The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Fixing a Failed State

Grant Welby, JHU:

What is today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a long, and almost unbelievably violent history. Its violent past has left an indelible mark on its present situation, and has resulted in the DRC being designated a “failed state.” The sad history of the state has been much ignored, but it is crucial to understanding the DRC of today. Upon examining the issues and history, it becomes clear that the DRC is in need of political and economic reforms, and that the UN will need to leave the DRC in the near future.

The modern DRC was conceived of in 1885 by Leopold II, and ceded to him during the Berlin Conference. With boundaries inspired and explored by the famous expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley, the “Congo Free State” would go on to commit some of the most heinous human rights violations in history. The population of the region is said to have declined by nearly 12 million people during the period of Leopold’s rule. The atrocities were so great that the international community would come together to force Leopold to cede administration of the region. However, the bloodshed would not end in the post-colonial era. The country would be plagued by instability, famine, civil war, dictatorship and debt. In 1996, a civil war broke out that has come to set the course for many of the problems the DRC faces today.  During the civil war, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola would all send troops into the DRC, in a vain attempt to either support or depose the newly President, Laurent Kabila. Unfortunately, Kabila would be assassinated by one of his own bodyguards in 2001. Weeks later he would be replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila, who was then serving in the armed forces, as the President of the DRC.

In the following decade the DRC would continue to struggle. To his credit, Kabila made genuine attempts to correct the problems of the DRC. He would officially end the civil war that reportedly cost 6 million lives, and negotiate several treaties with Uganda, Rwanda, and rebel groups. Despite this, the violence has not ended, only stemmed. Rwanda in particular has been a thorny issue in the DRC, as they have relentlessly pursued rebel Hutu groups in Katanga and Kivu provinces that took part in the Rwandan genocides, going so far as to support Tutsi rebel groups in the region. Overall, the eastern half of the country has remained perpetually volatile, and home to innumerable rebel groups, with dozens of different motives. The Eastern DRC is today home to the largest UN Peacekeeping mission in the world, with current troop levels over 17,000. Although combined offensives with the military of the DRC have yielded some favorable results, long-term progress is hard to come by. The peacekeeping mission is tasked with improving stability in a country that is over 900,000 square miles (Approximately the size of Western Europe). Although it is the largest mission in the world, it is still stretched far too thin to be effective. The villages and towns not covered by DRC, UN or other rebel groups fall prey to numerous small militia groups known as the Mai Mai. Although these groups are not one of the larger players on the national scale, they still harass, steal from, and kill innocent civilians, further destabilizing the east.

By definition, a failed state is a country that can no longer provide basic services, like security, or access to food, to its people. A failed state has no legitimacy in the eyes of its people, and thus it has little mandate to govern. In every sense of the word, the DRC is currently a failed state. But what will it take to get the DRC back on the right track? There is no concrete answer, but there are undoubtedly a number of areas that will need to be addressed, the first of which is political. The current President, Joseph Kabila is approaching his legally mandated term limit. It is imperative that Kabila agrees to step down and not run for reelection next year. Worryingly, Kabila is sending mixed signals with respect to his future plans. Although Kabila’s press secretary claims that he will honor the constitution, Kabila recently forced several of his ministers to resign when they published an open letter calling for him not to run for reelection. If Kabila were to choose not to run for reelection, he would be the first President to do so in the history of the DRC. The man most likely to replace him, Moise Katumbi, is very popular and influential both in his home region of Katanga and nationally. It is crucial that the DRC makes this step, and also that it institutes political reform to its fractured parliamentary system. The current parliamentary system has no minimum threshold for party representation. This means that dozens of parties are represented in parliament, and there is very little ideological unity. In an unstable place like the DRC, this does not bode well for the future of the government.

The DRC also needs to resolve conflicts in the Eastern half of the country, and to come up with a concrete solution for addressing war crimes perpetrated by both rebel groups and its own military. First and foremost, the U.N will need to leave in the near future. The peacekeeping mission has not solved the problem, and will not solve it. A peacekeeping mission in the 1960s did little to stop the rise of a military dictatorship, and it cannot address the root causes of the problems the DRC faces today.  In its place, a temporary mission by the African Union might fit the bill, until the DRC’s military was sufficiently organized to handle the challenge itself. As a organization made up of the DRC’s neighbors, the African Union has more of a vested interest in seeing the DRC succeed. Violence in the DRC does not stay neatly inside of the borders of the DRC. It bleeds across borders, helping to perpetuate the existence of rebel groups from across Africa.

With the second lowest per capita GDP in the world, the DRC faces serious problems funding its military to secure the region. In light of this, it is crucial that the DRC effectively monetize its astounding amount of natural resources. Rich in copper, diamonds, and coltan, the DRC is perhaps the most mineral rich country on the planet. Utilizing these resources to fund the military, build infrastructure, and provide healthcare for the populace could go a long way towards stabilizing the country. Surprisingly enough, the People’s Republic of China has shown increasing interest in the country in the last five years. The country is now the largest investor on the continent, and signed a $6 billion minerals-for-infrastructure deal in 2007. The deal has been plagued by delays, but has great potential to improve the lives of Congolese in the region, and provide income for a struggling government. More deals like it could alleviate some of the suffering that contributes to the formation of rebel groups. The future is temporarily bleak for the DRC, but that does not mean that all hope is lost. The night may still be dark, but dawn may not be too far off.


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