. WOODS: Without a doubt. And you could hear even in the commentary of your earlier segment, it is the warring factions, you know, basically the military forces that are fighting among themselves, right. It is not a sense of people power like you see happening on the streets of Mexico today, right. Peaceful people power coming and demanding their rights, putting forward their priority. This is what's needed and open really democratic space in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, to date, it's been difficult to have that happen.
We have to say, though, that South Africa has been playing a tremendous role trying to come forward and sort of lead not only the negotiations that brought the elections and brought, you know, the relative stability to this point, but they are really trying to create commissions that will come to the heart of what are the grievances and how those grievances can be resolved.
And so I think we have to recognize the role of positive leadership in the continent to help set forward a different path.
GORDON: What of United States intervention and/or involvement? We heard the U.S. embassy asked Senator Barack Obama to suspend his visit in wake of the violence that is going on there. But one has to believe that the United States will have to play some role if we're going to see real stability here.
Ms. WOODS: Well clearly the role that's been played already by peacekeepers has been important - it's been minimal, but it's been important - and the U.S. should play every role it can to support that, which means paying its dues to the United Nations, supporting international peacekeeping engagements broadly.
But there is another issue at play here. We heard before about, you know, the integration of the army being a problem. But the other piece of the problem is that in spite of the richness of the land, there are basically no jobs. The economy in the Congo, you know, is in shambles.
You know, the per capita income is $110 per person per year. You know, I mean it's just if you think about the standard of living for people on this incredibly rich land, it is preposterous. So what is needed is a sound economic base where people can have jobs and then to be able to put down those guns.
It is not only that the various factions of the army are fighting, it is that people still have guns in their hands. So there needs to be a clear demobilization process put forward. And, you know, the U.S. could contribute to that, could help support that and to make sure that you don't have this ample flow of weapons still into the region, weapons that are then used to terrorize the 58 million civilians in the land.
GORDON: With about 30 seconds to go, if you could, how optimistic are you, particularly with what you just suggested with all of this wealth - and one knows that won't be easily given up, if you will - how optimistic are you that after October 29 we're going to see the first steps in real movement to democracy in this area?
Ms. WOODS: Well, Ed, I don't think elections are a panacea. I have to say that. But I think, as a Liberian, I know that there can be paths that bring a more Democratic tradition forward. And so we have to be able to create a space where there is a free press, where there is freedom of association and people can fairly, you know, say who should be their leaders, what should be the national priorities, and then chose those leaders freely, hold those leaders accountable.
GORDON: Well, one hopes that this is the first step. Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much.
Ms. WOODS: It's been a pleasure. Thank you, Ed.
GORDON: Coming up, reality TV takes on race in a new season that mixes cutthroat competition with racially divided teams. And The New York Times goes Hollywood. We'll discuss those topics and more on our Roundtable.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.