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.