Published in: Hartford Courant, 28 January 2001.
The assassination this month of Laurent Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, marks the end of yet another chapter in the sad history of that county.
While the exact circumstances behind this act are not yet clear, it now appears that Kabila’s attempt to further concentrate political power in the hands of his extended family led to this rupture in the fragile coalition that has held political power in Congo since 1997.
However, the specific machinations that led to Mr. Kabila’s demise are not as important as the larger regional, continental and global circumstances in which this assassination was embedded. The history of Congo one of the largest countries in Aftica, and about one fourth the size of the United States is in many ways symptomatic of the history of the African continent. And the current troubles are no exception.
Born in the greedy imagination of King Leopold of Belgium, the current boundaries of the country were fixed at the infamous Berlin conference of 1884. There, European colonial powers gave Leopold carte blanche to exploit the resources of Congo in a manner that stood out for its brutality even in the mad scramble for territory and resources that ensued.
Independence, when it came in 1960, did not mean the end of foreign influence. The killing of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in a plot hatched with the aid of the CIA set the stage for a new pattern of foreign influence, this time driven by the logic of the Cold War.
Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the more corrupt dictators in the world, was elevated to and kept in power for 30 years through an odd division of labor between France and the United States. In the name of stability and anti-communism, he was allowed to plunder the country.
When the Cold War ended, there was widespread hope that African countries including Congo would be able to resume their path toward development, and the last decade has indeed seen many hopeful signs to that effect.
In the Congo, a rebellion that had its roots in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, quickly swept through the country, ended Mobutu’s rule and brought Kabila to power in 1997. This time, the rebellion was sponsored by Uganda and Rwanda, two neighbors to the East whose leaders were rewarded with a visit by President Clinton.
However, this coalition fell apart over the complex ethnic relations in the region and, since 1998, a civil war rages involving the troops of six neighboring countries. In the background, the United States is still pulling strings, this time in the name of free trade and investment.
What is to be done? The options for the new administration are pretty clear. The death of Kabila opens the door for a renewed effort to implement the 1999 Lusaka cease-fire agreement and set the stage for the deployment of well equipped and financed United Nations peacekeepers so that the warring parties can be disarmed and the process of democratization can begin again.
The actions in Namibia (1990) and Mozambique (1994) are good examples of how to do it right. The United States can and should play an active role in this process. However, the new administration’s hostility to multilateral actions makes such a course of action unlikely. This hostility is grounded in the idea that Americans don’t care for interventions in areas that are not connected to the national interest.
So why should we concern ourselves with Congo?
Most Americans, if they know about it at all, gained that knowledge through reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible.” Both portray a country that is so far from our own experiences that it might as well be on another planet. Such distance limits personal connections and permits Congo (and much of Africa) to be reduced to the images of disaster or conflict brought to us by CNN or the TV ads of humanitarian organizations.
But the links are more concrete than we’d like to admit. There are, of course, the questions of security and stability. One of the reasons for the past active role of the United States has been the vast mineral resources of not just Congo but the entire region. Oil, diamonds, gold, copper and chromium are but a few of the vital resources the region offers.
The domestic problems of Zimbabwe, for example, are, at least in part, a consequence of the cost of its military engagement in Congo. Similar ripple effects can be expected for other countries in the region as well. The regional implications of the civil war are, therefore, serious.
Beyond such narrow notions of self-interest, there are also the uncomfortable questions of moral responsibilities. When we buy a diamond ring, we are not just buying a pretty, sparkling jewel. That diamond also represents the sweat of those who dug it up and the blood of those who were killed over it. Given the degree of past U.S. involvement, we as a country certainly owe the Congolese the opportimity for a fresh start.
Most important, we are connected to the Congolese as human beings. The national security of the United States cannot be separated from the human security of people elsewhere. The National Intelligence Council unwittingly emphasized this link in its report Global Trends 2015 last December.
That report pointed out that future threats to U.S. national security lie as much in the poverty, malnutrition and unequal distribution of resources as in conventional military threats.
Addressing the crisis in Congo through multilateral action in such a way as to permit the Congolese to finally determine their own future may well be the first opportunity of the new administration to demonstrate its global leadership. Let’s hope that this opportunity is not squandered.