November 13, 2008

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, observes that the recent fighting in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) marks the reopening of a conflict which, directly and indirectly, has already taken the lives of more than five million people, “may well prove to be the first foreign policy challenge to the Africa agenda for the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.”

Noting that “recent developments do not augur well for the 66 million Congolese and any hopes that they might have nurtured for some respite from the country’s seemingly perpetual cycle of violence,” Dr. Pham argues that “several major policy reconsiderations ought to be entertained in order to break the impasse in the Congo,” including:

First, in view of the questionable legitimacy and, indeed, viability of the DRC as a unitary state, the international community needs to acknowledge that its emphasis on a centralized model of post-conflict reconstitution of the country…[It is at] local levels of government where an improvement in accountability to the electorate and overall governance capacity would have the most impact on the lives of ordinary Congolese…

Secondly…while the international community cannot be expected to welcome the prospect of partnership with those implicated in war crimes and other gross violations of human rights, it must nonetheless exert itself to reach beyond the Westernized elites of Kinshasa and other urban centers to engage with traditional elders, chieftains, and, yes, military leaders. In this respect, the Kabila regime’s refusal to hold talks with the [Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP, National Congress for the Defense of the People)] for fear of according it any sort of recognition while simultaneously condoning the continuing presence on Congolese territory of the Hutu killers’ Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) is utterly unhelpful.

Third, over the long term, the question that needs to be addressed is whether or not the maintenance of the DRC as a singular subject of international law, however decentralized, is a means that is fundamentally at odds with the strategic effect sought by the massive “nation-building” effort presently underway with MONUC, that is, relatively effective political institutions accepted as reasonably legitimate by those governed and presenting no undue threats to regional stability and global security…

Fourth, if the very continued existence of the Congolese state as such is at least open to re-examination, then the role of outside forces like [the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations-Unies au Congo (MONUC, Mission of the United Nations Organization in the Congo)] must be redefined. The upcoming deadline for renewing the UN mission’s mandate provides an excellent opportunity to shift its emphasis to privilege the “responsibility to protect” the civilian population and controlling the flow of people and materiel along the borders which the fragile state shares with other countries in its region, rather than trying (half-heartedly) to use force to assert the expansive sovereignty claims of questionably legitimate central “governments” like the one which [DRC President Joseph] Kabila…inherited from his assassinated father…To this end, alongside a more robust disarmament and demobilization of combatants lest they continue to threaten stability, the peacekeeping mission should concentrate on building up disciplined and locally accountable police forces, rather than creating a national military.

The commentary concludes:

While the DRC has made considerable progress in recent years, there have also been significant relapses—as the fighting and humanitarian crisis along the shores of Lake Kivu underscore. Quite simply, the Congo may be too immense and its problems so great that, absent the significant transformation in how the international community conceptualizes and approaches those challenges, it is impossible to envisage real peace and stability, much less sustainable development. This is a reality that both the incoming U.S. administration and its international partners will have to eventually acknowledge. Given the incredibly high stakes involved for the peoples of the Congo, their immediate neighbors, the African continent, and, indeed, the entire international community, it would behoove President-elect Obama and his Africa team to come to that conclusion sooner rather than later and to appoint a special envoy, furnished with apposite (and, hopefully, innovative) instructions and authority, to coordinate American efforts to help resolve the conflict.

To read the full text of the article, “Renewed Congo Conflict Requires Fresh Approach,” click here.