Congo Siasa

We Inch Closer to a US Special Envoy to the Congo

While Congo Siasa was on hiatus, an important hearing took place at the US House of Representatives. Ben Affleck, John Prendergast and several NGO and US government officials gave testimony to the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa.

Although we have previously asked ourselves who chooses the experts to testify in Congress, this star power has helped to move the heavy wheels of power in Washington. Affleck was backed up by Cindy McCain, who recently joined his Eastern Congo Initiative as a board member and investor. The presenters emphasized clamping down on conflict minerals, ensuring free and fair elections and promoting security sector reform. Affleck, Prendergast and Francisca Vigauld-Walsh from Catholic Relief Services all called for the appointment of a US Special Envoy to promote these goals.

These points were not new, but the reaction by the committee did indicate a shift in opinion. At one point, the chairman of the committee Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) told the hearing that “Congo cannot be put on the backburner of US foreign policy….every member of our panel strongly wants that Special Envoy yesterday.”

What are the chances of an envoy being named? The Obama administration has 25 special envoys and representatives, whose mandates range from Afghanistan to International Disability to North Korean Human Rights. On the one hand, this strengthens the hand of those pushing for a special envoy to the Congo – if the Organization of the Islamic Conference can have one, why not the Congo? On the other hand, previous attempts to appoint a special envoy have met with resistance from envoy-fatigued officials in State Department who feel that these envoys compete with conventional chains of command.

Howard Wolpe was supposed to be named special envoy in 2009, but was quickly downgraded to special advisor. When he retired last year, most people in State Department doubted he would be replaced. This latest push, however, may change that.

Would a special envoy be a good idea? Yes. At the moment, many people in the US government are “seized of the Congo issue” but their approach is largely piecemeal. There is an Undersecretary of State for Economy, Energy and Agricultural Affairs working on conflict minerals; an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues working on sexual violence; an Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs working on human rights; and an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. However, we do not have a comprehensive, coherent strategy on the Congo, and no one working in the field with the various interlocutors to implement such an approach. A special envoy would be able to bridge divides between US agencies, as well as between embassies in various countries in the region.

Who could be named? Several names have been batted around. As Prendergast said at the hearing, it is important that it not just be an official from within State Department’s Bureau for African Affairs. The name that has been most frequently suggested in recent weeks is Tony Gambino, the former head of USAID in the Congo and a Congo watcher since the 1970s, when he served in the peace corps in the country.

Whoever it is, he/she has to be named soon if they are supposed to weigh in on the electoral process.