Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent trip to Africa included a noteworthy visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a brief stop at Goma, the epicenter of the violence in the east. Clinton’s stopover marked a significant departure from previous U.S. policy with Congo. Her visit, undoubtedly the highest-level visit by an American dignitary ever, represents a genuine attempt by the Obama administration to draw attention to the country’s prolonged crisis.
It seems that green shoots are appearing on the horizon, but much will depend on the behavior of the U.S., which, for far too long, has preferred to outsource our Congo policy to neighboring autocratic regimes. Is there a chance that the decade-and-a-half-long war in Congo is nearing its end? If so, what role can the U.S. play in peacekeeping?
Though surrounded by violence, Goma is a bustling and dusty city located in the Great Rift Valley in the shadow of the stunning Nyiragongo volcano. The physical beauty surrounding the town masks some of the devastation wrought by the brutal civil war and the devastating volcanic eruption in 2002. The city of close to half a million people is actually a refuge from the primarily rural fighting between the government, the armies of Rwanda and Uganda, a U.N.-peacekeeping force and a collection of various militias. With an extensive international humanitarian presence and a central role in the region’s black market trade in minerals, it is at the center of a real estate boom with lakefront houses frequently selling for over a million dollars. It is also home to tens of thousands of internally displaced people fleeing the fighting in the rural areas. Living in ramshackle housing built on top of a lava field, many of these victims suffer silently—grateful to be away from the worst of the fighting, but unable to return to their homes until a more permanent solution is found. During a recent visit, civilians I spoke with repeatedly told me that the only long-term solution for Congo is for the country’s government institutions, including the military, to be strengthened free from foreign intervention.
The war in Congo has many causes including the collapse of the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. Once a key Cold War ally of the United States, he was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving his government incapable of controlling vast areas of this often impenetrable country. (The country is vast, stretching across the center of the continent.) With such extensive and porous borders, many rebel groups in the region have found Congo a hospitable refuge from the fighting in their home countries—to the detriment of the people living within.
A peace process in 2002 brought many of the rebel groups into government, leading to an election in 2006. The election did succeed in solidifying the rule of Congo’s 35-year-old president Joseph Kabila, who came to power following the suspicious death of his father, Laurent Kabila, a former rebel leader. But despite some progress, the persistent fighting in the eastern part of the country has never subdued, largely due to a failure by the international community to address the regional sources of instability.
Can the United States play a productive role in bringing peace to the region? I am willing to say yes, but only if the Obama administration is brave enough to move away from the disastrous tendencies that have characterized our engagement with African countries.
Additionally, much of the recent American attention to Congo has been viewed by Congolese as a response to their country’s recent $9 billion deal with China. Sinophobia tends to run rampant in Western capitals as the economic juggernaut solidifies massive business deals across a variety of African economies, reducing their reliance on the Western-dominated international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
For African leaders, the rise of China tends to be viewed more benignly, as an opportunity to reduce the Western interference in their country’s economic and political affairs. At a town hall meeting in Kinshasa held by Clinton, students called attention both to the history of American meddling in Congolese affairs and to their awareness of the increased Chinese presence, much to the consternation of the secretary of state.
While many average Congolese do worry about Chinese interests in Congo, most would not consider China any better or worse than the Western powers whose long history of involvement in the country has rarely been positive.
But after 15 years of unabated warfare, Congo deserves a fresh approach from the Obama administration. By providing real support for the ongoing peace process, holding our allies in the region accountable for their actions, and refusing to view Congo solely in the context of the rise of China, the administration can demonstrate that it is finally serious in its desire to help.
Zachariah Cherian Mampilly is an assistant professor of political science and Africana studies at Vassar College.