It’s a government so lawless it thinks it can murder U.S. citizens with impunity. A government so indifferent to family values that it holds up adoptions for years on bogus technicalities, letting children die who had been destined for American homes. A government whose people are growing poorer and more desperate by the day, yet whose president gives away billion-dollar business licenses to his friends and family, imports giraffes for his private game preserve, and sponsors his own brand of pink champagne. That government is in the Democratic Republic of Congo — and although it’s hardly on America’s radar screen, the crisis unfolding there will ripple throughout the African continent for decades to come.
First, let’s be blunt: Central Africa will never be a first-order priority for American foreign policy. Nor should it be. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. The Congo’s problems have a way of becoming the world’s. The AIDS pandemic reached critical mass in its capital city in the early decades of the 20th century before eventually spreading worldwide. Ebola also first emerged from its rainforests. Last year and this, the country experienced outbreaks of yellow fever, cholera, Ebola, and polio — any one of which, had it spread, could have resulted in a global catastrophe. Last month authorities intercepted a ton of heroin destined for Europe, hidden in a Congo-flagged ship.
The government there is run by a sullen kleptocrat named Joseph Kabila who inherited the job 16 years ago when his father was assassinated. He won a free and fair election in 2006 and a contested and fraudulent one in 2011, and now he is finding one excuse after another not to step down, as required by the country’s constitution, and hold the elections that were mandated for 2016. He is a virtual recluse; diplomats believe he spends his time playing video games.
But everywhere are signs that his hold on power is fraying. In May, an elderly, bespectacled quasi-religious/political leader led a spectacular breakout from the capital city’s main prison. More than 4,000 escaped. The government’s popularity is such that the people of the neighborhood gave the prisoners money and clothes to make good their escape — even though at least some of them must have been real criminals.
Then there are the rebellions. No one knows how many there are, but militia groups are active in at least half the country’s 26 provinces. None pose a serious threat to Kabila’s power, but that hasn’t stopped him from conducting massive retaliations against civilians he suspects of being sympathetic to the rebels. Last year, there were 1.7 million internally displaced people in the country. Now there are 3.8 million.
In one particularly hard-hit province, mass graves dot the landscape, guarded by soldiers intent on deterring investigators. Someone, quite possibly high up in the Congolese government, ordered a hit against two U.N. sleuths investigating the killings. One of them was a religious young American named Michael Sharp, who was shot execution-style in the head. So far, the Kabila regime is doing everything it can to stymie an investigation into the murders of him and various colleagues. Several western embassies (though not the American) sent e-mails to their nationals earlier this week reminding them to have an emergency bag packed in case they need to evacuate.
But the gravest problem is economic. After years of relative stability, Kabila’s gross mismanagement and corruption have caught up to him. The local currency is collapsing. Inflation is at 50 percent this year and rising fast. Doctors are on strike, and the entire civil service may soon join them. The central bank, still largely run by technocrats, has sent an urgent SOS to the international community: Lend us more money, they say, or we’ll be utterly broke, unable to pay for the food or medicine our people need.
In one particularly hard-hit province, mass graves dot the landscape, guarded by soldiers intent on deterring investigators.
The Obama administration’s response to this mounting catastrophe was to try reasoning with the regime. In truth, they were in a hard spot. They had winked at Kabila’s theft of the 2011 election, arguing, astoundingly, that had the election been free and fair, Kabila might have won anyway. So they weren’t in much of a position to gainsay his continuing misrule. Obama’s special envoy made countless visits to Kabila’s marble palace in an effort to persuade Kabila that history would look more kindly upon him if he upheld the constitution and retired. For the envoy’s pains, on one of his last visits to Kinshasa he was roughed up by Kabila loyalists on the airport tarmac on his way home.
Fortunately, there is every sign the Trump administration is taking a tougher approach. A month into her job, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley condemned Kabila’s regime for “inflicting predatory behavior against its own people.” Congo observers were shocked: This was the first time a major U.S. official had ever publicly called out the Kabila regime for what it is.
More good news: The administration seems likely to nominate J. Peter Pham to be assistant secretary of state for Africa. Pham is a prolific scholar and old-time Africa hand who understands what makes brutal dictators like Kabila operate. (Hint: It’s not the tender regard of posterity.)
In fact, the U.S. has tremendous leverage over the Congolese government, if we but chose to use it. First, Kabila’s gross incompetence is alienating his once-loyal allies on the African continent, most importantly Angola’s Dos Santos regime and Rwandan president Paul Kagame. A diplomatic blitzkrieg aimed at further isolating him could make his domestic situation ever more tenuous.
Second, we can demand that the U.N. be allowed full and unfettered access to investigate the murder of the U.N. sleuths and the ongoing mass violence in the Kasai provinces. To her credit, Ambassador Halley is working this angle hard and has helped assemble a strong team of international investigators.
Third, we can condition any further loans to the central bank on strict conditionality, with automatic triggers for nonperformance. The multilateral institutions have already signaled that they need to see progress on economic transparency; we should insist that monies be accompanied by political reform as well. At a minimum, we should demand the release of all political prisoners.
Fourth, we can spend more money on democracy promotion — on NGOs promoting human rights and freedom of the press, on activists calling for a free and fair vote, on the electoral commission and related quasi-governmental bodies. We tend to spend our aid money in Congo on immediate humanitarian problems; that’s understandable, given how dire the needs are. But unless we address the underlying political problems, the humanitarian situation will never improve.
Finally, and most importantly, we can go at the regime where it counts: the wallet. A slew of recent studies have documented the regime’s vast business empire; Kabila and his family control companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We still control the keys to the international financial system. The Obama administration targeted individual malefactors within the Congolese government, who easily sidestepped our controls. Instead, we need to take a broadsword to the Kabila family funds.
It’s important to understand how critical this is. Despite his depredations, Kabila’s power comes not from the gun but from the dollar. Even more than his predecessor Mobutu Sese Seko, who pioneered the technique, Kabila stands atop pyramids of patron-client relationships where the money cascades downward and the political support upward. Target Kabila’s wealth, sanction broadly those who support him financially or politically, and you undermine the very basis of his regime.
To outsiders, the Congo can seem like one of the world’s perennial basket cases. But as visitors to the country know, the people are friendly and entrepreneurial and the government is peppered throughout with highly educated technocrats yearning to do their jobs. The Congo has vast reservoirs of a dozen minerals, enough potential hydropower to light the entire continent, and half of the world’s cobalt, which is essential for the batteries used in electric cars. The Congo could be well off; it’s one half-competent ruler away from becoming a modestly successful, lower-middle-income country, a Kenya or Senegal instead of a Somalia.
Since 2001, when his father was assassinated, the world has spent more than $37 billion on foreign assistance binding up the disasters Kabila has allowed to fester. But addressing the symptoms of his misrule only delays the day of reckoning. A crack-up of Congo could leave it a ward of the international community for decades to come; it would leave a fist-shaped hole in the middle of the continent. The stakes for Africa are as high as they have ever been, and much depends on what the Trump administration does next.
— David Aronson is a freelance journalist.