Guest blog: Time for a Change in U.S. Congo policy

The following is a guest blog by Anthony Gambino, the former USAID director in the Congo, and Steve Weisman, the former staff director for the US House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Africa.

The last weeks have seen a burst of Congo news: a strange, small attack by Mai-Mai in central Lubumbashi; the surrender and transfer to the International Criminal Court of indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda; and Mary Robinson appointed as U.N. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes. These disparate events hint at some deeper truths about the Congo: its continuing instability; the hope for progress as Bosco, a major spoiler, leaves the scene; and the need for smarter international engagement to deal with the continuing challenges.

On this last point, it is time for the Obama administration to revise its failed Congo policy.

The heart of the failure is, oddly enough, that the Obama Administration during the President’s first term did not follow its own policy directives on democracy promotion. Despite considerable financial leverage (the U.S. alone provided $700 million for the DRC in 2012), the U.S and other donors have squandered chances to address the Government’s low political legitimacy and the predatory nature of the Congolese state.

Four Years of Missed Opportunities

The U.S. failed to provide crucial support for democratic elections and institutions.

After working hard, particularly diplomatically, to ensure the success of the 2006 national elections, the U.S. and the international community did not follow through. They did not lean on the Government when it removed dissenters from parliamentary positions and engaged in rampant legislative bribery. Then they drastically reduced their financial support for and political engagement with the 2011 elections. For example, in early 2011, the U.S. Government was silent when President Kabila, using bribery, rammed a constitutional change through parliament that eliminated a likely – and greatly feared by Kabila’s camp – run-off between President Joseph Kabila and the main opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi. The U.S. did not weigh in diplomatically against the pro-Government biases of the Election Commission or the Government’s packing of the Supreme Court with loyalists. It did not even press its own initiative for an independent review of the election results, once the Congolese Government objected. The U.S. has remained virtually silent in the face of the Government’s continual postponement of constitutionally mandated provincial and local elections.

The U.S. failed to hold the DRC accountable for its unwillingness to implement “good governance” in civil and military affairs.

The U.S. has not put pressure on the Government to implement constitutional provisions providing for government decentralization. Nor has it condemned the growth of parallel decision-making networks in the President’s Office that obviate constitutional and legal requirements. The U.S. has not pressed the Government to adopt and implement a real plan and budget for security sector reforms.

The environment of corruption has seriously undermined some U.S.-backed programs to improve governance. An October 2012 International Crisis Group report on the International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy in the eastern Congo criticizes “a lack of consultation, especially with the beneficiary populations, a prevalence of material construction over governance reform.” The U.N. recently reformulated this program to emphasize “democratic dialogue” between local civil society and provincial administrators, but its success will ultimately depend both on the Congolese Government and on donor willingness to insist on performance and results. U.S. and other international military training efforts have been hampered by weak Government logistical support and the Generals’ habits of levying “taxes” on their soldiers’ low wages.

The U.S. failed to work vigorously to curb violence in the volatile North and South Kivu Provinces of eastern Congo.

Two decades of serious provincial violence, stemming partly from local struggles over land and power, has been exacerbated by Rwanda’s military support for Congolese Tutsi-led groups.

The U.S. response has been extremely weak. It has not vigorously pressed MONUSCO to carry out its mandate to protect civilians. It successfully deleted an explicit reference to Rwanda in a U.N. Security Council Resolution concerning the current M-23 crisis. Only recently has the U.S. cautioned Rwanda’s leader, suspending a small military training program, and supported a U.N. Special Envoy and regional intervention force.

An Alternative Policy

U.S. policies have focused on individuals and foundered on over-optimistic expectations concerning the “political will” of DRC President Joseph Kabila and his government. We recommend the following new priorities:


  1. Promote greater democratization – in the broadest sense of the word – as the central thread of American policy
  • Press for the holding of long-delayed provincial elections in 2014, to be followed by local elections.
  • Publicly support reforms necessary to make the “Independent National Election Commission” truly independent, including a revamping of its leadership.
  • Begin steps for a parallel vote tabulation for the 2016 national elections.
  • Hold regular U.S. Embassy meetings with major opposition parties and civil society leaders to listen to their views.
  • Speak out publicly when the Congolese Government violates human rights.
  • Expand continuing in-country technical assistance in support of the democratic structuring of political parties and improved legislative effectiveness.
  1. Promote improved civilian governance with the recognition that, pending increased democratization, any initiatives will encounter an unfavorable environment and require intense international supervision and financial support.
  1. Promote improved military governance with the recognition that the unfavorable environment requires coordinated international supervision and financial support.

The root of the problem of “lack of political will” is the Government’s vested interest in its corrupt, patrimonial system of rule. A government more open to forces from below would be under greater pressure to utilize its democratic institutions and meet the demand for effective public services.

  • Press the DRC to implement legislation on decentralization.
  • Work with the IMF and World Bank to hold the Government to standards for budget transparency and levels of government expenditure for key sectors.
  • Support the restructured U.N. stabilization strategy for eastern Congo.
  • Build on the existing USAID program of aid to local civil society groups that have had some success in increasing provincial transparency and influencing budgets, and expand it to the national level.
  • Press the Government to increase transparency in the mining sector based on U.S. laws and Congolese membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
  • Publicly call out the Government on major issues of corruption and look for opportunities to support anti-corruption initiatives.
  • Ensure that genuine community consultation informs all U.S.-assisted governance programs.
  • Press the Government to adopt a concrete plan and budget for security sector reform as emphasized by the U.S. and Congo NGO 2012 report, “Taking a Stand on Security Sector Reform.”
  • Consider, in the context of other international efforts, U.S. training assistance to select army units, particularly in the East, but only when a comprehensive Army reform program initiative is underway, using U.S. regular military as trainers to mentor and monitor human rights and other performance.
  1. Promote conflict resolution in the Kivus, including the withdrawal of Rwandan assistance to military factions
  • Work with the Government and representative local actors towards a fair process to dispose of land issues.
  • Support local conflict resolution programs.
  • Use diplomatic pressure, international aid leverage and economic sanctions to end Rwandan assistance to militarized factions.

Finally, to make sure these policies are effective, the U.S. must measure progress towards each of the above objectives with meaningful quantitative and qualitative “benchmarks” for “significant progress”; and be prepared to adjust U.S. programs accordingly. Outside of humanitarian assistance, and support for democratic institution building, all other U.S. aid should be conditioned on performance.

It is time for the Obama Administration to abandon its failed policy towards the DRC and lead the international community in a more effective approach to that key country’s challenges.

Posted by Jason Stearns at 12:45 AM