Clinton's challenge in Congo

To stop the human-rights tragedy, she'll have to address the political scam.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a tragedy. It's also a vast, organized scam. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived there today. If she doesn't address the scam, the suffering will not end.

Congo is a tragedy for reasons that many know well, including the 5 million who have died from conflict since 1998, the thousands gang-raped by soldiers and rebels, and nearly 2 million who've been displaced from their homes. Add to that a population of more than 60 million citizens suffering from the state's chronic inability to provide safety, dignity, and anything close to development. Progress has been painfully slow. A so-called democratic transition, six years of postconflict intervention, billions in foreign aid, and some 20,000 UN soldiers have done little to end the violence.

A major reason for this tragedy is that Congo's governance resembles a racket. Its politicians and administrators are mostly corrupt, getting rich from keeping their state dysfunctional, and promoting local violence to serve their interests. Throughout the country, people in positions of state authority systematically dominate and extract resources from those below them, all under the guise of sovereign power.

Congo presents Mrs. Clinton with the most daunting challenges and greatest opportunities of her seven-country trip to Africa. Yet outsiders have too often made things worse by cajoling and rewarding rapacious politicians and soldiers, reinforcing rather than abating the authority of a criminal state. Recent UN-supported operations against Rwandan Hutu rebels, for example, have encouraged the deployment of unpaid and poorly trained soldiers who loot, rape, and terrorize more than they protect.

Although Clinton will speak against "gender-based violence," and Congress has approved a $15 million project for a "professional rapid reaction force" of Congolese trained in "the fundamental principles of respect for human rights," this is unlikely to achieve much. Soldiers terrorize because they, like other state officials, benefit from near total impunity; they steal because their officers and politicians hijack their pay; and they rape because it is an easy way to control and dominate civilians.

It is only by exposing and stopping the scam that Congo's tragedy will end. The more we contribute to rebuilding the state, however, the more we inadvertently restore authoritarianism, domination, and predation, features that have characterized Congo since its creation by Leopold II of Belgium in 1885. However failed a state Congo might be, Clinton must avert uncritically embracing its rebirth.

What can she do? First, she must exert vigorous pressure on Congo and Rwanda to neutralize once and for all the remaining 5,000 or so Hutu rebels and their genocidal leaders, who have wreaked havoc in the Kivu provinces since being chased out of Rwanda in 1994. In addition to their own atrocious exactions on local populations, these rebels have provided the trigger for larger conflicts in the area, and the motivation for the formation of many xenophobic Congolese militias. The Rwandan Army is best suited to do this, and it should do so under the authority of the UN. Belgium or France, which have significant historical responsibility in this conflict, should also participate. United States Africa Command can play a logistical role and redeem itself from its association with botched operations against the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Congo in 2008.

Second, the current policy of integrating defecting rebels into an ever-growing and ever-more-dangerous military must be abandoned. Eventually, the Kivu provinces must be demilitarized.

Yet no lasting peace will come until the power of the state to dominate and predate is curbed. The US must more forcefully support Congolese human rights groups in pushing back the overwhelming culture of impunity. Local self-help initiatives, which have sustained people during years of state truancy, must be encouraged as they provide the foundations of accountable state reconstruction. Simultaneously, the legal authority of local state agents must be curtailed. A land reform would deprive chiefs of the opportunity to give land to their ethnic kin, which feeds inter-communal grievances.

Finally, rather than sinking more aid in the quagmire of Congolese corruption, the US should help create a manufacturing sector that would deflate the importance of land and public office, and offer youth an alternative to warfare. Congolese labor is cheap. Rwanda, whose leadership has visions of becoming an African Singapore, could help create a free-trade zone with eastern Congo. Congo would then become eligible for the many benefits of the US African Growth Opportunity Act, which Clinton has promoted throughout her trip. Together, these efforts may finally give the country a fighting chance to escape misery.

Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics at Pomona College, is the author of "Africa: Unity, Sovereignty, and Sorrow" as well as three other books on African politics. He's visited Congo four times, most recently in 2005.

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