Getting Congo Right: Can the West Fix Past Failures?

When New Republic editor-in-chief Chris Hughes asked Barack Obama at the beginning of 2013 how he “personally, morally” dealt with the ongoing violence in Syria, the president reminded Hughes that Syria is hardly the only urgent humanitarian crisis on earth, and deployed an African example in explaining the limits of US power in resolving global conflict: “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo? Those are not simple questions.”

The implied analogy was a peculiar one. There has been much talk about Syria, but nothing in the way of a sustained, coordinated strategy on the part of the international community. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where somewhere between 3.3 million and 5.4 million people have died over seventeen years of conflict, is one of the most intervened-in countries in the world, partly because of the policies of the United States. In 1996, the US reversed three decades of support for Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko by tacitly backing a Rwandan and Ugandan invasion of what was then called Zaire. The effort swiftly toppled Mobutu, who was once a reliable anti-communist ally, but who seemed to be tolerating the presence of Rwandan militants responsible for the 1994 genocide.

The US became a close ally and major donor to Rwanda’s Tutsi-led, post-genocide government, which has orchestrated a series of insurgencies inside Congolese territory in an effort to neutralize Hutu militias operating on the other side of the border, as well as protect Rwanda’s lucrative trafficking routes inside the DRC. The most recent of these insurgencies is the M23 rebel movement, which began when Tutsi ex-rebels, integrated into the DRC’s military under a 2009 peace agreement, defected from the army in early 2012. US aid defrayed the cost of weaponry and military equipment that elements of the Rwandan government provided to the rebels, whose actions in the DRC have displaced more than a quarter-million civilians. At the same time, the United States was also providing $500 million worth of annual funding for MONUSCO, the UN’s nineteen thousand–strong peacekeeping and “stabilization” force in Congo. Inactivity on the part of the US and its allies in Congo seems hardly to have been the problem.

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Indeed, the international community’s engagement in the DRC conflict has arguably left a twenty-year record of failure. The would-be problem solvers have orchestrated regime change, multiple peace agreements, the deployment of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation, and nearly a half-dozen smaller interventions—all of which have perpetuated the region’s ongoing misery. After nearly two decades of attention to the situation in Congo by the UN, US, and other international actors, few of the contending parties’ grievances have been resolved, hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, and diplomacy has proven incapable of producing any durable compromise or progress. The lessons from this experience are daunting: bad policy is potentially worse than no policy, and diplomatic and even military intervention doesn’t matter if international actors are unwilling to recognize or correct a prolific record of seemingly obvious failure.


There are signs that the international community is belatedly learning from its errors. In early 2013, the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a three thousand–strong “intervention brigade” that will have the ability to go on the offensive against armed groups to fulfill MONUSCO’s mandate to protect the DRC’s civilian population. Consisting of special forces from South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania, this brigade had recently established a headquarters in Goma, a city of about one million people on the Rwandan border, when I visited eastern Congo in late April. The brigade will include attack helicopters, tanks, and military intelligence personnel. It is a serious fighting force, and according to two high-ranking UN officials I spoke with, its psychological effect on armed groups in the eastern DRC has already been significant. “M23 is terrified,” one official told me. “Even the ADF is worried,” the official added, naming an armed group located in the town in Beni that in the past might have been considered too obscure to attract the attention of such a mission.

Militant groups in the eastern Congo tend to be small, local, untrained, and armed with stolen or second-hand weaponry. The intervention brigade will consist of the best soldiers from three of Africa’s more professional militaries. Its mere existence is a sign that the international community may finally be recognizing the need to bring fresh approaches to seemingly intractable problems. This new brigade will be the first force in a peacekeeping mission empowered to do anything like counter-insurgency
work, and, in a major departure from typical peacekeeping protocol, there is an expectation that the force will be able to shoot first.

Perhaps even more remarkable than the force’s aggressive mandate is the diplomacy that led to its creation and deployment. The intervention force was authorized after a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council—even though its current membership now includes Rwanda. Rwandan meddling in eastern Congo triggered the latest round of hostilities, and the country has complex political and economic interests on the other side of the Congolese border. Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda’s Tutsi leadership has supplied and underwritten a series of largely Tutsi insurgencies capable of projecting Rwandan power into the lawless vacuum next door. In the mid 1990s, this policy included systematic reprisal killings against Hutu refugees fleeing the aftermath of the genocide.

After a decades-long effort to create rebel groups on Congolese soil, Rwanda voted in favor of the intervention force, likely because of sustained US and EU pressure over Kigali’s support of M23. The EU, Great Britain, and even the US had cut aid to Rwanda the year after the M23 mutiny began—another unprecedented step among donor nations that have counted Paul Kagame’s Rwanda among their top allies in Africa.

Nor was the interventional brigade the only diplomatic breakthrough of the past year. In January of 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named former Irish President Mary Robinson as his special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa. Ban himself even visited Goma in late May, refusing to cancel his appearance in the city despite heavy fighting between M23 and the Congolese army on the city’s outskirts just the day before he arrived. Also in January, eleven African nations, including Rwanda, signed a declaration of principles with the aim of eventually resolving the DRC conflict.

It’s easy to be cynical about any Congo-related treaty: after all, M23 is named after the region’s last major peace agreement, the March 23, 2009, pact that integrated the mostly-Tutsi CNDP rebel group into the Congolese army. But at least it’s possible now to believe that, after decades of incoherence and incompetence, the international community’s focus and expectations have changed, and that the UN, along with other players capable of pressuring the conflict’s major actors, is finally serious about protecting civilians and securing a workable peace.


Any diplomatic efforts in the DRC will have to contend with a long legacy of failure. During my visit to Congo, I witnessed evidence of a few of these failures. One of the most obvious was the presence of a large peacekeeping force that lacks the ability or even the interest to fulfill its mission.

With its nearly nineteen thousand troops, MONUSCO is an especially painful reminder of the inherent shortcomings of the present UN peacekeeping model that the “intervention brigade” will have to overcome if it is to permanently change the game in the region. Although heavily armed, the MONUSCO force has actually been prevented by its civilian protection mandate from engaging insurgent groups or clearing territory. On paper, Chapter VII of the UN Charter gives the force fairly broad latitude to engage the armed groups that Rwanda has helped establish in the DRC. But in fact, major contributors to the force simply can’t risk the political fallout of any potential casualties—“the Indian ambassador was here every month at one point,” one Goma-based security expert told me. And FARDC, the Congolese military, is not only too fractured and unprofessional to act as an effective partner for the UN mission—according to a 2010 State Department report, it is also responsible for “the majority of the country’s human rights abuses.” In May 2013, it was reported that Congolese army officers had raped dozens of women, and even girls as young as six, in a town called Minova, in South Kivu Province. In a sign of the near total breakdown of order in Congo, there was little political or organizational fallout from this state-tolerated rampage.

This combination of ineffective troop contributors and predatory state partners has made for a toxic situation on the ground, engendering a kind of operational passivity that the intervention brigade is meant to correct. In M23-occupied territory, I saw hundreds of MONUSCO troops on patrol, including a ten-truck convoy of blue helmets and several tanks.

On the one hand, the peacekeepers were fulfilling their mission by making sure that humanitarian corridors remained open and providing a potential tripwire in the event of any future, Rwandan-backed offensive along the countries’ porous border region. Yet although there are ten times as many soldiers in MONUSCO as there are in M23, the peacekeeping force isn’t designed to engage in traditional war-fighting activities. Thus MONUSCO, in its pre-intervention brigade form, simply appeared to maintain a baseline of security—a baseline that didn’t in fact exist for certain ethnic or political groups living under M23’s control.


In November of 2012, MONUSCO essentially allowed M23 to occupy Goma after the Congolese military refused to defend the city during a major offensive. The attack turned out to be a pivotal moment in regional affairs. Goma is essential to UN and NGO operations in the region. It is home to more than one million people, with large populations of every major regional ethnic group. The city is also a hub for the DRC’s lucrative mineral trade, as well as a strategically crucial air and lake port. Until November, experts and policymakers believed that insurgents wouldn’t target Goma because of the economic and political fallout such a provocative move would entail. But then M23 showed up with “equipment they certainly didn’t have before,” in the words of one UN official, including night-vision goggles and state-of-the-art communications gear. Heavily armed Rwandan commandos reportedly joined in the offensive as well.

The UN’s decision not to defend the city is understandable: because of its restraint, there was no street-to-street fighting and few civilian casualties, which probably would not have been the case if MONUSCO had gotten involved. And it’s arguable that it should not be the responsibility of Egyptians and Indians to act as a de facto Congolese military—especially when the actual Congolese military makes the conscious choice not to defend its own territory. M23 soon left the city anyway, after eleven days of intense international pressure, including back-channel diplomacy between the US and Rwanda.

But from another perspective, the November crisis crystallized MONUSCO’s failure and showed that during the year-long M23 crisis, the UN force has been little more than an interested spectator.

It also served as a reminder that US policies in the region have struck a disquieting balance between principle and expediency. Because it supported M23, Washington cut Rwanda’s military aid by $250,000 during the summer of 2012. This was a brushback to the Kagame government, which is on the whole considered a responsible steward of aid money. (Rwanda scores higher on the Corruption Perceptions Index than all but three other African nations—Mauritius, Botswana, and Cape Verde.) But while the aid reduction was meant as a warning from one friend to another, it still represented a tiny portion of the roughly $196 million Rwanda gets annually from the US. And as the M23 crisis burgeoned, American officials carefully avoided publicly connecting Rwanda to the havoc the insurgent group was wreaking inside the DRC. UN Ambassador Susan Rice even went so far as to block the explicit naming of Rwanda as M23’s sponsor in a Security Council resolution offered after the November attack on Goma.


The confused response to the Goma escalation is a microcosm for the general arc of American policy in Central Africa. After supporting brutally non-democratic governments, such as that of Mobutu Sese Seko, as bulwarks against the spread of communism, America actually facilitated regime change against one of its closest regional allies in the mid-1990s. As recounted in journalist Howard French’s A Continent for the Taking, the Clinton administration helped expedite rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila’s path to the Congolese presidency without really knowing much about him. It quickly became clear that Kabila was no democrat, and Washington’s relationship with his government, and with that of his son Joseph, who has been president since his father’s assassination in 2001, has been chilly. This hasn’t stopped the US from pouring more than $225 million in aid into the DRC annually, on top of more than $500 million a year for the MONUSCO peacekeepers.

Over the course of multiple presidential administrations, the US has botched its response to the DRC’s problems, despite having every motivation to get it right (Rwanda is a major ally; stability in its relations with the DRC would patch a gaping security void in the resource-rich heart of Africa). This is in part because of the inherent complications on the ground. From MONUSCO’s perspective, the Congolese state is both a partner and human rights abuser; for the US, Rwanda is both a close friend and, at this point, the conflict’s primary instigator.

Until the deployment of the intervention brigade in 2013, there had been a desire for peace without a willingness to provide the resources or the political and moral clarity needed to secure it. MONUSCO could have fulfilled the Chapter VII mandate of protecting civilians, but only at the expense of the lives of some of its personnel. The US could have threatened a complete cutoff of aid to Rwanda, but not without incurring diplomatic penalties that were deemed costlier than tolerating an ongoing low-intensity guerrilla war.

The DRC is hardly the only situation in which the international community and the major powers have compromised their desire for peace by stubbornly adhering to incoherent and contradictory policies. Yet Congo might be proof that a course correction is possible. The current push for peace comes with its own potential hazards: the success of the intervention brigade is contingent on the cooperation of the undisciplined Congolese military, and a future peace will likely hinge on whether the US and other donors are willing to use whatever leverage they have in Rwanda to keep President Kagame’s government in line. But there is reason for a fragile hope in central Africa. Perhaps the moral imperative to recognize and correct chronically bad policy will be the one positive part of the otherwise grim legacy of one of the costliest conflicts on earth.

Armin Rosen is a freelance writer based in New York.

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