Friends of the Congo (Washington, DC)

Congo-Kinshasa: Why President Obama Called Out Congo's Neighbors Without Mentioning Names?

opinion

Photo: Pete Souza/White House
President Obama headed back to the U.S. with a refueling stop back in Senegal.

President Barack Obama concluded his trip to Africa on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. After visiting Senegal and South Africa, President Obama's last stop on his African tour was in Tanzania where he visited President Jakaya Kikwete. Both President Obama and Kikwete have made auspicious statements regarding the crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Last week, President Kikwete called on both Rwanda and Uganda to enter into dialogue with their respective rebel militia who are present in the Congo instead of continuously utilizing rebel presence as a rationale for repeated interventions in the Congo.

On Monday, July 1, 2013 during his state visit to Tanzania, responding to a question from a Congolese journalist, President Obama said "The countries surrounding the Congo, they've got to make a commitment to stop funding armed groups that are encroaching on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Congo."

President Obama's response is fascinating in two respects. First, in spite, of sixteen years of intervention in the DRC by U.S. allies Rwanda and Uganda, which has triggered the deaths of millions of Congolese, President Obama still did not mention either country by name; he merely uttered the phrase "Congo's neighbors." Secondly, while the U.S. has repeatedly acknowledged that its allies, Rwanda and Uganda are funding armed groups in the Congo, it continues to arm, train, finance and provide diplomatic and political cover for both countries.

Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch says it best when he observed in a New York Times commentary: "So how do you get away with arming a rebel force that attacks U.N. peacekeepers, rapes women and recruits children? You need powerful friends, and Rwanda has had one. Born from the guilt of the Clinton administration's inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide, and a recognition of Rwanda's relatively efficient use of development aid, the United States has proven to be one of Kigali's staunchest allies."

It would stand to reason that as the U.S. calls on its allies to cease funding of armed groups in the Congo, the U.S. itself would cease funding of Rwanda and Uganda as long as they continue fueling the conflict in the DRC. In fact, U.S. law calls on the Obama Administration to do as much.  Section 105 of Public Law 109-456, the law that President Obama sponsored as senator and co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, authorizes the Secretary of State to withhold aid from Congo's neighbors, should they destabilize the country. The Obama Administration has yet to fully implement this law.

Pressure has been mounting around Rwanda and Uganda's support of militia gangs in the Congo. In light of the two UN Group of experts reports published in 2012, the United States government has said that "there is a credible body of evidence that corroborates key findings of the Group of Experts' reports - including evidence of significant military and logistical support, as well as operational and political guidance, from the Rwandan government to the M23." The administration response to the report has been a suspension of $200,000 of Foreign Military Financing provided to a Rwandan military academy and a phone call from President Barack Obama to Paul Kagame to discuss Rwanda's role in the destabilization of the Congo. Unfortunately, these small steps have not been enough to stop Congo's neighbors from intervening in the Congo, nor are they commensurate with the level of suffering the people of the Congo face daily due to the brutal killings perpetrated by militia gangs.

One of the key changes needed in U.S. policy in the Great Lakes Region of Africa is to cease its support of U.S. allies who are fueling conflict in the DRC. As he did in his 2009 trip to Ghana, President Obama repeated again during his Cape Town speech that "we are interested in investing not in strongmen but in strong institutions." However, the US government's continued support of strongmen in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC, stands in stark contrast to President Obama's declaration in Cape Town.

A second key change required in US policy is for the U.S. to in fact support strong institutions and democracy both in the Congo and the region.  The lack of democracy and democratic institutions and the militarization of the political space in the region have been a major driver of the instability in the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. These structural changes in U.S. Foreign Policy are vital steps needed to advancing peace and stability in the Congo and the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Despite the millions of Congolese who have perished in the past 16 years in what the United Nations says is the deadliest conflict in the world since World War II, the response from the United States in particular and other global leaders has been lackluster at best in the face of what is arguably the greatest human tragedy at the dawn of the 21st century. The recently initiated "Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Region," is one such example; as it fails to hold Rwanda and Uganda accountable, lacks a serious justice component, did not include the Congolese people in its development and mistakenly argues that legitimizing Rwanda and Uganda's looting of the Congo under the guise of trade and economic integration will bring stability.

The degree to which action has been taken, to hold aggressor countries like Rwanda and Uganda accountable has been a result of global pressure on world leaders by ordinary people.  We have repeatedly seen the constructive role that global pressure can play in advancing peace in the Congo. Recently, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC leaked a report documenting reduced support for Rwandan and Ugandan militias in the Congo. This is a clear sign that the pressure on the U.S. and its allies Rwanda and Uganda needs to be sustained and stepped-up.

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