THE HEART OF DARKNESS: A PRIMER ON THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
By John Ford
This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by John Ford. John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army. He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore. The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy. You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.
The deadliest war of modern times is not in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not the Syrian rebellion or the genocide that occurred in Darfur or Mexico’s campaign against the drug cartels. The bloodiest war of modern times is going on right now in the Congo Basin. At least two million people have been killed (Some estimates go as high as five million), nearly all of them civilians, in a war most westerners barely know is happening. The origins of this war are not in the Congo, however. They lie in neighboring Rwanda.
In 1994, a series of events unfolded in Rwanda that shocked the world. A genocide by the Hutu ethnic group against the Tutsi ethnic group killed 800,000 people. The killing only ended when a militia called the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda and deposed the Hutu dominated government that was orchestrating the killings. The leader of the RPF was Paul Kagame, a Tutsi and the former head of Ugandan military intelligence. Kagame was born in Rwanda but fled to Uganda as a child during an earlier round of anti-Tutsi violence that hit Rwanda in the late 1950s. In 1994, Uganda’s Tutsi dominated government backed Kagame’s Tutsi dominated RPF in its bid to end Rwanda Hutu killings of Rwandan Tutsis.
After the Hutu government of Rwanda was deposed by Kagame and the RPF, large numbers of Hutus were driven into refugee camps across the border in the country that was then still called Zaire but is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nearly one third of Rwanda’s population was forced into the Congo.
Out of refugee camps in the Congo Basin came anti-Kagame radio broadcasts by Hutu exiles threatening to overthrow Kagame’s new government. From Kagame’s perspective, the situation across the border was extremely threatening. The RPF was a movement of Tutsi refugees who formed a militia that invaded Rwanda and overthrew a Hutu government. Now, he looked across the border into the Congo Basin and saw Hutu refugees launching a propaganda campaign against him. These were the same Hutus who had just butchered hundreds of thousands of his people. He imagined the Hutus becoming a mirror image of his own RPF and launching a refugee army back across the border to topple him. Kagame felt he had to crush the potential military threat emerging from the camps in the Congo. His choice to do this would trigger a war bloodier than the Rwanda genocide itself.
A casual observer would have a difficult time believing that Rwanda is a more powerful country than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo’s population of 75 million is more than six times larger than Rwanda’s 12 million. Its territory is a stunning 89 times larger than Rwanda’s. But Kagame’s government was led by competent and experienced military men who were able to quickly establish a strong national government after coming to power. Zaire, on the other hand was one of the most poorly led countries on Earth.
The dictator of Zaire at the time was Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu was a caricature of a central African dictator come to life. He looted the public treasury to build lavish palaces that would rival Versailles, appointed moronic relatives to important government posts, and routinely violated basic human rights. He chartered the Concorde to fly him to Paris for shopping trips. His fashion trademark was his absurd leopard skin hats. He ultimately stole somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion from his own government.
None of this was enough to bring down Mobutu, though. No, the decision that finally unwound this bizarre chapter in African history was Mobutu’s decision to expel all Tutsis from Zaire on penalty of death. This, along with Mobutu’s tolerance of Hutu refugees, convinced Rwanda’s Tutsi government that they had to get rid of Mobutu because he was in league with Hutu genocidaires.
One might expect a dictator to prioritize having a competent military so as to better control the country. This would usually be correct, but it was not true of Mobutu. Zaire’s security services were a mess. Mobutu made sure of this. He was afraid that a competent military would be strong enough to overthrow him. His soldiers were rarely paid. Mobutu once told a group of soldiers, “You have rifles. You don’t need a salary.” He expected his troops to show some initiative and loot what they needed from the countryside. This army was poorly trained and led by politically connected but militarily incompetent officers. Things were so bad by the mid-1990s that Zairian Generals were selling their airplanes and tanks to other African armies and pocketing the money. This was not a force that could stand up to even a mildly competent opponent.
The Rwandan backed insurgency that began in 1996 was more than enough to end Mobutu’s rule. It marched from Lake Victoria to Kinshasa, winning the war in less than a year.
Peace did not follow. The rebels who took control of Kinshasa immediately set upon each other in factional infighting. When the new Rwanda-backed President, Laurent Kabila, threw his Rwandan advisors out of the country , Rwanda backed another insurgency to depose the leader of the first Rwanda backed insurgency. This war officially ended in 2003 but the reality is that fighting continues in the eastern provinces of Kivu, Katanga, and Ituri. The fighting is multi-sided now and the ever expanding cast of rebel groups can seem impossible to keep straight. Nine different African countries have sent troops to fight either on the side of Congo’s various governments or its rotating cast of insurgents. Huge numbers of people live in refugee camps in the jungles of the east and have not seen their homes in years. Most of the children know only the refugee camps as home. They live entirely by the generosity of aid organizations that can provide food, drinking water, and medical services.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the Congo Wars or the fate of central Africa as unimportant to the United States simply because it is far away or unfamiliar or because the plight of the people there seems so hopeless. The Congo is an extreme example of the problem of weak nation-states. A theme of this series has been the importance of strong, stable, nation-states that can effectively govern their own territory. In Yemen and Somalia these strong states do not exist and they have fallen prey to terrorist groups. In Saudi Arabia, a strong but deeply flawed nation state exists and has been able to quell the terrorist threat within its borders.
The problem of the Congo is again the weak nation-state and the dangers weak states pose to social stability, economic development, and human rights. The problem of weak states recurs again and again around the world and is the greatest single foreign policy challenge facing the United States. The iteration we see in the Congo Basin is a particularly extreme form of the disease. But once this core problem has been identified we can set about trying to solve it.
The Congo is a massive lost opportunity for America and the world. The corruption of Mobutu’s government and the violence of the Congo Wars have blocked any major investment in developing the considerable resources of the Congo Basin. The Congo is estimated to have as much as $24 trillion in mineral deposits, a stunning figure roughly equal to the value of all the oil in Saudi Arabia. A strong state that could ensure the rule of law throughout the Congo would result in a wave of foreign investment that would create wealth and jobs in the Congo and give the industrialized world access to valuable mineral resources. A stable Congo would be a bulwark of regional stability and if economic growth came to its 75 million people it would be difficult to imagine the rest of central Africa would not be positively affected.
These would not be difficult objectives to pursue. Western aid could be tied to measurable reforms that would professionalize the Congolese military, build an independent judiciary, and reduce corruption. Aid already makes up a huge portion of the national budgets of countries like Rwanda and Uganda that have helped foment conflict in the Congo. Aid could be reduced or withdrawn from these countries until they end support for militias that are destabilizing the Congo. The end state would be for the US to maintain its influence in places like Rwanda and Uganda while also building a new relationship with a politically stable and economically growing Congo.
These measures would not be difficult or costly to implement. They would, however, make a world of difference for millions of people in a war torn country and promote American interests in an underappreciated part of the world. China fully understands the importance of Africa and the opportunities its natural resources present. They have invested heavily in Africa in the last decade and will continue to do so. The Congo’s potential has not escaped China’s notice. China has invested billions in resource development in the Congo and a majority of mineral processing plants in Katanga Province (Congo’s most mineral-rich province) are owned by Chinese firms.
But the Chinese model of development is largely exploitative. Chinese state-run firms bring in Chinese workers to extract resources and leave when they are done. Africans do not share much in the fruits of Chinese development. Most Africans prefer the American version of development premised on open trade. It is past time for the United States to get engaged in helping to decide the fate of Africa and to reject suggestions that Africa is a place to simply be left alone.
For further reading:
“Dancing in the Glory of Monsters” by Jason Stearns
“Africa’s World War” by Gerard Prunier
“States and Power in Africa” by Jeffrey Herbst