How John Kerry could help bring peace to Congo (…by questioning constructed and patchy arguments)

Once more, a disingenuous op-ed on eastern Congo comes up with a brittle bricolage of little evidenced clichés. On MSNBC, Mr. Prendergast and Mr. Lezhnev (for whom I have highest personal respect, which does not exclude the possibility to scrutinise their claims in a critical manner) try to give advice to the John Kerry and Russ Feingold, Secretary of State and Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of the USA, respectively. A short mental exercise:

The last time two Americans of this prominence traveled to Congo (then Zaire), it was for the boxing match of the century: the Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Forty years later, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Special Envoy Russ Feingold are going to Kinshasa with a more peaceful agenda than their pugilistic predecessors: to help end what has become the deadliest conflict globally since World War II.

Besides the fact that two American men jointly travel to the DRC (then Zaire, as Prendergast and Lezhnev rightly note) at different points of time, I see little grounds to equal a boxing match to a diplomatic mission.

Over the past 20 years, the war in Congo has claimed nearly 6 million lives. Over 50 armed groups and multiple foreign armies have destabilized Congo, using tens of thousands of child soldiers and raping hundreds of thousands of women. Because of the violence, nearly three million Congolese people today have been displaced from their homes.

The ‘war’ has not claimed nearly six million lives. Rather its corollaries and side-effects. Actual battle deaths are far below that number. Also, it is analytically inaccurate to use the singular here – the Congo has known many different bigger and smaller ‘wars’ over the mentioned period. While it is true that over 50 armed groups (referring to the 20 years cited, you could even speak of about 200 armed groups) have meddled into the conflicts, the link to child recruitment and rape is much more complicated. A widening body of grounded analysis, for instance Luca Jourdan’s work on the Mayi Mayi, have elaborated how thin the line between forced recruitment and voluntary commitment is. While child soldiering must by no means been belittled or tolerated, it is important to grasp the socio-economic conditions under which it takes place. Sexual violence, including rape up to its most violent forms, is no unique characteristic to eastern Congo. And, even there, despite its shocking pervasiveness, it is subject to far more ramified dynamics than the mere ‘mineral-thirsty-raping-rebel’ picture Mr. Prendergast and Mr. Lezhnev would like to sell pitiful US policy-makers who struggle to make up their own mind about eastern Congo. Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern meticulously proved the opposite.

Yet things are beginning to look up for Congo. A revitalized United Nations peacekeeping force led by African nations is helping dislodge armed groups from their hideouts. The most powerful of these, the M23 militia, was militarily defeated in late 2013, following military pressure from Congo and the peacekeepers as well as international pressure on the rebels’ backers in the Rwandan government. The U.S. Congress contributed by passing legislation which has reduced armed groups’ profits from minerals and has helped make over two-thirds of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines conflict-free. Those combined efforts have led over 8,000 combatants to disarm since M23’s defeat. Another warlord was filmed earlier this week pleading on his knees to accept his disarmament. A peace process for Congo is now beginning, led by sub-regional power Angola and supported by Feingold and U.N. Special Envoy Mary Robinson.

However, there are still major challenges to peace, which is where Kerry and Feingold can have an impact. In their trip to Congo and neighboring Angola, a focus on three issues could pay significant peace dividends.

Unfortunately, the claim that section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank-Act (the legislation referred to) has contributed to M23’s military defeat is nothing more than a misled phantasy. No single report (besides a report commissioned by the authors themselves) has provided even a glimpse of evidence for this claim. In contrary, it is traced and proven by various renowned entities, such as the UN Group of Experts, that key M23 leaders left lucrative mining areas they were assigned to as FARDC (the Congolese army) officers by joining the insurgent movement. While dozens of militias have at some point benefitted from mineral resources supplying their war chest, it is inflammatory and dangerous to claim Congo’s conflict would be about minerals in the first place. Tantalite, Tin, Tungsten, and Gold (often commonly referred to as 3TG) are a means, not a cause to conflict. As bold as it comes across, the contention that two thirds of the 3T mines are ‘conflict-free’ is not only plain wrong as my own and others’ recent field research shows. It actually borders massive mockery for the countless Congolese mining communities suffering from a de facto boycott of their products since the Dodd-Frank-Act and its advocates never came up with transitional and concomitant measures for a smooth transition in the sector as, among others, Jason Stearns has illustrated.

Further on, the 8,000 combatants originate from official records provided by the Congolese government. So far, no independent verification confirmed this number while doubts continue to flourish. The anonymous ‘warlord’ quoted by Mr. Prendergast and Mr. Lezhnev is infamous Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi. Among all the mushrooming non-state armed movements in eastern Congo, his NDC Mayi Mayi is actually one of the very few – if not the only – whose roots indeed link to mineral exploitation. However, Sheka’s genuflection in front of North Kivu governor Julien Paluku remains a mysterious story. Seen from Washington, there is no reliable indication for Sheka pleading for his disarmament. Rather, Sheka’s group remains in fact weaponed and it is unlikely that he voluntarily leaves the maquis if his ‘cahier de charges’ is not accepted (which was, according to reliable sources on the ground, the reason for Sheka being on his knees…).

First, Kerry and Feingold should urge Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to make the peace process more inclusive and to widen its agenda. A peace agreement reached by the governments will only be sustainable if Congolese people’s input is meaningfully included. Kerry and Feingold should work with the presidents to establish a feedback loop to link civil society, including women, to the high-level discussions.

The talks must also help boost conflict-free regional economic cooperation, a key to regional peace. If Congo and its neighbors can reform and integrate their economies in a more transparent manner and increase investment in the region, they will be less likely to support cross-border rebellions because they will be profiting more from legitimate business than from a war economy.

The potential profits from peace are enormous. For example, one industrial conflict-free gold mine in eastern Congo generated $115 million last year in an area that used to be rife with armed groups and illegally smuggled gold. Local communities benefited, too, as 200 miles of roads were built in the area, decreasing food prices by 30 to 50%. The possibilities are numerous: Private Congolese and regional companies could invest in infrastructure and mines, the region could develop processing plants, multinationals could bring in capital, and the regional services industry would benefit.

While it is fair to demand a more inclusive peace process and regional cooperation, the example listed rather undermines this arguments. Banro’s industrial gold mines in South Kivu – implicitly mentioned here – has so far not led to meaningful socio-economic improvements in Mwenga territory and around. The roads mainly serve corporate interests and the decreased food prices rather sound like a nice fairytale then an empirical fact (perhaps though, this holds true for Banro’s local staff…). Sara Geenen has impressively shown how dispossession and displacement due to industrial mining bear the potential for aggravating the local populations’ yet dire living conditions.

Second, the two statesmen must urge President Kabila to make progress on critical security issues and should not shy away from strong measures to back up their discussions. Kabila must break fully with the FDLR rebellion, a militia on the U.S. terrorist list. Tackling the FDLR is critical to addressing regional security, preventing a future M23, and protecting civilians. Kabila should partner with the UN peacekeepers to combat the rebellion and prosecute Congolese army officers who collaborate with it. Relatedly, Kabila must finalize agreement with donors on programs for ex-combatants, which would incentivize many more armed group fighters to defect. If concrete progress is not made, the U.S. should urge the World Bank to delay votes on the major hydroelectric Inga III dam project in Congo.

Yes. This is the one single paragraph in the whole piece that is plain right in terms of content and absolutely diligent as to the relating conclusions.

Finally, Kerry and Feingold should work to convince President Kabila to not alter the constitution to run for a third term. They should build multilateral pressure along these lines, including possible targeted sanctions. They should also urge Congo to hold local, provincial, and presidential elections and work with donors to robustly support them.

Not so bad, but the authors seem to forget how little successful the western-liberal elections dogma has been in DRC since 2006. As in many other contexts, meaningful elections need a base provided by more radical reform. This implies both a bottom-up and a top-down process (to which Mr. Prendergast and Mr. Lezhnev partly refer throughout the text so it remains nebulous why we cannot identify any farther thoughts at this point…) by which the Congolese themselves (which does not exclude donor support but emphasises local ownership) construct their country and nation. Then obviously, the term limit discussion is a smokescreen. While Kabila should allow for alternation in power, the malaise of Congo’s governance builds up on a much more capillary set of reasons and a possible retreat of the incumbent president could mean anything – from successful alternation up to the instalment of of a remote-control regime.

Forty years after the Rumble in the Jungle, the U.S. has a chance to advance the goals of peace, justice and democracy in Congo. Kerry and Feingold have an opportunity to make a far more lasting impact on Congo even than Ali and Foreman.

It remains hard to understand what Kerry & Feingold and Ali & Foreman have in common besides having travelled to Kinshasa at some point of their lives.

Please, Mr. Prendergast and Mr. Lezhnev, try to make an effort being more sensitive and attentive to the DRC’s realities. Back on Capitol Hill and in other capitals, the Congolese need thorough, candid, and – most importantly – facts-based advocacy and few are as well placed as you to assume this position. But this implies a responsible handling of ‘facts’ and facts.

6 Responses to “How John Kerry could help bring peace to Congo (…by questioning constructed and patchy arguments)”
  1. It’s really a cool and useful piece of information. I’m happy that you just shared this helpful info with us.
    Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. dominique says:

    As conditioning its “Prosperity” since 20 years, Rwanda “has to” maintain the Conflict in East DRC … by his own “Rebels” as M23, but preferably for them as by any others sourced “Rebels”/plaunderers, they can anyway finance by the monopoly they got back from USA/ (US de facto embargo + ITSCI Tags of 400 fake rwandan Mines) to launder as having become “Conflict-Free” because rwandan, the East DRC coltan, they too can buy at cheap miserable price, because the “de facto US embargo”. Please email me if you want I proove you this ITCSI Tags system is done for that = Rwanda “has to” maintain to become eternal the “Conflict” in East RDC = USA wants to keep the control of international market of Coltan : to whom it goes, at what price, for what quantities … and for how long.

  3. I personally guess that John Kerry’s visit to DRC would probably weakening and complicating the future electoral process in DRC. The ruling party dealing with uncertainty of their next candidate, hence delaying the forthcoming government of national cohesion; while opposition parties weakened by expecting to win individually: Here is my short analysis on my blog

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] the time, did not try to control mines and many leaders even left mining areas to join the group. According to Christoph Vogel, the only report to find that Dodd-Frank 1502 contributed to the defeat of M23 was commissioned by […]

  2. […] purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his […]

  3. […] purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his […]

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