Congo’s Army and the Death of (US) Sanctions

Last Friday, Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi ordered the first major army reshuffle since he assumed office in early 2019. Read as part of a four-hours live-televised litany on national TV, the main outcome is a heavy rotation through numerous army branches and command posts. Perhaps most relevant is the dismissal of long-standing Inspector-General John Numbi, one of only two four-star generals on active duty in the Congolese military, the FARDC. Numbi was replaced by Gabriel Amisi, who also joined the small club of full Generals alongside Numbi and Celestin Mbala, who remains the FARDC’s Chief of Staff. The reshuffle also brought a number of other promotions (in ranks) and reassignments (in functions).

Here are some of the most noteworthy changes: Major-Generals Masunzu, Philémon Yav, Jean-Claude Yav, Ilunga Kampete, Fall Sikabwe and Charles Akili Mundos are promoted to Lieutenant-Generals. Mundos joins Amisi as deputy Inspector-General, meaning that both of them will leave the previous operational postings but increased their clout in the army’s administrative management. Jean-Claude Yav becomes Mbala’s deputy in the Army Chief of Staff while Sikabwe is named Chief of Staff of the Land Forces. Masunzu and Philémon Yav take control of two of Congo’s defence zones, the third one to be run by Lieutenant-General Luboya Kashama.

So, why did all that happen, and what does this tell us about the management of security in the Congo overall?

The reshuffle does not come at an unusual moment. The last one of this size happened around two years ago, then still under former President Joseph Kabila. Incumbent Félix Tshisekedi thus far only operated minor changes, most notably in the Republican Guard, Congo’s small wing of praetorians tasked to protect the Presidency. So far so good. It is not unusual either that except for John Numbi, most key securocrats either retain or marginally change positions.

However, the reshuffle happens at a time of intense political uncertainty. From the passing of Major-General Delphin Kahimbi, the late head of military intelligence, to the landmark graft trial sentencing Vital Kamerhe (who still is, nominally, Chief of Staff to the President) and the recent rumblings over legislation and political posts – all of this happening against the backdrop of a confused COVID19 situation in the country – Congo newsbirds did not have much time to lean back this year. The makeshift CaCh coalition between Tshisekedi’s UDPS and Kamerhe’s UNC is under strain, and so is the fragile arrangement between CaCh and the FCC coalition around former President Kabila’s PPRD party. While CaCh occupies the Presidency, FCC has cracking legislative majorities in the National Assembly and the Senate. Intriguingly, this means that for the first time under the current Constitution, there is a de facto separation of power between executive and legislative branches the State. Yet, commentators fiercely debate whether any of that is case for the judiciary and the army, or realpolitik at large.

The army reshuffling, for its part, reads like a continuation of the status quo and rather an exercise of musical chairs than a real change of guards. One Congolese analyst remarked it came neatly after a major FCC-CaCh controversy that finally led to the resignation of Justice Minister Tunda Ya Kasende, a Kabila ally under threat to be fired by Tshisekedi. As such, it could be read as a balancing game, with Kabila accepting Tunda’s departure in exchange for a less revolutionary army reshuffle. At the same time, Congo’s political forces keep wrangling over the designation of a new head of the country’s electoral commission. FCC-sponsored candidate Ronsard Malonda is supported by parliamentary leaders Jeanine Mabunda (assembly) and Thambwe Mwamba (senate). The Tshisekedi camp has reacted by siding with opposition and civil society forces opposing Malonda and co-organised major demonstrations in the past two weeks.

Is all of this part of a larger bargaining? And, how are foreign actors positioning themselves in a rapidly moving environment?

There may be no conclusive answers as to the first question, except for roaming through the antechambers of decision-making, but if the army reshuffle has made one thing clear, it is the death of US sanctions, and perhaps sanctions more broadly. Having remained silent as to allegations of electoral fraud, American diplomacy has shown no ambiguity in their support for Tshisekedi ever since. Riding on a confrontational anti-Kabila wave, key US officials in Congo policy have spared no occasion to verbally lash out against the Kabila side. When former military intelligence chief and Kabila confidante Kahimbi was detained (and found dead a day later), US ambassador Mike Hammer and then-Special Envoy J. Peter Pham cheered publicly at the news. Kahimbi was under US and EU sanctions. Now, John Numbi – arguably even more a Kabila ally then Kahimbi was – finds himself dismissed and object of a series of morbidly cheerful tweets by those very US officials. Numbi as well, is under US and EU sanctions. Yet, the unwarranted congratulations offered to Tshisekedi by Tibor Nagy, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, raise more questions than answers. Numbi, a sanctioned individual was not only replaced by another individual under the very same sanctions. He was dismissed in the same way he’s been dismissed a decade ago when his potential involvement in the killing of Human Rights advocate Floribert Chebeya became too much a burden for maintaining him. Ever since, he returned and at this point – like in 2011 – his future a matter of crystal balls.

US officials Nagy, Pham and Hammer (both of whom followed suit, cheering over Numbi’s departure) wilfully forget that their very own sanctions are not only targeting Numbi and his successor Amisi, but also half of Congo’s military top brass who got promotions and new positions a few days ago. This is a dangerous precedent in many ways. First of all, it lessens credibility of US foreign policy on Congo. Famous for posting selfies eating grilled chicken with mayonnaise, US ambassador Mike Hammer seems to have either no command over what US sanctions are and who is facing them, or – worse even – taking Congolese citizens for fools by pretending something that is not the case. His colleagues Pham and Nagy exhibit a similar mix of arrogance and incompetence. That’s a pity for the Congo, but also a worrying sign in the long history of US foreign policy in the country, with chapters as low as plotting the murder of independence hero Patrice Emery Lumumba to brighter moments such as in bringing skilled diplomats such as ambassadors Swing and Swan, or more currently, MONUSCO’s excellent deputy head David Gressly to the Congo.

Beyond US policy writ small, this episode also raises a series of more general questions over the meaning and usefulness of sanctions. Let’s look at this step by step. Scholars and policy-makers across the globe broadly agree that collective sanctions are not only useless, but extremely harmful in terms of human rights and well-being. Such sanctions have become rare these days, exceptions including Iran, North Korea and Cuba – all of which sanctioned en bloc by the US. The result has been a radicalisation of regimes (like in Iran or North Corea) or international embarrassment for the US (such as with Cuba, capable to run a more efficient healthcare system than the US despite the sanctions). Individual sanctions, in turn, are often hailed as a panacea. In the Congolese case, three major individual sanctions regimes currently exist and target individual human beings or entities, such as companies: US, EU and UN. All of them entail asset freezes, travel bans and other secondary measures.

While US and EU sanctions saw a heyday in the run-up to Congo’s latest polls in late 2018, UN sanctions have been part of more constant process ever since a sanctions regime and partial military embargo was put in place in 2004. These sanctions are comparatively well-founded because they are based on in-depth investigations by a Security Council-mandated Group of Experts that provides first-hand evidence. Still, UN sanctions is highly uneven and very poorly implemented. Based on files compiled by UN experts and additional evidence (which can be open-source or other), the UN Security Council designates individuals and entities at its own gusto. This means, files can slumber for years if not forever in New York before a majority of the Security Council agrees to proceed. Hence, those committing sanctionable offences will be sanctioned only if political will allows for it. Moreover, the UN Group of Experts has in recent years experienced budget cuts, limiting its capacity to follow up on all potential cases, while its operational range of manoeuvre is seriously constrained since the murder of two UN investigators in Kasai region in 2017.

EU sanctions rely on publicly available information and therefore tend to be based on less precise evidence. Often, reports of organisations like Human Rights Watch are the most detailed information underpinning a decision. For reasons other than with the UN, EU sanctions are partial too: they are applied not as part of a continuous process but punctually for political reasons (e.g. an upcoming election). That means, offenders get sanctioned only if their offences are committed in the context of a situation of political interest. They may commit the same offences at another time and will not face the same threats. The same can be said of US sanctions, although American foreign policy is generally more eager to use sanctions as a tool. Bottom line, sanctions face a significant problem of substance and quality but this is not the only problem.

Most sanctions are applied unevenly, or not at all. In theory, any of the discussed sanctions regimes involves tangible consequences, such as asset freezes and travel bans. In theory, asset freezes work through harmonised international banking information systems. But loopholes are legion. Sanctions professionals have been working tirelessly to stem the use of aliases and family members by sanctioned individuals, and to trace changes in company names or the proliferation of companies and sub-companies related to sanctioned individuals. Some banks and regulators, moreover, simply don’t care or forget to cross-check against violations. This involves known “sanctions havens” as well as so-called “progressive” Western countries. Travel bands face similar loopholes. Despite the fact that, in theory, Interpol alerts should beep as sanctioned individuals cross borders, cases in which these are actually identified, hindered or sent back, are rare. This has to do with challenges in tracing fake passports, collusion of certain countries in issuing fake documents and mere laissez-faire.

So, what does that mean for Congo, for US and international foreign policy, and sanctions at large?

Whether UN, EU or US, the actual impact of sanctions has never been proven for the Congo. That’s because it is actually a very difficult thing to measure sanctions effectiveness beyond cursory examples and spurious correlation. Sanctions have been credited with pushing former President Kabila and his entourage to allow for elections and a peaceful transfer of power. Yet, at a second how, it is difficult to gauge whether it were the sanctions or any other pressure, and to what extent the current situation is an actual transfer of power. Then, sanctions remain poorly implemented for general reasons stated just above, but also the Congo’s particular conjuncture and situation. Some of Congo’s banks are only indirectly linked to the international US Dollar currency systems of movement and oversight. Some sanctioned individuals in Congo do not even travel or operate through banks. Most others regularly find ways to undermine the various sanctions regimes with techniques highlighted above and others. Many sanctioned individuals are not bothered at all. I’ve been sitting with some of them and done interviews and while a few showed anger and disappointment, many simply laughed the question away as I asked them about any impact. Many more, even, have committed such offences did never face sanctions and most likely never will because they are neither on the radar nor in the interest of sanctions-issuing bodies.

Reforming Congo’s security sector is unlikely to happen under a foreign impulse. Ailing sanctions regimes are as much proof for this than millions spent in large bilateral and multilateral project. If at all, bancarisation projects to establish cash-less payment of army and police units have had some tangible success. Now, does that mean sanctions should be abolished altogether? Maybe not. However, there is enormous work to be done to make them actually smart (because to date, they aren’t) and effective. There is enormous work to be done as well on the political side. In a global trend of anti-globalisation and a decrease of international cooperation to the benefit of authoritarianism and nationalism, sanctions have serious reputational issues among many populations across the globe, including amongst Congolese. As long as sanctions are by and large dependent on political tastes of powerful countries, it will be hard to sell them as technical, evidence-based measures.

Unfortunately, the problematic triumvirate of Trump envoys to the Congo has just put one more nail in the coffin of sanctions. Twitter-kudos to the Congolese government for replacing one sanctioned army commander with another, while the bulk of them remain in highest honours and positions does not say so much about the generals in question. However, it highlights the level of ridiculousness and the lack of professionalism on the sides of those who are supposed to intelligently, diligently and carefully navigate their toolbox of foreign policy measures. It also shows disdain for the Congolese people, unnecessarily selling them as as success what Kinshasa’s population has aptly called deshabiller St. Pierre pour habiller St Paul (undress St Peter to dress St Paul). In other words, a statement void of meaning and effect. Nagy, Pham and Hammer have done no service the Congo, and none either to the broader global fight against impunity and for human rights and democratisation. Perhaps, over a copious dish of grilled chicken and mayonnaise, they will eventually contemplate the consequences of their ill-guided actions. We shall remain hopeful.


2 Responses to “Congo’s Army and the Death of (US) Sanctions”
  1. henrydelforn says:

    Only care about the U.S. Constitution, call me selfish. It’s a no-brainer between collective sanctions and individual sanctions, collective sanctions are repugnant to the Constitution. They are generally discriminatory, have aspects of bill of attainder, violate due process clause, and equal protection clause, and oppress economic liberty across the board. It’s shotgun versus sniper, God bless the U.S. Constitution and all the inferred unenumerated inalienable rights. DONT TREAD ON ME.

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