Monday, August 23, 2010

Congo's Forgotten Crisis, and How the United States should Address it: Introduction

Part 1 of a 7-part article about how the ongoing civil war in Congo is rooted in the poor state of the Congolese Army, why Congo matters to the United States, and what policies the United States should enact to address the situation.

Perhaps no modern nation has endured as much as Congo. Ever since there’s been a modern Congo, it has suffered, sometimes under ruthless authoritarian masters like King Leopold of Belgium and Mobutu Sese Seko, other times amidst periods of utter chaos, but always exploited and abused to the utmost.

The latest chapter in Congo’s tragic history – an ongoing 16-year civil war that continues to claim tens of thousands of lives each month (1) – may be its worst yet. Even still, the conflict has failed to attract significant outcry or even attention from the much of the world. In the United States in particular, the relentless violence in Congo is constantly overshadowed by headlines about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, among other things.

This lack of popular attention is reflected at the policy level as well. Although U.S. agencies such as USAID have organized and sponsored numerous aid programs in Congo, such efforts have been consistently underfunded and understaffed. Despite the immense economic potential of Africa and the geopolitical importance of Congo in particular to Africa – it’s located right in the center of Africa, borders nine countries, is larger than Western Europe (2), and has bountiful natural resources – U.S. priorities in Europe and Asia have consistently redirected American resources and time away from more comprehensive attention and policies toward Africa, with Congo being no exception.

Moreover, the bulk of such efforts have focused on providing emergency relief and humanitarian assistance rather than on confronting the root causes of the instability plaguing Congo, the most immediate cause being the inability of the FARDC to exert undisputed control over the entire country. Numerous militias, both foreign and domestic, as well as bands of thugs have been able to operate in and even control much of the country, especially in the East. There are a number of factors that have enabled this, ranging from complicity and fear among the locals and the abundance of mineral deposits available for extortion, which need to be addressed.

Ultimately, though, it has been the FARDC’s ineffectiveness rather than the militias’ capabilities that has prevented it from imposing peace over the entire country. FARDC soldiers have performed extremely poorly in clashes with militias (3), often simply fleeing without giving a significant fight at all. Moreover, far from protecting civilians from violence and abuse, the FARDC has been one of the main perpetrators of such abuses: according to MONUC reports, the FARDC was responsible for 53% of reported human rights violations in the first half of 2006 (4) and 54% of reported sexual violence in the first half of 2007 (5). If Congo wants any chance at peace, it needs to confront these issues that have made the national army a part of the problem rather than a means of ending the ongoing violence.

This fact has not been lost on the DRC (6) government or the international community, and numerous SSR schemes have been attempted. Much of these efforts have focused on complex administrative issues, training programs, and integration of former militants into the armed forces. These initiatives have had mixed successes at best, due to widespread corruption within the government and officer corps and a general lack of funding.

Moreover, as independent research has shown, most of the DRC’s initiatives have not been directed at the underlying sources of the FARDC’s ineptitude and lack of discipline. Work done by Swedish professors Maria Eriksson Baaz, PhD, and Maria Stern, PhD, and activists from HRW, among others – all of who conducted many interviews with FARDC soldiers, locals, and independent observers that have witnessed or taken part in the violence and abuses over the past couple of years – have revealed startlingly straightforward reasons for the FARDC’s behavior. Most soldiers do not receive pay, food rations, lodgings, or necessary equipment from their superiors, and the majority of abuses against civilians goes unpunished. This negligence coupled with impunity sets up a situation where many soldiers prey off the Congolese population, not only out of anger or for potential pleasure but also simply for their basic needs.

Clearly, such basic supply and disciplinary problems need to be solved if the FARDC is ever to become a controllable fighting force, let alone an army capable of defeating numerous well-armed and well-financed militias that have caused internal turmoil in Congo for the past 16 years. In light of the DRC’s struggles in dealing with such problems, the United States should increase its aid commitment to the DRC, focusing on efforts to alleviate the logistical woes of the FARDC soldiers. Specifically, a program that could provide the salaries and basic equipment sorely lacking among FARDC soldiers while bypassing the corruption that has hindered previous such efforts – or threaten consequences, like a cut in such aid, if significant corruption is detected in its implementation – could help the FARDC take the necessary strides it needs to become a viable fighting force. As long as the FARDC is unable to defeat the militias, the violence will continue and Congo’s development will be further stunted. A peaceful, prosperous Congo would, due to the country’s geopolitical significance, benefit much of central Africa as well, which is in the strong interest of the United States.


(1) In 2008, the IRC estimated people were dying at a rate of 45,000 per month [“IRC Study Shows Congo's Neglected Crisis Leaves 5.4 Million Dead; Peace Deal in N. Kivu, Increased Aid Critical to Reducing Death Toll,” International Rescue Committee, January 22, 2008, http://www.theirc.org/news/irc-study-shows-congos-neglected-crisis-leaves-54-million-dead-peace-deal-n-kivu-increased-aid--4331.]
(2) If Western Europe is defined as Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal, Andorra, Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, then it has an area of 2,329,755 sq. km, whereas the DRC has an area of 2,344,858 sq. km, according to CIA’s The World Factbook.
(3) Perhaps none have been worse than the FARDC’s humiliating defeat at Mushake in December, 2007, in which around 4,000 CNDP militants under the command of the renegade General Laurent Nkunda defeated around 20,000 FARDC soldiers, forcing the DRC government to enter peace talks with Nkunda. [Joe Bavier, “Congo rebels retake ground, army offensive falters,” Reuters, December 11, 2007, http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L11351715.htm.]
(4) MONUC Human Rights Division, The Human Rights Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Period of January to June 2006 (New York: MONUC, 2006), 9.
(5) MONUC Human Rights Division, The Human Rights Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Period of January to June 2007 (New York: MONUC, 2007), 18.
(6) From this point forward, I will use DRC and Congo interchangeably to refer to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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