The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where somewhere between 3.3 million and 5.4 million people have died over seventeen years of conflict, is one of the most intervened-in countries in the world, partly because of the policies of the United States.
The inactivity to DR-Congo is a microcosm for the general arc of American policy in Central Africa. After supporting brutally non-democratic governments, such as that of Mobutu Sese Seko, as bulwarks against the spread of communism, America actually facilitated regime change against one of its closest regional allies in the mid-1990s.
In 1996, the US reversed three decades of support for Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko by tacitly backing a Rwandan and Ugandan invasion of what was then called Zaire. The effort swiftly toppled Mobutu, who was once a reliable anti-communist ally, but who seemed to be tolerating the presence of Rwandan militants responsible for the 1994 genocide.
The Clinton administration helped expedite rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila’s path to the Congolese presidency without really knowing much about him. It quickly became clear that Kabila was no democrat, and Washington’s relationship with his government, and with that of his adoptive son Joseph Kabila, who has been president since his father’s assassination in 2001, has been chilly. This hasn’t stopped the US from pouring more than $225 million in aid into the DRC annually, on top of more than $500 million a year for the MONUSCO peacekeepers.
Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s Tutsi leadership has supplied and underwritten a series of largely Tutsi insurgencies capable of projecting Rwandan power into the lawless vacuum next door. In the mid 1990s, this policy included systematic reprisal killings against Hutu refugees fleeing the aftermath of the genocide.
The US became a close ally and major donor to Rwanda’s Tutsi-led, post-genocide government, which has orchestrated a series of insurgencies inside Congolese territory in an effort to neutralize Hutu militias operating on the other side of the border, as well as protect Rwanda’s lucrative trafficking routes inside the DRC. The most recent of these insurgencies is the M23 rebel movement, which began when Tutsi ex-rebels, integrated into the DRC’s military under a 2009 peace agreement, defected from the army in early 2012. US aid defrayed the cost of weaponry and military equipment that elements of the Rwandan government provided to the rebels, whose actions in the DRC have displaced more than a quarter-million civilians.
Over the course of multiple presidential administrations, the US has botched its response to the DR-Congo’s problems, despite having every motivation to get it right (Rwanda is a major ally; stability in its relations with the DRC would patch a gaping security void in the resource-rich heart of Africa). This is in part because of the inherent complications on the ground. From MONUSCO’s perspective, the Congolese state is both a partner and human rights abuser; for the US, Rwanda is both a close friend and, at this point, the conflict’s primary instigator.
In November of 2012, MONUSCO essentially allowed M23 to occupy Goma after the Congolese military refused to defend the city during a major offensive. The attack turned out to be a pivotal moment in regional affairs. Goma is essential to UN and NGO operations in the region. It is home to more than one million people, with large populations of every major regional ethnic group. The city is also a hub for the DRC’s lucrative mineral trade, as well as a strategically crucial air and lake port.
In 2013, with the deployment of UN intervention brigade, there had been a desire for peace without a willingness to provide the resources or the political and moral clarity needed to secure it. MONUSCO could have fulfilled the Chapter VII mandate of protecting civilians, but only at the expense of the lives of some of its personnel. The US could have threatened a complete cut-off of aid to Rwanda, but not without incurring diplomatic penalties that were deemed costlier than tolerating an on-going low-intensity guerrilla war.
The interventional brigade was not the only diplomatic breakthrough of the past year. In January of 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named former Irish President Mary Robinson as his special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa. Also in January, eleven African nations, including Rwanda, signed a declaration of principles with the aim of eventually resolving the DRC conflict.
Indeed, the international community’s engagement in the DRC conflict has arguably left a twenty-year record of failure. The would-be problem solvers have orchestrated regime change, multiple peace agreements, the deployment of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation, and nearly a half-dozen smaller interventions—all of which have perpetuated the region’s on-going misery.
After nearly two decades of attention to the situation in Congo by the UN, US, and other international actors, few of the contending parties’ grievances have been resolved, hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, and diplomacy has proven incapable of producing any durable compromise or progress. The lessons from this experience are daunting: bad policy is potentially worse than no policy, and diplomatic and even military intervention doesn’t matter if international actors are unwilling to recognize or correct a prolific record of seemingly obvious failure.
The DRC is hardly the only situation in which the international community and the major powers have compromised their desire for peace by stubbornly adhering to incoherent and contradictory policies. Yet Congo might be proof that a course correction is possible.
The current military success over M23 comes with its own potential hazards: the success of the intervention brigade is contingent on the cooperation of the undisciplined Congolese military, and a future peace will likely hinge on whether the US and other donors are willing to use whatever leverage they have in Rwanda to keep President Kagame’s government in line. But there is reason for a fragile hope in central Africa. Perhaps the moral imperative to recognize and correct chronically bad policy will be the one positive part of the otherwise grim legacy of one of the costliest conflicts on earth.
The November crisis crystallized MONUSCO’s failure and showed that during the year-long M23 crisis, the UN force has been little more than an interested spectator. It also served as a reminder that US policies in the region have struck a disquieting balance between principle and expediency. Because it supported M23, Washington cut Rwanda’s military aid by $250,000 during the summer of 2012. This was a brushback to the Kagame government, which is on the whole considered a responsible steward of aid money. (Rwanda scores higher on the Corruption Perceptions Index than all but three other African nations—Mauritius, Botswana, and Cape Verde.)
But while the aid reduction was meant as a warning from one friend to another, it still represented a tiny portion of the roughly $196 million Rwanda gets annually from the US. And as the M23 crisis burgeoned, American officials carefully avoided publicly connecting Rwanda to the havoc the insurgent group was wreaking inside the DRC. UN Ambassador Susan Rice even went so far as to block the explicit naming of Rwanda as M23’s sponsor in a Security Council resolution offered after the November attack on Goma.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the force’s aggressive mandate is the diplomacy that led to its creation and deployment. The intervention force was authorized after a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council—even though its current membership now includes Rwanda. Rwandan meddling in eastern Congo triggered the latest round of hostilities, and the country has complex political and economic interests on the other side of the Congolese border.
After a decades-long effort to create rebel groups on Congolese soil, Rwanda voted in favor of the intervention force, likely because of sustained US and EU pressure over Kigali’s support of M23. The EU, Great Britain, and even the US had cut aid to Rwanda the year after the M23 mutiny began—another unprecedented step among donor nations that have counted Paul Kagame’s Rwanda among their top allies in Africa.
It’s easy to be cynical about any Congo-related treaty: after all, M23 is named after the region’s last major peace agreement, the March 23, 2009, pact that integrated the mostly-Tutsi CNDP rebel group into the Congolese army. But at least it’s possible now to believe that, after decades of incoherence and incompetence, the international community’s focus and expectations have changed, and that the UN, along with other players capable of pressuring the conflict’s major actors, is finally serious about protecting civilians and securing a workable peace. Any diplomatic efforts in the DR-Congo will have to contend with a long legacy of failure.
This week the Congolese army has scored apparently decisive victories over the main militia in the east of the country, the March 23 (M23) group. While Congolese troops have taken the main battle honors, it is believed that the turnaround is partially attributable to the Security Council’s decision to authorize an “intervention brigade” to take the fight to the militia. This new force, consisting of African troops, has both helped restore the army’s confidence and soften up its opponents.
But also because Rwanda has decided to stop supporting the M23 because they've received a very strong signal from the US that enough is enough and there must be peace brought to that part of the world. US stopped all military aid to Rwanda that is a very strong signal of disapproval . M23 will lose its ability to hold territory. Rwanda is getting the message that they can't continue to defy the international community indefinitely. They have been doing it since 1996. Now the game is up. They have to stop.
This does not mean that the DRC is now guaranteed stability. The unsteady Congolese army and its political masters in Kinshasa have thrown away successes before. A genuine diplomatic deal to resolve tensions between the DRC and its eastern neighbors, above all Rwanda, remains elusive.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: AFP--Dr-Congo' army-fighting M23 last Monday in Rumangabo