Father Ferdinand Muhigirwa appeared before the US Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee on African Affairs last week to urge America to take advantage of the current window of opportunity in the Democratic Republic of Congo - and help to foster sustainable peace as well as genuine democratic and economic progress.
"This hearing is timely and critical for the DRC due to three recent events: the adoption of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework; the appointment of Mary Robinson as UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes; and the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2098," testified Muhigirwa, who is the Managing Director of the Arrupe Research and Training Center and former director of CEPAS. "The US can use this opportunity to help promote electoral reform and secure lasting peace in Congo and support regional cooperation for economic development."
Addressing Senators Coons, Flack and Durbin, Muhigirwa stressed the need to urgently reform the National Electoral Commission (CENI) and to ensure that fair and transparent provincial and local elections are held in November 2014.
"The United States and other international partners should ensure that the electoral process is financed, logistically assisted, monitored and evaluated closely with clear benchmarks and appropriate follow-up measures and results," he said.
On peace and security, Muhigirwa welcomed the establishment of MONUSCO's intervention brigade and called for an end to impunity for sexual crimes as well as calling on the US Congress to encourage the Congolese government to implement 'root-and-branch' security sector reform.
Finally, Muhigirwa - who has just been appointed a Board Member of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) - called for regional cooperation to be grounded in regional economic projects for sustainable development, with "special consideration given the management of natural resources because these have historically been one of the key drivers of conflict."
Admitting that regional cooperation for economic development in the Great Lakes region has failed before due to a lack of political will, strategic vision and sufficient financial support
"The US Government can promote and support financing through the World Bank of regional economic projects in the area of road, rail, electricity, oil and gas," said Muhigirwa. "These projects will become also a factor of political stability and social reconciliation among the people in the Great Lakes Region."
The sub-committee was also addressed by three other experts - John Prendergast (Co-founder of the Enough Project), Mvemba Dizolele (Strategy and Advocacy Fellow for Eastern Congo Initiative) and Frederico Borello (Director of Investments at Humanity United).
All three of them agreed that recent events - including America's first public criticism of the destabilising role played by Rwanda - provided a real opportunity for long-lasting change in DRC but only if the US and the international community adopted the right approach - one that focussed on more than just the conflict in the east of the country and on more than just the M23 rebels.
"We believe that there will be no peace until the political and governance crisis in Congo is resolved," said Dizolele. "But there also needs to be genuine security sector reform and continued pressure on Rwanda and Uganda."
All of them called for the US and others to help support a comprehensive national peace process by ensuring that the Framework peace agreement includes concrete benchmarks on a number of critical issues - from security sector reform to judicial reform to electoral reform to accountability for crimes against humanity to ensuring that Rwanda and Uganda stop fomenting conflict.
"The international community has failed the Congolese people by not dealing with the political root causes of the conflict in Congo," said Borello. "But there is a chance now if the international community supports Mary Robinson - along with Congolese civil society - to develop a range of clear benchmarks; convinces regional governments to adhere to their non-intervention pledges; and makes clear that failures will have consequences."
The panellists also urged the US to appoint a US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes who would support Mary Robinson and lead the development of a new, more proactive US strategy for the region.
"As a country with close relationships with all regional players and substantial international leverage, it is critical for the U.S. government to play a much more active role in the upcoming initiatives," testified Prendergast. "This will require far greater attention from senior policymakers, a step-change in diplomatic engagement in the region, and concentrated focus on areas of U.S. leverage, especially efforts to transform the trade in natural resources from a driver of violence into a catalyst for regional peace."
The Chairman of the sub-committee, Senator Coons, announced that he would be presenting the administration with a resolution including some specific recommendations - such as the appointment of a US Special Envoy. And the US Secretary of State subsequently confirmed that an Envoy would indeed be appointed in the near future.
Whether this represents a genuine sea-change in US policy towards Congo and the Great Lakes region remains to be seen but no one listening to the panel would have missed the key point - this is the first real chance for change in the Congo in years and the US has a critical part to play in ensuring that the opportunity is not squandered.
Fr Ferdinand Muhigirwa testimony to US Senate sub-committee on African Affairs on DRCongo