Rwandan interference in the Congo is a wakeup call for US

Rwanda has proxy actors that it supports in The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Eastern Congo region. Rwanda says that it seeks security buffers because it is a small state and feels vulnerable. At the same time, Rwanda may be tempted by the mineral wealth in Eastern Congo. Many of these proxy actors have committed atrocities, undermined Congo’s sovereignty, and contributed to weakening the state capacity of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Other countries in the region, including Uganda, interfere in the DRC. The DRC government is not an innocent by-stander in all of this: in some cases the DRC supports armed opposition groups or proxy forces opposed to neighboring governments as well. However, the recent events in Eastern Congo should serve as a wake-up call for far greater engagement in the Congo by the United States.

A bipartisan, broad coalition of stakeholders in the U.S. needs to come together to ensure that outside powers stay out of DRC while also seeking changes in behavior by the DRC’s government. The U.S. needs a domestic coalition similar to the one that held for 25 years for Sudan. Any engagement in the DRC will require working with other countries inside and outside of Africa.

In an ideal world, the government in Kinshasa would have control of its entire territory. Eastern Congo has historically been fragile, with state institutions unable to perform essential administrative functions. “M23,” a Rwanda-backed group on DRC territory, has been the source of significant regional violence and instability in recent years. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), raised the alarm at the deteriorating situation in a recent statement.

The United States has a number of reasons to be more involved in the DRC. The DRC has long struggled with providing essential medical support for its citizens. U.S. medical personnel have been in the country for decades. A stable state would help address the multigenerational fight against malaria. The country still has traces of Ebola. Monkeypox’s origins are likely from the DRC.

DRC is also the source of over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt production. Cobalt is a key ingredient in developing batteries that have increased efficiency and a longer lifespan. Given the salience of mining in the global carbon transition — and China’s appetite for increased control of the world’s cobalt supply chain — the international community has a direct interest in a stable DRC that has the ability to choose from various economic partners, not just China.

Rwanda’s incursions into the DRC must be addressed. There are several steps the United States and its allies in the West could take.

Today — June 20, 2022 — the leaders of the Commonwealth are meeting at their annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be taken place in Kigali, Rwanda. The Commonwealth of Nations is a political association of 54 member countries — almost all of which have a shared legacy of being a part of the British Empire. In 2009, Rwanda became the newest (54th) member of the Commonwealth (the second time a non-former British colony was accepted into this association). Rwandan leaders will be hosting leaders from several East African countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will also be present. The summit is an opportunity to press Rwanda for a change in behavior and seeking accountability.

Rwanda will reply that it has legitimate security concerns about incursions on its territory from groups that have sanctuary in the DRC. For instance, the Rwandans say they killed a DRC soldier on Rwandan territory in the last few days. It is true that Genocidaires, the term for those that perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda, and their descendants live, and have some form of sanctuary in the remote parts of Eastern Congo. The leadership in Rwanda says Rwanda fears any possible return (however unlikely) of the Genocidaires or the allies of the Genocidaires. At the same time, Rwandans are intensely disliked in Congo, with long memories of Rwandan military incursions in the DRC within shooting distance of Kinshasa on the far Western side of the country.

Meeting the Rwandans’ security concerns would have to be done in way that ensures that the DRC does not look “weak” in front of a disliked adversary like Rwanda. This sort of solution would require very delicate diplomacy over an extended period by the U.S. and as part of a more comprehensive strategic diplomatic and assistance approach in partnership with France, Belgium, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Canada, as well as a coalition of concerned African countries.

Rwanda’s interference is part of a more extensive set of problems for DRC, which require a bipartisan willingness to spend political and diplomatic capital to help solve the severe problems of the DRC.

The U.S. had a consensus for about 25 years to confront the challenges of Sudan and South Sudan. For example, President George W. Bush — with the support of a coalition of Evangelicals, Catholics, humanitarians, and human rights progressives — provided significant diplomatic and political capital to address the challenges of Sudan over eight years. The DRC has all of the humanitarian and human rights challenges of Sudan, with far greater national security and environmental security interests at stake.If Ukraine wins the war, democracies must help keep the peaceRise of the tax machines: IRS algorithms are coming for you

To address DRC’s structural problems, the United States will need to consider a broader set of steps. First, the United States should establish a stronger diplomatic and development presence in Eastern Congo. Ideally, key European partners would do the same and, in the future, all would establish consulates. After Benghazi, opening a U.S. consulate in a dangerous place takes years. Second, there should be a Special Envoy for the DRC (and Rwanda and Uganda). The challenges of the DRC require a regional approach. We have not had a Special Envoy since J. Peter Pham in the Trump administration. Third, the United States needs to quickly identify and nominate strong ambassadors for DRC and Rwanda. Fourth, the U.S. and others should consider the future of the ongoing United Nations mission. Fifth, a “Friends of DRC” caucus of Republicans and Democrats should be convened, and the House and the Senate should hold hearings specifically on the DRC. Finally, at the upcoming African leaders’ summit, President Biden should meet with the President of the DRC bilaterally.

The immediate challenges require a longer-term approach to DRC similar to the two-decade commitment the U.S. made to Sudan. The United States government will need to dedicate more bandwidth and work with like-minded states to address these long-term challenges.

Originally published on on June 20, 2022.

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