Congo in chaos: Why the US must act

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At a soccer match on Sept. 4, 2016, the Democratic Republic of Congo beat the Central African Republic 4-1. Yet the mostly Congolese audience at Kinshasa’ soccer stadium, the largest in Africa, had something else on its mind. Around 80,000 people broke out in chants of “Kabila must go.”

Joseph Kabila, the two term president of the DRC, has, according to about 80 percent of the population, overstayed his welcome. According to the Congolese constitution, he is obligated to step down after two terms in office on Dec. 19. Yet, instead of preparing for a smooth transition of power, President Kabila’s government appears to be preparing for a street fight by delaying elections for dubious budgetary and administrative reasons and by importing an arsenal of tear gas, drones, and body armor to suppress civic unrest.

Protests in Kinshasa have turned violent with currently more than 50 dead; members of the opposition have been found dead; and even the U.S. Special Envoy, Thomas Perriello, was blocked and threatened at Kinshasa airport in an area tightly secured by Congolese police.

The country of 70 million seems on the verge of chaos.

Some efforts have been made in the U.S. to publicize a growing concern about the future of Congolese democracy. On Sept. 15 the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution that calls on the Democratic Republic of Congo to hold constitutionally mandated presidential elections in 2016. The resolution, introduced last May by Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), calls for targeted sanctions against DRC government officials who prevented “free and fair elections in time for a transition by the end of 2016.” The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) this week sanctioned two individuals, John Numbi, the former National Inspector for the Congolese National Police, and Gabriel Amisi Kumba, a Commander in the Armed Forces. Reportedly, both men had used excessive force, threats, and lethal weapons to suppress peaceful protests and intimidate opposition leaders. The imposed sanctions freeze their U.S. assets and prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in any transactions with either of the two men.

Yet such isolated calls and actions may be too little, too late.

Perhaps western political paralysis is to be expected in a country as rich and as poor and complex as the DRC. But that is no excuse for U.S. inaction.

U.S. long-term security and economic pragmatism, not to mention the American commitment to freedom, militate in favor of deliberate and consistent action. In today’s global economy, access to new markets is too important, and the risk of instability too great. The DRC presents both the potential for enormous market opportunities and the threat of radical political and social destabilization that would impact the entire sub-Saharan region and, ultimately, harm U.S. economic and security interests.

The DRC epitomizes the best and the worst of Africa. After six years of the bloodiest of civil wars that involved neighboring countries and resulted in more than 5 million dead (the “African First World War”), the years since the war’s end in 2003 have offered less than true peace. With a constitution put in place after the war there was a chance to give democracy a fighting chance, for public debate to be given space, and to allow a civil society to emerge. However, violent conflicts between rebel groups and shifting tribal alliances persist especially in the eastern part of the country. The country’s civil war and ongoing conflicts are unrivaled in atrocities, which include heinous mutilations, gang rapes, and child soldiers. The army and police cannot be trusted, believed by many to be complicit in egregious atrocities. And, once again, the country is on the verge of chaos that threatens to spread like wildfire.

The majority of the Congolese population is poor and desperately caught in cycles of violence, with young professionals emigrating from their country at an alarming rate. While a chronic humanitarian crisis continues, President Kabila and his close supporters are seen to be enriching themselves personally by looting the country’s immense natural resources. The present government has also exploited the country’s tribal conflicts in a “divide and rule” strategy thus exacerbating already existing scars.

The young Congolese democracy has, indeed, become an example of government corruption and repression at its worst. What lingers below the surface is a highly combustible situation fueled by old rivalries, a fragmented opposition, and a new generation of angry and frustrated young men who will, no doubt, take to the streets or join rebel armies. If power is not ceded legitimately through a presidential election, the country will, once again, descend into bloody civil war with disastrous consequences for the entire Great Lakes Region of Africa and a negative long term outcome for the U.S. The DRC’s great potential as a prospering nation would be lost to the current generation.

The DRC possesses deposits of raw materials valued at more than $24 trillion and, according to the World Bank, “has the potential to become one of the richest countries on the African continent and a driver of African growth.” Its rain forest is the second largest in the world and its Inga Dam could produce enough hydro-electric electricity to supply the energy of all of Africa and Europe combined. Once its natural wealth is used to build the country’s infrastructure and develop a more diverse economy, the DRC could become the engine of economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, providing endless investment opportunities for foreign capital and a large market for foreign goods. Its economic growth rate of 7.7 percent in 2015 despite ongoing conflicts and violence is astonishing and shows that there is promise for a prosperous and stable future. Nonetheless, a new civil war in the region would not only halt its economic growth and jeopardize the DRC’s chances of building a democracy long term, but would also close the doors to U.S. investment opportunities and create new and unpredictable security threats.

A radicalized younger Congolese generation would, most likely, harbor strong anti-American sentiments due to a sense of abandonment by the West at this time of great fragility for Congolese democracy. In turn, anti-western and anti-American sentiment is bound to create fertile ground for terrorist groups. Furthermore, such anti-Americanism will give an advantage to America’s biggest economic contender, China, to expand its presence in Africa. Chinese companies have already invested billions in the DRC to gain access to the country’s valuable minerals, especially copper.

The US must take a stand in order to prevent the bloodshed and chaos from destabilizing the entire region. This strategy should include supporting Kabila’s opposition, especially Mosie Katumbi, the former governor of Katanga Province; imposition of strict sanctions on Kabila and his allies if free and fair elections are not held; and negotiating Kabila’s voluntary resignation by offering a safe exit. Should such efforts fail, the U.S. should not shy away from military action.

The U.S., ideally in collaboration with other western nations, may just be the DRC’s last best hope. It is time for the U.S. to think outside the box and reassert global leadership. America has too much to lose by sitting back passively while chaos unfolds in the Congo.

Tina McCormick

Tina McCormick

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost. Read her past columns here.