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Renewed International Engagement in the DRC?


Sometimes I take this space, the monthly Director's Discourse, to look at thematic issues like regional integration or the AGOA renewal, and seldom dwell on a single country situation.   However, this month I am going to do something different and look specifically at the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  The history is well-known to most Africa UP Close readers, so I won't focus on that here.  I might recommend as a good reference on the context, history and current situation in the DRC, a wonderful article by Congo expert Jason Stearns.  His insightful and comprehensive piece, "Helping Congo Help Itself," can be found in Foreign Affairs and was published August 22, 2013.

It is hard to be optimistic about the Congo these days.  As Stearns says:  "There are now 2.6 million people displaced in Congo, over 30 different armed groups, and thousands of killings and rapes each year."  Although the exact numbers are debatable, the death toll in the Congo could be as high as 3-5 million people since 1994, almost all of whom are innocent civilians and predominately women and children. Stearns notes that the Congo's problems are "complex, but certainly not beyond repair." I agree with this observation.  However, there has been a major ingredient missing in previous attempts to persuade the key protagonists, Presidents Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame, to begin changing the dynamics that perpetuates this tragedy. This factor has been a lack of high level commitment by the international community to use all leverage at its disposal to get DRC and Rwanda, again quoting Stearns, to "stop using armed violence for political gain."

I think that high level commitment may now, finally, be in place.  I have a glimmer of hope that this may begin to help address this long, seemingly intractable tragedy which has been unfolding in the Eastern DRC for the last ten years.  I had the opportunity recently to meet with three new, key international players in the DRC situation:  1) Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region; 2) Martin Kobler, Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO); and 3) Russ Feingold, U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region.   Add to this the appointment and approval of career Foreign Service Officer, James Swan, to take up the U.S. Ambassadorial post in Kinshasa.  Unlike his immediate predecessor, Swann brings to his post a career of working in Africa, including being DCM in Kinshasa in 2001-04 and Country Officer for DRC/Zaire 1996-98, and having responsibilities over this region as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 2005-08.

Not since Ambassador Howard Wolpe served as President Bill Clinton's Special Envoy to the region from 1996-2000, has a U.S. player had the authority and power to engage these two Presidents and pressure them.  The recent string of SRSGs who headed MONUSCO and its predecessor — Bill Swing, Alan Doss, and Roger Meese — were capable and highly experienced diplomats, but had a mandate to work in partnership with the Kabila government, and little leeway to be aggressive in countering the violence.   They were hamstrung from the beginning.  Also, there was no equivalent of Mary Robinson in the past.  The commitment of Robinson, Kobler and Feingold seems real, and promising.

Today we have the makings of an effective international team that is at a level that neither Kabila of Kagame can ignore, except at their peril.  The level of these envoys is the telling factor that gives me some optimism.  Again, calling on Stearns' insightful analysis:

"[the problem of the international community has been] apathy and ignorance, not hegemonic ambitions… (the) Congo does not rank in the top tier of foreign policy priorities in London, Paris, Washington, or Beijing. Donor policy is often managed by ambassadors, who themselves are torn between the dueling imperatives of maintaining good relations with the government in Kinshasa and pushing back on issues of governance and human rights. Congo policy rarely rises above the level of the Africa bureaus in foreign ministries. This makes it difficult to muster the political clout necessary to coordinate policy, impose conditions on aid, and hold the Congolese government accountable." 

Maybe we will be able to muster that clout now. And it comes at a propitious time when the region has established a comprehensive "Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework," signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on February 24, 2013. The agreement comes after almost three months of talks between the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the African Union (AU), facilitated by the United Nations and in response to a threat by the UN Secretary General to impose sanctions on countries who support rebel groups. The "Framework" was eventually signed by Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, the DRC, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia, and supported by the ICGLR, SADC and AU.  It calls for close links and support from numerous other partners, including the European Union, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Framework addresses the activity of armed groups in the DRC and neighboring states, calling on a halt to aid for their operations and cross-border meddling. It aims to create a plan for establishing peace through political and security reforms in the DRC, and calls for the establishment of an intervention brigade.  Obviously, the measure of success is in implementation, and that has yet to play out, but early implications are that MONUSCO is taking a far more aggressive role against M23 and other armed groups, and the no-nonsense approach of all three special envoys augurs well for a lessening of the levels of conflict in Eastern DRC.

Obviously, any outside observer remains cautious, almost in a paranoid way, of putting too much hope into a process that brings the conflict in the Eastern DRC to a close.  All of our hopes were dashed after the Goma Peace Accords of January 2008, when most of the armed groups, included CNDP, signed an agreement with the government.  The Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Eastern Congo (STAREC) was formulated in the months after the Goma Accords, but the country returned to a war footing as Kabila tried to destroy the CNDP led by the charismatic Laurent Nkunda.  A bit over a year later, March 2009, an accord was signed between CNDP and the DRC Government, but was again abrogated.

But, we now all watch with interest and a renewing hope.  Another agreement prevails, but this time with regional government and international buy-in.  Capable and high level envoys, who bring to the table the gravitas and leverage to make things happen, have joined the dialogue.   At least one protagonist, Rwanda, may begin to see its best interests served by letting go in the Eastern DRC, and playing out its desired international role as the next global Hong Kong, a financial and technological center, a role that depends on international good will.  The other seems still mired in survival tactics, corrupt and inept in terms of governance, and focused on only perpetuating its position of power.  But, it too may not be pressured to change for the sake of survival.

Steve McDonald is Director of the Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity at The Wilson Center.

Photo attributed to United Nations photostream on Flickr Creative Commons.


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