What the US can do for Congo - and itself

As the Bush administration keeps the world guessing about the extent of its involvement in Liberia, other African crises beg for US attention. During President Bush's sub-Saharan tour, South African President Thabo Mbeki rightly asserted that Africans must solve the conflicts plaguing the continent. This is encouraging, but it should not excuse America from engagement in Africa's myriad crises, in particular its gravest, that of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

With the fledgling transitional DRC government already faltering, the Bush administration faces a rare opportunity to support a lasting political resolution to the Congolese tragedy.

Recent estimates hold at least 3.3 million to have died in the DRC since August 1998 -the largest mortality figure in any conflict since World War II, and equivalent to the number of Sept. 11 deaths every day for three years, in a country whose population is one-fifth that of the US. Recent waves of systematic civilian slaughter around the northeastern town of Bunia have killed upwards of 5,000 and forced the displacement of 500,000, according to Human Rights Watch.

A robust peacekeeping mandate is one aspect of the solution. There is an 8,700-troop United Nations peacekeeping mission operating throughout the DRC. And the 1,500-troop French-led multinational force now arriving in Bunia will be charged with protecting civilians locally.

A measure of their desperation, the Congolese are pinning all their hopes on this foreign presence. In the DRC, as in Liberia, peacekeepers may contain and even stem the bloodshed, but they can't remain indefinitely. Ultimately, their role in implementing the political stability necessary for the country's reconstruction, including justice for atrocities committed, will be minimal.

Three previous peace agreements have purported to end the five-year-old war - all were violated. Yet hope springs eternal for the Congolese: On June 30, President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa announced a new transitional government, based on a power-sharing agreement signed in Pretoria last year. Pending national elections in 2005, the interim authority will consist of members from the current administration, various rebel movements, unarmed political opposition groups, civil society, and leaders of the Mayi-Mayi armed child-soldier factions from the East. Cause for celebration? Not quite. Successful prospects for the new government are slim.

Providing that current delays and last-minute disputes are resolved, upon inauguration the interim government will receive $120 millionin foreign assistance for its troubles, plus accolades and legitimation from the international community. Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, the coffers of international donors will open, dumping untold millions for national reconstruction into the hands of Kinshasa ministers - former rebel leaders for whom thuggery and thievery are natural political instincts. Also probable is a continuation of the proxy war in the east, where armed factions are slugging it out on the local level. So far, there are no accountability mechanisms - such as adherence to a cease-fire or support for the Ituri Pacification Commission - written into international recognition of the interim authority, nor are future monies contingent on its ability to end conflict, and govern its people and resources transparently.

Lest we forget Zaire (now Congo) and its long-time dictator and staunch American ally during the cold war, Mobutu Sese Seko, chances are that the new Kinshasa administration, a hydra-headed amalgam of former warlords and political neophytes, will set off another kleptocratic frenzy in Central Africa.

Responsibility for peacekeeping and regional conflict resolution should fall to Africans, as Mr. Mbeki says. A multinational task force arriving now in Bunia, with a significant African contingent, is a positive step in this direction. But for the US to take this as an excuse to disengage from the political dimension of the Congolese saga is myopic at best. Next door in neighboring Sudan, US envoy John Danforth's involvement in Kenyan-led peace negotiations and cease-fire monitoring provides a relevant model of how the US can positively influence the transitional government in Kinshasa.

Precisely because regional involvement in peacekeeping operations and cease-fire monitoring is no guarantee against further turmoil, the Bush administration should engage and guide the policies and priorities of the new Kinshasa government, a coaching effort not unlike US work in Sudan. Man-made suffering and the cycles of impunity in distant lands are never irrelevant to US interest, because they do affect Americans eventually, and rarely positively.

The DRC is highly remote from US interest - much as Somalia and Afghanistan once were. Disregard for the extreme suffering and political failure in those countries doubtless reinforced their geopolitical irrelevance for a time, but such an approach led, inexorably, to those situations becoming critical enough to warrant US military intervention. The world's least relevant, most disastrous contexts have a way of leaping into our laps despite our best efforts to ignore them.

Edward B. Rackley has worked since 1988 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) with the Peace Corps, Mines Advisory Group, Doctors Without Borders, and the UN. He is a global health consultant with Millian Byers Associates.

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