An intimate look at US government policy toward the Congo – Interview with Tony Gambino

Congo Siasa spoke this week with Tony Gambino about US policy towards the Congo. Tony has been engaged on the Congo for 31 years, since he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural South Kivu and in Kisangani. He was the Mission Director of USAID to the DR Congo from 2001-2004 and authored an influential Council on Foreign Relations report on the country. He is now an independent consultant based in Washington, DC.
JS: To start off with, give us a historical perspective on US foreign policy towards the Congo. How has it changed over the years?
TG: During the Cold War, US foreign policy globally had clear priorities. Those priorities led the US to support the pro-West dictator, Mobutu. That clear lens, however, disappeared with the end of the Cold War in 1990. In the first phase after the Cold War’s end, US policymakers thought they didn’t need to care about or pay much attention to places like Zaire, Rwanda or Burundi. But the 1994 genocide in Rwanda dramatically changed that. Policymakers realized that they couldn’t ignore what was going on in Central Africa. But what did this renewed attention mean for Zaire, which at that time was going through a flawed democratization process and then, starting in 1996, an invasion from the east? Should the US prop up Mobutu one more time or sit back and watch? Eventually, the US and other Western states decided not to intervene and Mobutu fell.
When a new war broke out in August 1998, the US faced a traditional international problem – how to deal with a multi-state international conflict. The main priority for the US at that point was stability in the region, so it did what it could to contain the war, build a peace process and help the Congolese move to a transition and elections. Overall, this US engagement was a success.
After the Congolese national elections in 2006, the US and other concerned states made a fundamental mistake. It is well known that countries coming out of civil war with a fragmented, fragile political system are at high risk to relapse into conflict. Therefore, increased, enhanced engagement is what is required. However, the US and other Western states decided that once elections had been held, now Congo was OK – it was, after all, a democracy now – and it was time to scale down. Ultimately, this decision was driven by nothing more than “Congo fatigue” in Washington and other Western capitals. “Congo fatigue” is an intellectually barren way of thinking about the Congo, and it led the US in 2007 and 2008 to do precisely the opposite of what it should have done. US policymakers still struggle with the consequences – an international community that keeps providing money, but remains intellectually and diplomatically disengaged. As a result of this international disengagement and extremely poor governance within the Congo, the country began to drift. Conflicts broke out again in the East, and there was a lack of progress in consolidating state institutions to provide a basic minimum of security, justice and other basic state services. This is the situation in the Congo today.
JS: What do you say to the argument that this drift in attention has coincided with much greater economic investment, including by American companies?
TG: Greater economic investments should lead to more engagement by the US government, not less. No, it really was nothing more than “Congo fatigue”: US policymakers put the country onto a distant back burner with hardly any flame and that triggered the inappropriate US diplomatic disengagement. The main manifestation of this was the focus of the US government in 2007 and 2008 to draw down MONUC – the main representative of the international community in the Congo – as rapidly as possible.
Some US companies, including one very large one, Freeport McMoran, have invested heavily in the Congo. This is a good thing, and should have focused US policymakers much more towards promoting democratic stability. The scale of investments that Freeport is making takes decades of mining to justify. When companies are thinking about staying in a country for that long, they want a functioning rule of law and secure property rights. This is a good thing and should be encouraged.
JS: The other allegation we often hear is that the US was complicit in the violence due to its support for Rwanda. What do you make of this argument?
TG: Let us look at different periods. Early during the 1998 war, some US policymakers initially looked favorably on Rwanda’s invasion of the Congo, in part because US policymakers at the time listened carefully, even deferentially, to Rwandan President Kagame, and were disenchanted with Laurent Kabila’s ineffectual rule in the Congo. But as that war drew in states from around Africa and turned into a bloody stalemate, the US and other Western states realized that it made no sense to take sides. The US then turned to peacemaking and support for a successful Congolese transition process, which was the right approach to take.
Once the war ended and until early 2009, much of the violence came about because of actions by the FDLR, the Rwandan rebel group. The FDLR remained a serious force because it received support from Congolese political figures, from those based in eastern Congo linked back to political and military figures in Kinshasa. When that support finally was cut off, as part of a deal between Presidents Kabila and Kagame in late 2008, the FDLR’s ability to project power began to wane. It has been on the decline ever since.
Recent violence in the Congo is really about competition within the Congo over land, minerals, and, ultimately, power and wealth. While Rwandan and other neighboring economic interests have benefited from the messy, violent struggles in eastern Congo, they are not its present cause.
JS: Does this administration have a coherent, comprehensive strategy for the Congo, similar to the strategies their have developed for other countries in Africa?
TG: The US is still struggling with a strategy for Central Africa. The US thinks the Congo requires some heightened attention, but hasn’t yet figured out what that means. This administration came in wanting to do something regarding the Congo. This could be seen most clearly in the Secretary of State’s 2009 visit to Kinshasa and Goma. Secretary Clinton was genuinely surprised and moved by the scale and brutality of the violence. I believe her commitment for the US to do more to solve this problem is genuine and deeply felt.
So the administration wanted a new strategic approach to the country, but they weren’t able to get the intended results from a Special Envoy who could spearhead the process, so they went about it piecemeal, sending out a multitude of various teams to the Congo to draft reports with literally hundreds of recommendations – ultimately more than a thousand recommendations were made. This only ended up creating confusion; it certainly did not lead to a new, focused approach. Instead of tolerating multiple, loosely coordinated activities that often are only tangentially linked, the US needs to focus all parts of our government on achieving clear results in two crucial areas. The US should focus on two central priorities in the Congo: the first priority should be to bring greater stability to and reduce civilian suffering in eastern Congo. The second priority needs to be ensuring that next year’s national elections take place and are free and fair.
JS: Why is there this apparent disjointed approach to the Congo? Does it have to do with bureaucratic or organizational challenges?
TG: The Secretary of State has a lot on her plate, so she obviously will not have time to deal with the Congo on a regular basis. Below her, the key policymaker is Johnnie Carson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa – but look at what is already on his plate: the referendum in Sudan, instability in Somalia, problems in Kenya, concern for the two African powerhouses of South Africa and Nigeria, and now a stand-off in the Ivory Coast.
The present governmental organization on the Congo is rather dysfunctional. An unintended consequence of Secretary Clinton’s trip was that everybody in the US Government wanted to jump in afterwards and do something. There were three or four entities just within the Defense Department trying to get involved, then various actors in USAID, as well as two Under Secretaries of State. Unfortunately, these actors have not been pulled together into a coherent approach. The old adage about “too many cooks in the kitchen” describes part of the problem.
There are a number of ways to streamline and focus this process. The important thing is the political will, which needs to come from the Secretary herself. When the administration decides an issue is important enough, it finds a way to get the job done. For example, in Sudan as the January referendum has approached, not only has money been provided as the Special Envoy’s office and others in the US government have worked harder and harder, but people like Ambassador Princeton Lyman have been brought in to do very substantive work. Another example is Kenya, where there are a series of complex issues important to the US. It is clear that the Assistant Secretary of State himself – who is a former ambassador to Kenya – gives the country a lot of attention, which also has brought about effective engagement and focus.
The problem with Congo is that the decision hasn’t yet been made that the country needs that kind of action and attention. We are now at the end of 2010, over a year after Secretary Clinton’s visit, and the Congo is no better off in terms of overall violence in general and sexual violence in particular. The Congo is less than a year away from crucial elections. No serious observer thinks these elections can succeed without serious engagement by the international community, with Washington necessarily playing a leading role. But I have not yet seen the political will at a senior level in the US Government that these issues are so important that the US needs to put its shoulder seriously to the wheel, like it has in Sudan.
JS: Do you think that naming a Special Envoy, something several non-profits are pushing for, would help?
TG: A Special Envoy could make a difference. But the decision for deeper, more focused engagement must come from the most senior levels of the Administration. Only that will give the necessary support to those who are pushing for the US to more effectively engage on the Congo. The fundamental issue is will there be a decision to put our shoulder to the wheel or not? Appointing a Special Envoy alone isn’t enough.
I’ll give you an example of how bad things are today. In a public presentation a few weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Carson said that last year the US gave $900 million in assistance to the Congo. But the US is slated to spend only $4 million for the elections, compared to an estimated need from international donors of around $300 million. A 20% contribution from the US – about $60 million – would be considered pretty serious. But the US contribution presently is at less than one percent of estimated needs. That shows a lack of seriousness. The US planning process around this issue clearly has failed. The timing of this important election has been known for years. Of what use is a Special Envoy if the level of funding for and commitment to free and fair elections remains as low as it is today?
I want to call your attention to something Senator John Kerry said; this is the way I think about the Congo, too:
“We’re putting $106 billion a year into Afghanistan; more than a trillion went into Iraq.  [The needs in Congo are] so small in terms of the monetary requirement and what would make a difference, so stunningly small but so huge in terms of the dramatic impact it would have on the lives of fellow human beings and frankly, it would do America so much good to be able to say to the world that it’s not just the war on terror and other kinds of things we care about but it’s this kind of humanitarian challenge that motivates us and excites us and challenges us and brings a whole generation into a new level of engagement that can transform, in the end, a whole continent.”
JS: What would you do differently?
TG: My list of three priorities for the US: Help secure the eastern Congo, see that elections are free and fair and get serious about governance as a whole. This list is not different from the list you would hear from US officials. But while the US says it cares about these, it has not organized its engagement to make a serious difference in any of these areas. It’s the level of engagement and commitment that needs to change.
JS: Should the US use its financial leverage to reach these goals?
TG: Certainly the US should put money behind those things it believes in, such as providing adequate support for the elections.
Beyond that, though, people talk about conditionality and aid cutoffs much too loosely. Today, the US gives quite a bit of money for the Congo, but almost all of it flows through non-governmental structures. Much of that assistance is for humanitarian projects – it would be both immoral and counterproductive to cut off such funding.
What is more appropriate is to look at flows that go directly into the Congolese government’s budget. Here the main actors are the IMF and the World Bank. The IMF has been extremely reluctant to undertake simple pro-governance conditionality.
To gauge a country’s commitment to key sectors, you can look across those sectors in a country’s budget like justice, health and education. A very simple exercise would be to ask what do countries that are about the same level of development as the Congo spend in these areas? Take justice – normally it is 2-6% in comparable countries, but for Congo it is .2% [figures from this year’s or last year’s budget]. The fact is that the Congolese budget for these sectors is at ludicrously low levels. For anyone who knows how collapsed the justice sector is in the Congo, this level of commitment to justice is absurd. The IMF and World Bank, with the support of the US, should have a very intensive dialogue with the government to raise that figure. Let us remember that over a third of the government’s budget in the Congo comes from the IMF and World Bank.
The IMF has not been willing to engage on this. The World Bank is thinking hard about how it can be more helpful. The US should be playing a lead role in its engagement with the IMF and World Bank. What I am thinking about is an approach like the “Governance Compact.” [An initiative of the World Bank and UNDP in 2006 and 2007 to link aid to concrete political and economic reforms.]
JS: How useful do you think the lens of sexual violence and conflict minerals has been as an advocacy tool in the United States?
TG: I salute activists on the Congo: I think they have really done their job. Because of tremendous efforts around issues of sexual violence and conflict minerals there are high school and college students and others around the country making noise about the Congo and writing their Senators and Representatives, which produces legislation. This is all very, very good. The problem is that it has not yet been translated into a clear decision at senior levels in the Executive Branch that the US will focus and concentrate its efforts to make a serious difference in the Congo now.