Homage to a Congolese Hero

Following a decade-long hiatus, it is pleasing to return to the lovely city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and witness first hand the hospitality and the lively ambiance. It is certainly a far cry from headlines such as “the rape capital of the world,” meant to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence in the eastern part of the country while disparaging a nation the size of Western Europe.

It is therefore fitting to pay homage to Doctor Denis Mukwege, a 59-year old gynecologist who was recently awarded Europe’s top human rights prize—the Sakharov prize—for helping thousands of gang rape victims in the country. Dr. Mukwege’s deserved recognition helps rape survivors feel they are not alone and showcases how the Congolese are taking the lead in addressing the consequences of decades of instability.

Setting up Panzi hospital

The heroic deeds of Dr. Mukwege have humble beginnings at the onset of the first war in the mid-1990s. He fled to Bukavu after patients from his hospital 60 miles south were killed in their beds and started a hospital made from tents, building a new maternity ward, only for everything to be destroyed yet again. Showing persistence in the face of a dispiriting setback, Dr. Mukwege started all over again and set up Panzi hospital in 1999 to treat women subjected to horrific sexual violence.

“It was that year that our first rape victim was brought into the hospital. After being raped, bullets had been fired into her genitals and thighs. I thought that was a barbaric act of war, but the real shock came three months later. Forty-five women came to us with the same story, they were all saying: ‘People came into my village and raped me, tortured me,’” he said.

“These weren’t just violent acts of war, but part of strategy. You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly—a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch. The result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything. It’s very effective,” he added.

Panzi hospital adopts a four-stage system to care for rape victims. At first, a pyschological examination is undertaken to ensure the patient can withstand surgery. The next step might consist of an operation or medical care. In fact, Dr. Mukwege’s and his colleagues have treated about 30,000 rape victims, developing great expertise in the treatment of serious sexual injuries. Despite the lull in fighting prompted by the defeat of the M23 rebel movement, rape remains a significant issue. “Today, we are treating 10 cases per day and this is horrible,” Dr. Mukwege said.

The hospital goes the extra-mile to provide socio-economic care. Patients are offered basic necessities such as food and clothing. Women are trained to develop new skills and girls are put back in school. Futhermore, patients are afforded lawyers to assit them in bringing their cases to court.

Surviving an assassination attempt

In a moving speech at a United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2012, Dr. Mukwege was critical of the Congolese government and international community for failing to act and stop a conflict fuelled by economic interests with devastating effects on Congolese women.

Here is an excerpt of the now famous speech:

“I would have liked to begin my speech with the usual formulation, ‘I have the honor and privilege of taking the floor before you.’ Alas! The women victims of sexual violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are in dishonor. I constantly with my own eyes see the vague stare of the elder women, the children, the mothers who are dishonored. Still today, many are subjected to sexual slavery; others are used as a weapon of war. Their organs are exposed to the most heinous abuse, often without access to medical care. And this has been going on for sixteen years! Sixteen years of wanderings; sixteen years of torture; sixteen years of mutilation; sixteen years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resource; sixteen years of breakdown of an entire society […] I would have liked to also say ‘I have the honor of being part of the international community that you represent here’ but I cannot. How can I say this to you, representatives of the international community, when the international community has shown its fear and lack of courage during these sixteen years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? I would have liked to say as well ‘I have the honor of representing my country,’ but I cannot. In fact, how can one be proud of belonging to a nation without defense, left to itself, completely pillaged and powerless in the face of five hundred thousand of its girls raped during sixteen years; six million of its sons and daugthers killed during sixteen years without lasting solution in sight? No, I do not have the honor, nor the privilege to be here today. My heart is heavy. My honor, it is rather to be with these courageous women victims of sexual violence, these women who resist, these women who despite all remain standing.”

On October 25, exactly a month later, Dr Mukwege was attacked shortly after returning to his home, where he found armed men threatening his children with guns. He described the attack:

“When I was coming home after a trip outside the country I found five people waiting for me. Four of them had AK-47 guns, the fifth had a pistol. They opened the gate and got in my car, pointing their weapons at me. They got me out of my car and as one of my guards tried to rescue me they shot him down. He was killed. I fell down and the attackers continued firing bullets. I can’t really tell you how I survived […] I found out afterwards that my two daughters and their cousin were at home. They had been made to go into the living room where the attackers were sitting, waiting for me. During all that time they pointed their guns, their weapons at my daughters. It was terrible. I only saw the attackers for just a few seconds and I couldn’t tell who these people were. I also can’t say why they attacked me—only they know.”

Although it is unclear if the assassination attempt was directly linked to his activism, Amnesty International reveals that Dr. Mukwege has been threatened several times by armed groups for his denunciation of rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by them. After the attack, Dr. Mukwege fled with his family to Sweden, then to Brussels, but he was persuaded to retun to Congo in January 2013. He credits the resilience and commitment of Congolese women to fight these atrocities as the inspiration behind his return.

“These women have taken the courage about my attack to the authorities. They even grouped together to pay for my ticket home—these are women who do not have anything, they live on less than a dollar a day. After that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence,” he said.

Dr. Mukwege has had to sacrifice some of his personal freedoms for the sake of his safety. But he admits that the enthusiasm expressed by Congolese women gives him the confidence to continue his remarkable and important work. According to the BBC, the Sakharov prize—named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov—is awarded each year for the promotion of human rights and democracy around the world. Last year, it was awarded to Nobel Laureate and Pakistani child education activist Malala Yousafzai. Previous winners of the prestigious prize include Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Dr. Mukwege had been touted as a potential winner for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. I hope that next year it will be his turn. Meanwhile, he remains a hero in my book, and we can all support his work by donating to the Panzi hospital.


A Glimmer of Hope in the Struggle to Contain the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared two West African nations—Senegal and Nigeria—free of the Ebola virus.

This encouraging news of the successful containment of imported cases of Ebola is tempered by worrying figures. More than 10,000 cases—all but 27 of them have occurred inside Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—have been reported in eight countries, including the United States and, more recently, Mali. There have been nearly 5,000 deaths, according to the latest figures from the WHO. The uncoordinated and slow nature of the response to the epidemic have come under heavy criticism, most recently by the US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who called out countries for not following up on their commitment to send doctors, beds, and reasonable financial support. Meanwhile, the widespread panic (read here Fear-bola) that ensued prompted measures such as travel bans, which severely curtail efforts to beat the disease.

To be clear, we should be optimistic, but we should also be cautious because Nigeria and Senegal remain at risk of additional imported cases as long as the situation doesn’t improve in neighboring countries. Yet, this new development is much needed to provide a nuanced narrative on the Ebola situation in West Africa as a region. What is beyond a doubt is that we ought to use these cases in containing a formidable foe as an inspiration to galvanize our efforts—on the domestic and international front—to contain what has been dubbed “an international [not African] public health emergency.”

Rapid response, early detection, and nationwide public awareness

The first case of Ebola in Senegal was confirmed on August 29th in a young man who had travelled to Dakar, by road, from Guinea, where he had direct contact with an Ebola patient. I had been living in Dakar since July 1st and received the news on the day I travelled to Chad. With the rapidly deteriorating situation in neighboring countries, I feared an increase in the rate of infection in densely populated Dakar.

The Senegalese government’s response was swift and included identifying and monitoring 74 close contacts of the patient, prompt testing of all suspected cases, stepped-up surveillance at the country’s many entry points, and nationwide public awareness campaigns. The patient was treated and recovered from the Ebola virus.

The government’s swift response coupled with awareness-raising efforts, such as the use of apps to provide relevant information to the public about ways to avoid contracting the virus, were vital in preventing an Ebola outbreak in Senegal.

Institutional backing in containment efforts and engagement with the civil society

Nigeria also recorded an imported case of Ebola in late July when an infected Liberian man arrived by airplane into Lagos, Africa’s most populous city. The man, who died in the hospital a few days later, set off a chain of transmission that infected a total of 19 people, 7 of whom died.

Through effective coordination of the response, the Nigerian government established an Emergency Operations Center and repurposed technologies and infrastructures from international partners to help find cases and track potential chains of transmission.

Moreover, strong public awareness campaigns, teamed with the early engagement of traditional, religious, and community leaders also played a key role in the successful containment of this outbreak.

The way forward for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone

Analysts have pointed to the lack of resources needed to manage the infections, along with devastated healthcare systems in post-conflict societies, to account for the rapid spread of the disease in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. While this holds true to an extent, it doesn’t wholly explain how a country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with its share of similar challenges has managed to contain previous Ebola outbreaks. While attention was rightly focused on West Africa and new cases in Europe and the US, another unrelated Ebola outbreak started in the Equateur Province in western DRC. Once the outbreak was reported to health officials in Kinshasa, the response was swift: a team that had contained numerous outbreaks in the past was brought in to respond. The main difference between the case in DRC and those in West Africa, even though we are talking about a different strain of the virus, was that this was the first time that the virus made an appearance in West Africa, making it difficult for severely affected communities and governments to adequately protect themselves.

However, the situation in West Africa is not without hope, even with this lack of experience. As a case in point, health officials in a Guinean town north of the capital Conakry initially thought that Ebola patients had typhoid fever. Following the death of these patients, it became evident that the Ebola virus was at-large. Yet the community came together to gain trust, banish rumors, and provide treatment to those in need. With the help of Medecins Sans Frontières and the WHO, health workers rapidly set up a treatment center rapidly and near the sick people. The town has been Ebola free since July. This is not an isolated case of survival. The powerful story of Fatu Kekula, a Liberian student who nursed family members back to health using the “trash bag method” after being denied access to a hospital also comes to mind.

While we await the availability of an Ebola vaccine and/or effective treatment, Nigeria and Senegal should be hailed for showing us the path to an Ebola-free world. This requires swift action from governments in coordinating containment efforts with the international community, while at the same time engaging with communities through influential figures to raise public awareness on how to avoid contracting the virus.


South Sudan at a Crossroads: World’s Newest Nation at Risk

South Sudan faces its sternest challenge yet, as a political struggle in the upper echelons of power threatens to engulf the world’s newest nation in a full-scale civil war with ethnic overtones. Fighting appears to have intensified even though rival factions recently signed a cease-fire, intended to suspend the five-week long hostilities, which has claimed over a thousand lives and displaced more than half a million people from their homes.

The onus is on key stakeholders—at the national, regional, and international levels—to  react swiftly to ensure that the agreement is implemented fully, afford the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) the necessary support to protect civilians,  and promptly address growing humanitarian concerns.

There are several underlying factors behind the instability in South Sudan— fragile statehood, widespread poverty, and prevalent insecurity. However, the trigger to the latest tragic episode points to the heavy clashes that erupted in Juba on December 15th of last year, after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar (who was removed from office in July 2013) of leading an attempted coup.

Machar has denied the charge, but praised the rebels’ capture of two key oil producing states—Jonglei and Unity. Machar has also publicly criticized President Kiir and has vowed to challenge the incumbent for leadership of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).  This has resulted in politicians settling their scores on the battlefield, just a few years after the success of a long struggle to earn independence, which came in July 2011.

Of greater concern is the ethnic dimension of the heavy fighting, which has largely pitted soldiers against one another from the two largest ethnic groups—Dinka and Lou Nuer—within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), groups that are politically aligned with the President and former Vice President, respectively. Both sides have been accused of targeting civilians based on their ethnicity, as evidenced by a spike in inter-communal violence across the country. In December alone, an estimated 2,000 Lou Nuer attacked Dinka civilians sheltered at a UNMISS base in Jonglei State, killing 11 people, including two UN peacekeepers, showing a disturbing disregard for international law.

Moreover, approximately 5,000 Lou Nuer fighters known as the “White Army” have joined Machar’s forces—estimated at 10,000 regular soldiers—which are fighting government troops. Astute observers suggest that the SPLA are gaining the momentum, particularly in major urban centers in the greater Upper Nile region, but retreating rebels still pose a military threat. Still, a military solution, on account of historical precedent, is a poisoned chalice considering the ethnic component and cyclical nature of the violence.  For the sake of civilian lives, a peaceful resolution to the crisis should be the way forward.

The severity of the situation prompted a swift response from Washington, with the current administration having invested political capital and real money in the country’s genesis. The United States got the Security Council to commit an additional 5,500 peacekeeping troops and has been working with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to organize peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which led the warring factions agreeing to a cease-fire. US President Barack Obama welcomed the agreement signed on January 24th as a first step toward ending the civil strife, but urged the leadership to immediately and fully implement the deal.

While calling for the cessation of hostilities and the release of 11 politicians arbitrarily detained by the government in Juba, the agreement failed to address a key rebel demand—withdrawal of Ugandan troops fighting alongside government forces.  The unfortunate record of broken agreements continues as both sides accuse each other of violating the truce amid increased fighting. Rebels accused government forces allied with the Justice and Equality Movement—a Darfur-based rebel group—of taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities to make inroads into rebel-held territory in Unity State.

Rebels have also clashed with the SPLA in Upper Nile region, with allegations of the latter killing civilians, a charge the government denies. Further complicating matters has been the slow deployment of the monitoring and verification team to oversee the cease-fire, and there is no agreed-upon date for the release of political prisoners. These are concerns that must be addressed to revive the already tenuous cease-fire, as fresh talks are slated to resume imminently.

Yet these steps will not suffice to fully address the root causes that have led to the current upheaval and which has brought the country on the brink of civil war. United to End Genocide reached out to citizens, civil society leaders, women, youths, and academics directly affected by the crisis to hear their thoughts on the next steps. These include: security sector reform to improve an unprofessional national army that is deeply-divided along ethnic and ideological lines; an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue; the institution of a truth and reconciliation commission; investigation into the killings and accountability for perpetrators; and last but not least, a constitutional review to limit power and install fixed term limits for the presidency.

The global community owes it to the people of South Sudan to take the necessary actions that will avert a further escalation of violence.


Can Disaster be Averted in the Central African Republic?

The dire situation in the Central African Republic (CAR), a landlocked country the size of Texas with a population of  over 4 million, has sparked fears of a possible genocide and international efforts underway have so far failed to effectively prevent a serious humanitarian crisis. There have been disheartening reports of mass killings, beheadings of children, and cannibalism.

Despite the presence of African Union (AU) and French peacekeeping forces, the United Nations (UN) estimates that 2.2 million people need humanitarian assistance and over 500, 000 people, including nearly half the population of the capital city Bangui, have been displaced by fighting between the largely Muslim Seleka coalition, which took power in a March 2013 coup, and the anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militias of the country’s majority Christians, backed by soldiers of the former government.

However, the media’s rather simplistic portrayals of the crisis in terms of religious polarization between Muslims and Christians have drawn criticism from local religious leaders. “Not all Anti-Balaka are Christians, and not all Christians are Anti-Balaka—it is the same with Seleka and Muslims,” a 10-member Catholic bishop conference said in a statement released recently. “The imprecise terminology which turns Anti-Balaka into a Christian militia must be corrected. This amalgam, propagated by the national and international media, gives a confessional slant to a conflict which is, above all, political and military,” the bishops added.

While the recent uptick in hostilities garners much needed attention, decades of domestic instability complicated by interference from neighboring states should have served as warning signs that CAR was at risk of state collapse and of the humanitarian consequences to follow. With a history of military coups and several rebellions since gaining independence from France in 1960, the March 2013 coup led by the Seleka rebels—a coalition of five rebel groups from the marginalized northern part of the country and backed by mercenary fighters from Sudan and Chad—ousted former president Francois Bozize without much effort.

A more robust, better-resourced international response is needed to stem the violence and provide immediate humanitarian aid, a necessary springboard as the new transitional leadership embarks on the journey to restore stability and foster reconciliation. This week, donors pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid and $280 million in development assistance, as the EU agreed to send 500 troops, but even more assistance is needed to ensure a positive outcome.

Unable to re-establish security and public order, interim President Michel Djotodia stepped down earlier this month, paving the way for the election of  Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui who was chosen as the country’s new interim president on Monday, becoming the first woman to lead the nation. Samba-Panza and the country’s parliament have the challenging task of ensuring that there will be free, credible and democratic elections.

However, the current instability suggests the most pressing issues must be addressed ahead of elections with the people of CAR playing a central role in the process. A successful transition and reconstruction can only be achieved if minimum security conditions are met. In the immediate term, the Security Council should authorize a UN Chapter VII (Obligatory on all member states) resolution, to allow the stabilization mission, MISCA, supported by French forces, to take all necessary means to restore law and order, protect civilians, provide humanitarian relief and document human rights abuses. AU-led forces under MISCA and French forces already on the ground should be reinforced to effectively support the stabilization effort.  Religious leaders in CAR have demanded that the participation of troops from neighboring Chad, whose government has been accused of backing Seleka, should be reconsidered. As conditions for peace, Christian and Muslim leaders have called on all factions to disarm and agree to work together to promote inter-religious dialogue, education and training on reconciliation and peacebuilding.


Hollande hailed as Mali’s Savior

French President Francois Hollande received a hero’s welcome last weekend as he visited Mali’s historic city of Timbuktu, which French and Malian forces liberated from rebels and Islamist militants. The jury is still out on the merits and risks associated with external military intervention, but with widespread local support and international backing, the French-led mission has effectively captured (in just three weeks) most of the territory that had been occupied by al-Qaeda-linked groups for nearly a year.  With a suggested timeline of withdrawal in mind, the struggle to restore Mali’s territorial integrity and political stability is far from over as serious humanitarian concerns remain unaddressed.

How did we get to this point?

While France’s military campaign in Mali has so far been decisive, the international community initially dragged its feet in responding to the crisis triggered by an uprising in the north and a military coup in March 2012. Once held as a beacon of democracy in the region, the military junta brought down a democratically elected president, citing his failure to adequately support Malian troops in quelling a Tuareg-led rebellion which was sparked by the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya.

The power vacuum that ensued in the capital, Bamako, allowed Tuareg rebels allied with Islamist militants to seize the northern half of the country.  After months of an uneasy power-sharing arrangement, the Tuaregs’ political aspiration for the establishment of an autonomous state in the north was pushed out and the north fell under Islamist control. By the time the United Nations (UN) Security Council approved an African-led intervention to reclaim the north in December 2012, over 400,000 people had been displaced, fleeing torture, summary executions, the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence against women at the hands of extremist militants.  But these gross human rights abuses are not confined to the north. Malian security forces have also committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the extrajudicial execution of Tuareg civilians, indiscriminate shelling of a Tuareg nomadic camp and killing livestock which the nomadic population rely on for survival. The International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda responded last month by formally opening an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since January 2012 after the Malian government’s referral.

Intervention, why now?

As far as timing is concerned, the French-led mission is strongly linked to the former colonial power’s domestic and foreign policy agendas rather than to humanitarian motives.  The intervention in Mali has been a welcomed success for a president whose popularity was waning at home, and he has been rewarded with a slight bump in the polls. French interests in Mali are primarily security-based, as President Hollande’s government insists that it wants to act early to prevent Mali from becoming a retreat and training center for Islamist terrorists should an Islamist state take hold there. But the presence of French energy companies in Mali suggest that France’s long-term goal of securing resources in the Sahel—particularly oil and uranium, which the energy company Areva has been extracting for decades in neighboring Niger-also appears to be a motive. However, much time will pass before Mali’s resources can be extracted, which means that security interests are at the forefront in France’s current military campaign.

Regardless of France’s motives, there is widespread acknowledgement that the intervention is legitimate, and it has received the backing of the international community. It came at the request of the Malian government as Islamist forces began to advance toward Bamako. Vice President Biden commended France on its leading role in the Mali campaign and the European Union sees the operation as a counterstrike against the threat of Islamist jihadists who could use the Malian Sahara as a safe haven to launch international attacks.

The way forward

Although insurgents have been driven from Mali’s main northern towns, President Hollande cautioned that the mission was far from over while insisting that France would withdraw its troops from Mali once the country’s territorial integrity has been restored. The mission will then be transferred to a UN-backed African military force, which is being deployed prior to the beginning of UN peacekeeping operations. There are legitimate concerns of a protracted war. Furthermore, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, warned of the increasing risk of reprisal attacks against ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilian populations in the recently liberated towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions in northern Mali.   While security takes precedence, the international community must respond to the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of Malians and provide political support to the interim government to build the necessary democratic institutions that will address longstanding grievances and prevent another crisis.


Demanding Peace in Kachin State

The fierce clashes between Burmese troops and Kachin rebels is a stark reminder of the misguided nature of the decision taken by the United States to lift all remaining sanctions on Burma without meaningful progress on peace efforts.  The administration’s response to the escalating conflict has not been commensurate to the worsening crisis. In light of ongoing gross human rights violations overshadowing modest political reforms underway, Washington should threaten to re-impose sanctions to increase pressure on the Burmese government to cease hostility and engage in genuine negotiations.

The Burmese army—also known as the Tatmadaw—is engaged in what appears to be a sustained campaign to capture a Kachin rebel stronghold. The military has used Russian-made helicopter gunships, heavy artillery, and, according to unverified reports, chemical weapons to pound Kachin rebel positions near the border with China. These attacks have occurred within kilometers of bases belonging to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting the Tatmadaw since shattering a 17-year ceasefire in June 2011. The fighting, which has displaced 100,000 people, has been attributed to each side’s desire to control natural resources, such as the timber, jade and hydropower found in Kachin State.

The escalating resource war makes the U.S. government’s decision to remove all remaining sanctions and allow corporations unrestricted investment access to Burma all the more concerning. It increases the risk that American companies could find themselves complicit in fueling the crisis. There is a direct correlation between foreign investment and human rights abuse in Burma, particularly in the resource-rich ethnic minority areas. Without a stronger U.S. regulatory framework to mitigate these risks, companies investing in Burma’s extractive resource sector, which lacks transparency and suffers from pervasive corruption, will be funding military operations in ethnic areas and contributing to the exacerbation of the conflict.

Amid timid responses to the worsening conflict, the U.S.-based Kachin Alliance has urged the U.S. government and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to intervene and pressure the Burmese army into ending its offensive. Suu Kyi has refused to interfere in the government’s handling of the situation and has largely been silent on the war in Kachin State. The State Department has responded with a statement of concern urging both sides to end the violence and engage in talks, as well as with a visit by the U.S. Ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, to Kachin State. There are concerns that the Burmese government will not heed these calls since President Thein Sein has struggled to assert his authority over the army.

As the ground assault and aerial bombardments continue unabated, displacing over 100,000 local Kachin villagers in the process, the U.S. should reconsider its diplomatic, economic, and planned military ties with the Burmese government. By lifting all the remaining sanctions, Washington lost important leverage in fostering peaceful resolutions to conflicts in ethnic minority areas. The Obama administration should swiftly condemn the Burmese government’s actions and threaten to reintroduce sanctions. As Congress reviews the sanctions regime this summer, a decision to renew these measures would send a powerful message that America will not tolerate Burmese military operations in ethnic areas.


Time for President Obama to Move Forward on Congo

The re-election of President Barack Obama affords his administration the opportunity to make good on prior commitments to improve the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Conditions in DRC have grown worse under Obama’s watch, as a new rebellion has not only caused massive displacement but now threatens regional stability. While regional initiatives produced a tenuous ceasefire, sustained international engagement under Obama’s leadership can chart a pathway towards durable peace in the Congo.

As a Senator and member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Obama sponsored the most comprehensive piece of U.S. legislation on the Congo. The DRC Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006 highlights U.S. policy objectives towards the Congo with a particular emphasis on promoting improved governance, neutralizing armed groups, and ensuring responsible and transparent management of natural resources while assisting the DRC government as it seeks to meet the basic needs of its citizens. Despite the significant investment of over $900 million by the United States, bilaterally and through multilateral organizations, for peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development assistance in the 2011 fiscal year, the administration failed to hold Congolese leaders accountable for a flawed presidential election in December 2011 and lacked the political will to mount pressure on President Joseph Kabila to enact necessary institutional reforms. In a speech addressed to the Ghanaian parliament in 2009, President Obama remarked that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” The people of DRC, Africans across the continent, and all others who support democracy and good governance hope that President Obama will take increased steps to make this a reality in his second-term.

The situation in the eastern provinces remains highly volatile despite a tenuous ceasefire. An armed group led by International Criminal Court suspect Bosco Ntaganda defected from the national army in late March after pressure mounted on President Joseph Kabila to arrest him. Ntaganda’s loyal soldiers later mutinied against Congolese troops. Fierce fighting ensued at a great humanitarian cost, as 470,000 fled their homes and 51,000 others sought refuge in neighboring countries. The armed group M23—named in reference to a March 23 peace agreement—claims to be fighting Kinshasa for its failure to implement the terms of the agreement the government signed in 2009. Analysts maintain however that M23’s ambitions are far bigger. Having captured key towns situated at the outskirts of North Kivu’s capital Goma and established a parallel administration, it appears that the M23 rebels want to create an autonomous state in eastern Congo. With political negotiations out of the question, both sides have strengthened their military capacity in anticipation of further clashes that could have devastating consequences on the civilian population.

Discussions are ongoing at the regional level to diffuse tensions and prevent further instability. Members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) have proposed the establishment of a 4,000-strong neutral African force to patrol the DRC-Rwanda border and neutralize armed groups, including M23. While some African countries have pledged to contribute troops, there is no appetite within the international community at large to finance this effort, especially when the United Nations Stabilizing Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) costs $1.4 billion a year and has failed to achieve its mandate to protect civilians. Moreover, regional dialogue has been compromised after a UN panel of experts accused ICGLR members Rwanda and Uganda of supporting M23—allegations that both countries vehemently deny. The confidential report reveals that Rwanda—through Defense Minister James Kabarebe—continued to support M23 despite significant donor countries suspending or delaying the disbursement of aid. Uganda is also supporting M23, including sending troops, weapons, and recruits, as well as providing advice.

The Obama administration can play a leading role at this critical juncture, and there are encouraging signs that it may in fact do so. The U.S. suspension of $200,000 worth of military support for Rwanda has prompted a host of other donor countries and international institutions to follow suit. By renewing the National Emergency Act with respect to the situation in DRC last month, President Obama enabled Treasury to designate Sultani Makenga, the military leader of the M23, for sanctions.

The way forward on Congo requires sustained U.S. political engagement to complement investment in the Congo towards peace. This can be attained by appointing a U.S. special envoy to the region to ensure that the administration remains engaged with regional governments on promoting peace and regional stability. A regional mediator is also needed to facilitate constructive and genuine dialogue between DRC and its neighbors to avoid an escalation of the conflict. To maintain global attention on the situation in eastern Congo, the U.S. government can push for the appointment of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. His stature would ensure that regional governments stay on track in finding a political solution to the crisis in eastern Congo.  Six years later, it is time for President Obama to move forward on Congo once again.