How to End the Deadliest War in Africa

Sunday, July 30, 2006
this is an image

When Nelson Mandela was released from jail in 1990 and during the subsequent 1994 independence and elections in South Africa, the United States displayed a dramatic commitment to the democratic movement in Africa that has not been in evidence since. That seemed to change, however, with the U.S.-sanctioned arrest of Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, on March 29, 2006, for human rights violations in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The United States, which helped broker the 2003 political arrangement that offered Taylor safe haven in Nigeria and shielded him from prosecution, reversed its position and demanded his extradition to Sierra Leone. In a rare departure, the United States held itself and its African allies, such as Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to Jeffersonian standards and ideals of justice and freedom.

Africans have fought for the respect of human rights for the past 50 years with limited success. During the last two decades, however, they have instigated several initiatives to end impunity, including special tribunals in Ethiopia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (Arusha), attempts to prosecute Chad's former president, Hissen Habré, and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. With the exception of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Sudan peace accord, which benefited from American activism, the United States has shown little enthusiasm or support for these initiatives.

Taylor's arrest promises a new level of commitment to justice in U.S. policy toward Africa, one defined by the advancement of self-evident and inalienable rights. In the post-9/11 world, such a policy would yield better results than any billion-dollar public relations campaign the State Department could wage to win the hearts and minds of the oppressed.

Carrots and Sticks

Now, President Bush, Secretary of State Rice, and Congress should muster the same political will and exert true pressure on Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni to end the conflict in Congo, Africa's deadliest since World War II. Rwanda and Uganda are the primary sponsors of the militias destabilizing eastern Congo. The conflict, which began in 1998, has claimed more than 4.4 million victims. On average more than 31,000 people die every month, 45 percent of them children under the age of five. Unless we act forcefully, Congo has no future.

The United States is the largest contributor to the budget of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, yet the United States supports the Rwandan and Ugandan governments, primary sponsors of the militias that undermine the peacekeepers. In the end, U.S. taxpayers fund a U.N. mission that their own government undercuts.

In the spirit of the peace accord signed between the rebel groups and President Joseph Kabila in 2003 in Sun City, South Africa, Congo held its first multiparty elections in more than four decades on July 30, 2006. The accord, which both Rwanda and Uganda supported, called for all armed factions to be integrated into a unified national army before the elections. The two countries had previously signed separate agreements with Congo in 2002 to withdraw their troops from Congolese territory.

Today, however, as the Congolese await election results, the unification of the armed factions has yet to materialize. Even though they wear the same army uniform, these militias maintain parallel structures and commands, often disregarding instructions from the general headquarters in Kinshasa. They pledge allegiance and loyalty to, and take their orders directly from, their leaders in the transitional government. In several instances, units have fought against each other. Congo's corrupt transitional government finds itself with an unpaid, undertrained, underequipped, and disorganized army with a weak central command. Without an army, the government can neither protect its citizens nor defend Congo's territorial integrity.

This situation reflects the greatest weakness of the Sun City Accord, which offered carrots to the signatories but brandished no sticks at the belligerents. Most of the positions in the transitional government went either to former fighters, including the Kabila camp, or their proxies. Overnight, the warlords became government officials, with full immunity but no popular mandate.

Many of these leaders are guilty of war crimes, gross human rights violations, and corruption. Yet only one warlord, Thomas Lubanga, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses and the conscription of child soldiers. A new government may lead to the prosecution of these leaders, an outcome they do not welcome. With little chance to win in the elections, these former warlords have no incentive to give up their militias. Neither are they interested in a successful transition. Unless they are prosecuted (or threatened with prosecution) after the elections, those warlords would resume the conflict in an effort to remain in the political system and enjoy immunity from legal action. The same applies to their sponsors in Rwanda and Uganda.

Failing to Keep the Peace

With 17,000 troops and a $1 billion yearly budget, the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) runs the world's most expensive peacekeeping operation. Yet in parts of the country where rape and violence are the daily lot of helpless civilians, the mission has, in fact, become the symbol of impunity. U.N. troops and their civilian leaders often lack the will to apply their mandate, which is to use force against militias to protect civilians.

On average more than 31,000 people die every month in Congo, 45 percent of them children under the age of five. Unless we act, Congo has no future.

In recent months, the peacekeepers have stepped up their efforts to apply that mandate in certain parts of the country,

this is an image

particularly in Ituri province, where U.N. troops have been battling militias alongside the Congolese national army. This is the level of commitment that is required for peace to take hold in Congo.

MONUC's budget is too high for a mission that has done little to restore long-term stability and security in the region. But even if MONUC were not wasteful and unsuccessful, a U.N. peacekeeping mission is not a good long-term replacement for a competent and professional national army.

The United States is the largest contributor to MONUC's budget, and William Swing, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, is an American. Yet the United States supports the Rwandan and Ugandan governments, primary sponsors of the militias that undermine MONUC's performance. In the end, U.S. taxpayers fund a U.N. mission that their own government policies undercut through inconsistent diplomacy.

Despite its checkered performance, MONUC has been an important deterrent to the escalation of conflict. As MONUC's largest contributor, the United States should demand better performance and greater accountability and exert more pressure on the mission to enforce its mandate until Congo can raise and train a professional and competent army and police force. The U.N. Security Council should extend MONUC's term and expand its capabilities for that purpose.

Without a viable national army, the transitional government can neither protect its citizens nor defend the nation's territorial integrity.

Law and Order

The Congolese have witnessed unspeakable crimes and unimaginable atrocities. The architects of and participants in the war must be held accountable. Congo alone does not have the resources to establish a tribunal to address the crimes. As with Rwanda and Sierra Leone, the transition to democracy requires establishing and maintaining a sense of justice among the people. A tribunal would facilitate reconciliation not only in Congo but in the Great Lakes region as a whole. As history has shown, impunity only fuels hatred and instability. Without a tribunal, the survivors will take justice into their own hands and the conflict will never end.

The lack of a unified army and police force is the primary conflict driver. The security vacuum has created the right conditions for the continuation of the war, especially in the postelection period because some former rebel leaders will no longer have access to power or immunity from prosecution.

The struggle for control over natural resources and mineral wealth is at the core of the conflict. Groups with access to mineral-rich areas generate large sums of revenue through illegal exploitation and trade of resources, and they have no interest in the return of law and order. The 2003 U.N. Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources accused both Rwanda and Uganda of prolonging the civil war so that they could siphon off Congo's wealth with the help of Western corporations.

Ironically, Rwanda and Uganda, the two neighbors that would most benefit from peace in Congo, continue to fuel the conflict through their logistic support of militias. This support comes in the form of arms transfers, financial assistance, military advising, military training, and safe harbor to those who flee the Congolese national government. These actions violate the U.N. embargo on the flow of arms into Congo. With this proliferation of arms, the already crippled Congolese government is unable to secure its borders, and both Rwanda and Uganda have used border insecurity as a pretext to invade Congo.

What the United States Can Do

U.S. Congo policy has been ambivalent at best and incongruent and inconsistent at worst.

To avert a civil war following the elections, the United States should display the same drive and determination, including exerting pressure on those financing and enabling the conflict, as it did to accomplish Charles Taylor's extradition to Sierra Leone. The Congo crisis provides Congress another opportunity to show U.S. commitment to democratic values, advancement of human rights, and the promotion of the rule of law in Africa. The pervasive climate of impunity, local and international, is the greatest threat to peace and security in Congo.

The Congolese have witnessed unspeakable crimes and unimaginable atrocities. Those responsible must be held accountable.

Inconsistent U.S. diplomacy helps fuel the conflict. War criminals should be prosecuted without prejudice. President Bush and Congress should hold Rwanda and Uganda responsible for their actions and exert the appropriate pressure to uphold the U.N. arms embargo, which means prosecuting violators. The United States has failed to join multidonor efforts to restore justice in Congo's Ituri and eastern provinces. Most important, the United States has failed to follow up on its own justice initiative after Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Pierre-Richard Prosper commissioned a Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs assessment of justice and impunity in the Great Lakes region.  

In 2005, the International Court of Justice fined Uganda $10 billion for looting Congo's natural resources and human rights abuses perpetrated by Ugandan troops on Congolese civilians. Whether Uganda pays the fine or not, Ugandan officers responsible for the atrocities should be prosecuted.

U.S. diplomatic half-steps in Congo undermine our long-term strategic goals in Africa. We should either fully commit to help the Congolese solve the conflict or not commit to it at all.

Furthermore, the United States should fully support the recommendations of the U.N. Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and help prosecute those individuals and corporations mentioned in the report. To date, U.S. inaction has benefited the perpetrators and by default fueled the conflict. In fact, failure to act on the panel's recommendations has sent the message to corrupt Congolese government officials that the United States will tolerate business as usual in the extractive industries. In contrast, the United Kingdom, through diplomatic channels, has promoted the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, whose positive signal has been well received among anticorruption activists in Africa. Congo's resources should be sold by means of a transparent global bidding system that would benefit the Congolese people and interested corporations. The country needs these resources to rebuild its economy.

As for the establishment, integration, and training of the national army and police, Congo needs more partners with bigger resources and exper-tise for the daunting task ahead. Without a robust army and law enforcement structures, Congo will have no peace after the elections. Yet the United States contributes next to nothing to security-sector reform in Congo, leaving it to Angola, South Africa, Belgium, France, and the World Bank to shoulder that responsibility. The United States should send money, send military and police instructors (some of whom could be private contractors), and exert greater pressure on leaders in Kinshasa to integrate their militias by allowing the international community to take over security-
sector reform. A U.S. presence could solve the lack of coordination among and between donors and the Congolese army factions.

Congo's extraordinary circumstances require bold measures. Unless the United States reconsiders its Congo policy and deals vigorously with the negative forces, including Rwandan and Ugandan influences, the conflict is likely to escalate beyond its current cataclysmic proportions. The stakes are high: U.S. diplomatic half-steps in Congo undermine our long-term strategic goals in Africa. We should either fully commit to help the Congolese solve the conflict or not commit at all.

As he did for the Sudan, President Bush should appoint a special envoy for Congo to help coordinate the administration's efforts and articulate its position. In addition, Congress should set up a task force to review the current Congo policy, or lack thereof, and realign U.S. diplomacy in Central Africa with our long-term strategic goals. In its campaign against global terror, the United States cannot afford to waste the goodwill that Charles Taylor's indictment has generated among Africans. The United States should build on that momentum and win Congo, the very heart of Africa.