AFRICA POLICYThe Continental Congo Crisis By JAMES H. BARNETT

If the United States and its allies wish to
ameliorate the current insecurity in the DRC, they must first understand how
deeply interconnected its problems are with the wider geopolitics of the

zones are by nature rather tense, unpleasant places, but the actual significance
of any particular border is simply a reflection of the politics of the region.
An incursion by soldiers into the Korean Demilitarized Zone or along the border
of Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, will have profound geopolitical consequences,
while we would probably not be too perturbed if we learned tomorrow that some
drunken members of the Guardia Civil had accidentally stumbled into

The Congolese-Rwandan border is one of those
with tremendous geopolitical significance, which makes last week’s reports
that Rwandan troops crossed over and killed five
Congolese soldiers especially disconcerting news, even from a region most
Westerners already associate with biblical scales of calamity. In no other part
of the continent is the geopolitical situation so opaque, the nature of borders
so porous, and the flow of displaced people so weaponized as in the eastern
provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The past two decades of
turbulent Congolese history have been propelled by invasion, proxy warfare,
interethnic strife spilling across arbitrary borders, and African statesman who
have seen little interest in anything but a weak state in Sub-Saharan Africa’s
largest, most resource-rich country.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide catalyzed two
catastrophic wars in the DRC (then Zaire), the second of which was dubbed
“Africa’s World War” due to the involvement of nine African nations and a death
toll between 2.7 and 5.4 million. And in many ways, the
Second Congo War never really ended—as evidenced by the United Nations’
announcement this past October that the humanitarian situation in the DRC
constituted a Level 3 emergency, on par with Syria, Iraq, and

At present, roughly 120 armed groups operate in eastern DRC alone,
necessitating the presence of the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, MONUSCO.
The Congolese security sector is in shambles, with the fractious and corrupt
Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) acting as a vehicle for political patronage for
erstwhile warlords of questionable loyalty. The Congolese state is
further weakened by a dearth of infrastructure within the vast country and the
combined effects of neopatrimonialism, interethnic tension, and secessionism,
all working together to undermine the nation’s social cohesion.

Meanwhile, the political situation continues
to deteriorate over President Joseph Kabila’s desperate, illegal machinations to
cling to power through the delaying of elections, dubbed Glissement (“slippage”) by Congolese. The
longer this process goes on, the greater the opportunity for warlords with
parochial politico-economic interests to rebrand themselves as national
political figures. This has already happened in the fascinating case of the
racketeer-turned-“liberator” William Yakutumba, and the trend shows signs
of spreading. As the chief of mission for the International Organization for
Migration in Congo recently noted, “Whilst initially some of these
armed groups were in it for themselves—they would burn a village, and pillage,
rape, burn and scorch the earth—it seems now that they have more of a political
agenda.” It may seem absurd to suggest that an obscure militia operating in the
jungle 500 miles from Kinshasa could overthrow the President, but such
rebellions have historically been vehicles for the Congo’s neighbors to attempt
regime change.

As seemingly intractable and remote as the
DRC’s problems are, the United States has humanitarian, economic, and political
interests in managing the multifarious conflicts within Congolese borders. For
example, any conflict that spills over into Uganda or Burundi consequently
affects multinational efforts against Al Shabaab in
Somalia. More importantly, a reversion to widespread interstate warfare in
Central Africa would undermine the fragile progress made in building up
collective security mechanisms and diplomatic forums in Africa.

If the United States and its allies wish to
ameliorate or at least contain the current insecurity in the DRC, they must
first understand how deeply interconnected the country’s problems are with the
wider geopolitics of the region—and how limited Western influence over relevant
Congolese actors may be. Because the DRC’s crisis rebounds on its neighbors in
such complex and often contradictory ways, we should ask ourselves if and how
other African states may play a role in peacefully pushing the Congolese
President aside—which demands a fresh analysis of the region’s most
consequential stakeholders.

Southern Powers: Zimbabwe, Angola, and South Africa

leadership to the DRC’s south will play a significant role in determining if and
how President Kabila exits the political stage. The Southern African Development
Community (SADC) has thus far tolerated Kabila’s election delays in large part
because two of its most influential members, Zimbabwe and Angola, are long-time
backers of Kabila. Robert Mugabe was one of the closest allies of Joseph’s
father, the late President Laurent Kabila. During the Second Congo War, Mugabe
and then-President of Angola Jose Eduardo dos Santos airlifted hundreds of
troops into Kinshasa to defend Laurent Kabila’s fledgling regime from an
onslaught of Congolese rebels and Rwandan and Ugandan forces. Throughout the
course of the war, Mugabe provided between $260 million and
 in military assistance to the fledgling regime in return for
lucrative mining and timber contracts for Mugabe’s clique.

One of those cronies, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is
Zimbabwe’s new president following a November coup that finally sidelined
Africa’s most notorious nonagenarian dictator. Another is Major General SB Moyo, reportedly one of the key
nodes in the coup plotters’ network, and Mnangagwa’s Minister of Foreign
Affairs. We should be under no illusions about the nature of the new Zimbabwean
leadership. The country remains an effective one-party state under ZANU-PF, and
Mnangagwa needs to ensure the loyalty of the party elites who helped him usurp
the presidency.

Due to its own economic collapse, Zimbabwe
significantly scaled back its role in the Congolese mining sector in the early
2000s, although there are rumors that Zimbabweans continue to serve in Joseph
Kabila’s bodyguard. Mnangagwa is economically savvier and less of an
international pariah than his predecessor, and is thus looking to jumpstart
Zimbabwe’s economy with more foreign investment and international debt relief.
Assuming Zimbabwe’s fortunes rise as the DRC’s decrease, we can expect Mnangagwa
to look for ways to reinsert ZANU-PF into the most lucrative sectors of the
Congolese economy. The question is whether he will see
Kabila’s Glissement as a means of ensuring a trusted friend remains in
power in Kinshasa, or as a foolish, unsustainable gambit which threatens
Zimbabwean investments. Needless to say, Kabila would be foolish to put too much
faith in a man Zimbabweans have dubbed “The Crocodile.”

Angola’s long-serving dictator, dos Santos,
also left office last year, although in his case the decision was voluntary.
Like Zimbabwe, Angola remains a militarized one-party state, and the new
president, João Lourenço, is a general and former Minister of
Defence. Angola’s interests in the DRC are largely economic as much of its oil,
which accounts for over 90 percent of its exports, is located in Congolese
waters or in Cabinda, an enclave separated from the Angolan
mainland by a strip of Congolese territory. Angolan foreign policy is also
heavily informed by historical considerations: For decades, enemies of the
ruling MPLA party operated with impunity from the Congo, nearly overthrowing the
regime on several occasions.

Angola has been a key backer of Kabila since
the day he took office in 2001, even though Angola is also one of the prime
suspects in the assassination of Kabila’s father—a testament to the often
unscrupulous nature of regional politics. In 2006, Angolan troops flew to Kinshasa to defend the younger Kabila,
this time as the President’s bodyguards were fighting troops loyal to
warlord-turned-politician Jean Pierre Bemba following a contested election.
Angola’s support has shown signs of waning of late, however. A new and
terrifying conflict in the DRC’s previously calm south-central province of
—prompted by Kabila’s ham-handed attempts to replace hereditary
chieftains with political cronies—has led to a massive influx of refugees into
neighboring Angola. The Angolan government has been understandably concerned by
these developments, to say nothing of a number of massive prison breaks near the Angolan border, and
reportedly played a role in pushing Kabila to accept the December 2016 San
Sylvestre agreement with the opposition. Kabila has since reneged his end of the deal. Perhaps more than any
of the Congo’s other neighbors, Angola needs a modicum of stability in the
DRC.Unpredictable as Angolan foreign policy can be, we can safely assume that
Lourenço will not back a losing horse in Kinshasa, and that is exactly what
Kabila looks like these days.

Finally, South Africa has a new President who
appreciates the importance of his country’s international standing better than
the recently resigned Jacob Zuma. While South Africa has not traditionally
played as significant a role in the DRC’s internal affairs as Zimbabwe or
Angola, the country is a pivotal diplomatic force on the continent and has been
a key broker in previous negotiations within the Great Lakes region. (Thabo
Mbeki oversaw the 2002 Pretoria Accord between Rwanda and the DRC). South Africa
is also the biggest player in the SADC. Where Zuma had tolerated
Kabila’s Glissement for reasons both ideological (who are former
colonial powers to lecture Africans on democracy?) and practical (Zuma’s nephew
was named in the Panama Papersas a major investor in Congolese oil
fields), Cyril Ramaphosa enters office looking to reclaim the nation’s role as a
pragmatic arbiter of regional disputes. He will need to tread carefully: The
issue of term limits is a very sensitive one in African politics these days, and
he needs good relations with his neighbors as much as he does with the West.
Still, subtle diplomatic efforts to push Kabila out the door could earn South
Africa some much needed international goodwill.

Eastern Front: Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda

the DRC’s east, Burundi remains in the midst of a protracted crisis that at points
has appeared dangerously close to civil war. For the past three years, President
Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, has stoked ethnic resentment in attempts to
dismantle a broad-based, multi-ethnic coalition that challenged his decision to
run for a controversial third term. Roughly
2,000 people have been killed
 (overwhelmingly by state security forces),
another 10,000 arrested, and nearly 400,000 have fled the country, including to
the DRC. UN and African Union efforts to resolve the crisis have stalled and
Burundi has rejected African Union peacekeepers and observers. In September, at
least 36 Burundian refugees were killed in clashes with Congolese security
forces in South Kivu, sparking a diplomatic row between the two neighbors. Given
the role Burundi’s internal conflicts have played in Congolese history
(anti-Hutu pogroms in 1972 and civil war from 1993-2006 saw hundreds of
thousands of refugees crossing into the Kivus, radically altering local
ethno-political dynamics), any further fallout from Burundi’s upcoming elections and proposed constitutional amendmenton presidential
term limits is liable to spill into the DRC.

After Kabila, no men will probably be more
influential in determining the future of the DRC than Rwandan President Paul
Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Both presidents have their
separate interests, but their personal histories are intertwined and their
worldviews reflect a similar hard-earned cynicism from years fighting in the
bush. Kagame was Museveni’s chief of intelligence when the latter was a rebel
commander in the 1980s. Several years after Museveni usurped the Ugandan
presidency, Kagame invaded Rwanda with his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels, sparking a
civil war with the Hutu extremist government in Kigali. In 1994, it was the RPF
who ended the 100-day genocide by pushing the Hutu genocidaires into the Congo
as the world stood watching. The repressive state model and militaristic foreign
policy of post-genocide Rwanda is Kagame’s response to what he sees as the utter
failure of democracy and international law to save his people.

Together, Kagame and Museveni have twice
invaded the Congo, once gone to war with each other (over the conduct of the
second invasion and control of the Congo’s natural resources), and to this day
are both heavily invested in ensuring that perceived threats to their regimes
are held at bay within the DRC’s borders, rather than their own.

Trilateral relations between the DRC and its
two powerful neighbors to the east remain frosty, although they began to improve
slightly in 2013. Kagame and Museveni have heretofore tolerated
Kabila’s Glissement for their own practical purposes. Kagame won re-election for a third term last
August after his party pushed for a constitutional amendment (ratified by
popular vote) that eliminated term limits. Museveni has been in power since
1986, and his party recently voted to scrap presidential age limits to allow the
73 year old to run again in 2021, a move that sparked an angry brawl in the Ugandan parliament.
Understandably, both leaders are reluctant to see either the African Union or
Western powers take a hard line on electoral malfeasance in the DRC, lest it set
a precedent for the rest of the continent.

Kabila’s relatively cordial relations with
Rwanda and Uganda these past few years have been a historic aberration, and they
look set to deteriorate as the situation in the DRC unravels. Uganda’s decision
to moderate its meddling in eastern DRC was in response to supposedly
significant progress against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)—a vaguely
Islamist Ugandan rebel group—on the part of the FARDC and MONUSCO’s new Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a muscular
peacekeeping unit with a more aggressive mandate. This progress was illusory.
MONUSCO hastily cut its budget in 2017, leading to the premature closure of peacekeeping bases in ADF
areas of operation.

Even prior to the budget cuts, Tanzanian
soldiers in the FIB who I spoke with last year were pessimistic about the UN
force’s ability to root out the ADF and had little praise for the FARDC’s
efforts. This is the backdrop to the startling series of Ugandan People’s Defence Force
(UPDF) airstrikes
 within the DRC last December that killed 100 ADF
militants, as well as Museveni’s subsequent chastising of the United Nations. While these
strikes were reportedly coordinated with the FARDC, the UPDF is unlikely to
always be so courteous with their Congolese counterparts. With plans to increase oil productionin western Uganda under
way, Museveni will look to establish a buffer against the ADF in eastern DRC
which could take the form of UPDF presence or Congolese proxies.

Another oft-overlooked dimension of Uganda’s
strategic landscape is the resurgent conflict in the DRC’s northeastern Ituri
region, along the Ugandan border. Tension between pastoralist Hema and
agriculturalist Lendu bubbled over into open warfare during the Second Congo
War, during which time the Ugandans alternately supported militias from both
ethnic groups to counter Rwandan (and later Congolese) influence. Major
operations by Lendu rebels resisting integration into the FARDC continued well into 2015, and FARDC soldiers I
spoke with last summer confirmed that the area was one of primary concern for
their commanders even though it had not been getting any international
attention. Then Xinhua reported this month that 26 people had been killed in fighting between
unidentified Hema and Lendu groups, and that some 34,000 people had fled into Uganda this year
as a result of the violence. Given the high level of ADF activity in Ituri, the
onset of a broader Hema-Lendu conflict will complicate Ugandan efforts in the

Rwanda’s strategic interests in the DRC are
not so fundamentally different from what they were twenty years ago. Rwanda
seeks to neutralize the FDLR rebels, whose ranks include many former
genocidaires; prevent the emergence of new rebel movements that are strong
enough to challenge the Rwandan state; and ensure Rwandan access to Congolese natural resources.
Malleable leadership in Kinshasa allows Kagame to secure these interests, just
as it allows Museveni to secure Uganda’s. If Kagame finds Kabila recalcitrant,
he can weaken his hand through proxies. This is precisely what Kagame did in
2012, when Rwanda helped catalyze a mutiny-turned-rebellion,
the M23 movement (which also received modest Ugandan backing). In a matter of
weeks, M23 routed the FARDC and temporarily occupied the major eastern city of
Goma, humiliating the Congolese leader.

The subsequent diplomatic scramble to prevent
a Third Congo War succeeded in pushing Kagame to drop his support of M23. While
some hopeful Western commentators heralded this as the
beginning of a new chapter in Congolese-Rwandan relations, the reality of the
situation was never so encouraging. Kagame had never intended for the rebels to
overthrow Kabila. As former Tutsi rebels of the CNDP group who had recently been integrated into
the FARDC, the M23 rebels were solely interested in maintaining their privileged
positions in the politico-economic sphere of eastern Congo; they never numbered
more than 2,500 and their social base was much narrower than previous
Rwanda-backed insurgencies, meaning that they would have never managed to
overcome the popular anti-Rwandan sentiment that dominates the Kivus.
Furthermore, Kagame had no compelling interest in seeing Kabila overthrown in
2012 so long as Kabila continued to tolerate Rwandan smuggling in eastern

It is much more likely that Kagame was simply
trying to maintain his influence in eastern DRC by weakening Kabila’s position,
which had been growing slowly stronger since 2009. In Kagame’s eyes, M23 would
not only serve as a bulwark against the FDLR, but a defection of Tutsi soldiers
from the FARDC would erase any legitimacy the Congolese state once enjoyed among
the Rwandophone population of the Kivus. Kagame’s eventual decision to sever
ties with M23 was the result of intense international pressure, namely the Obama
Administration’s withholding of U.S. military assistance to Rwanda,
as well as the fact that the rebellion inevitably fell apart shortly after its
inception due to conflict between its two leading commanders, Bosco
Ntaganda and Sultani Makenga.

None of this suggests that Kagame has any
desire to become what we might consider a responsible stakeholder in a regional
order. On the contrary, the militaristic and interventionist mindset of the RPF
vanguard still dominates Rwanda’s foreign policy. Kagame’s Minister of Defence
since 2010, General James Kaberebe, is known in the Congo for
his widespread use of child soldiers during the Congo Wars as well as his
propensity for daring commando operations—including the 1998 Kitona Airlift that nearly toppled Laurent Kabila.
Just months after the M23 rebellion ended, Kagame’s former chief of external
intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, was found murdered in a posh Johannesburg hotel.
In exile, Karegeya had secretly been advising South African and Tanzanian
intelligence in their efforts to target M23 for the FIB. Kagame officially
denied involvement in the assassination, but speaking on the matter to a
domestic audience shortly thereafter, said “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished
for it.”

With the advent of Burundi’s crisis in the
spring of 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza, an erstwhile friend of Kagame’s until 2013
(when relations soured over the M23 rebellion), quickly began casting the blame
for his country’s instability on Rwanda. It would have been easy to brush off
such claims as little more than Nkurunziza’s efforts to split the Burundian
opposition by stoking Hutu fears of a nefarious Tutsi dictator orchestrating the
current unrest. Unfortunately, a report by a UN panel of experts in February 2016
found that the charges had some merit: Rwandan intelligence officers had indeed
conscripted Burundian refugees, including children, and provided them with
military training in the hopes of toppling Nkurunziza. As of yet there has been
no RPF-style invasion and Nkurunziza remains in office, but the crisis in
Burundi continues among high tensions with Rwanda.

None of this recent history can tell us
precisely how Kagame will react to an increasingly unstable DRC. In some ways,
the case for Rwandan intervention is weaker than ever, as the FDLR,
traditionally the justification for Rwanda’s aggressive foreign policy, is a shadow of its former self. But insecurity
allows insurgencies to rebuild. Nkurunziza’s government was also probably not an
existential threat to Rwanda, yet this did not stop Kagame from assembling a
nascent Burundian rebel force. Furthermore, after two decades of Rwandan
interventions in eastern DRC, the various communities there have no shortage of
grievances against Kigali. It seems the only way Rwanda has managed to stay on
decent terms with any eastern Congolese community is through illicit trade. Even
most Rwandophone Tutsi in the Kivus long for integration into Congolese society and
see Rwandan backing as a scarlet letter.

In short, Kagame knows that most of the armed
groups operating in eastern DRC are at best highly skeptical of Rwanda and at
worst openly hostile.And, of course, last week’s deadly clash with FARDC troops
100 meters inside Congolese territory is further testament to how precarious the
situation between the two neighbors is, as communication between the two armies
is lacking while mutual distrust is in high supply. Finally, as a rule of thumb,
one should never underestimate Paul Kagame.

Way Forward?

there is no silver bullet to the crises in the DRC so long as its neighbors
continue to see little downside to a weak Congolese state. For one thing, the
European Union and United States, despite their tremendous financial power and
international standing, do not possess the same sort of leverage over the
relevant Congolese actors, most notably Kabila, that other African states do.
Nevertheless, some common ground for preventing a further deterioration of the
situation exists, as a complete collapse of the DRC would constitute far too
great a risk for neighboring states which are generally rather fragile in their
own right.

Our best chance of ameliorating the situation,
however slightly, rests on the various African stakeholders acknowledging that
Kabila’s presidency is unsustainable, which seems to be clearer every week with
new reports of growing chaos. The question then becomes what form any regional
pressure on Kabila would take: diplomatic efforts in forums such as the African
Union (of which Kagame is now Chairperson) and SADC, or the
blunter tools of statecraft all too common throughout the region’s history:
proxy warfare and invasion.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking
that the fundamental failure of the Congolese state would be remedied overnight
with new leadership, nor into believing that African nations will abandon their
realpolitik if Western diplomats and NGOs deliver enough sanctimonious lectures
about cooperation and development. But coordinating American diplomacy with
regional blocs like the SADC and the East African Community (of which Rwanda,
Uganda, and Tanzania are members) can help push for an orderly transition of
power in Kinshasa and hopefully avoid another regional war.

Washington can make it clear that they would
be happy to see Kagame use his new bully pulpit to pressure Kabila. Insurgencies
might be what Kagame is best known for, but he is also a shrewd diplomat, a
skillful negotiator, and a forceful personality (rarely do brutal dictators
manage to charm audiences at Davos as successfully as the Rwandan President).
Kagame would no doubt appreciate that if the African Union were to match
existing U.S. and EU sanctions against Kabila’s coterie and
send a high-level envoy to the country to engage the government and opposition,
this would send a clear signal to the Congolese leader that he is running out of
allies. Washington can also send out feelers to Pretoria to see if Ramaphosa is
willing to take a harder line on Kabila than his predecessor. If South Africa
ratchets up pressure within the SADC, Kabila will be in a very tough spot

Renewed international efforts to resolve the
crisis in Burundi are also imperative. Unfortunately, Nkurunziza looks set to
finish his illegal third term in office, if only because the East African
Community (EAC) has decided it’s too late to challenge the 2015 election. The
United States and the European Union—which have both slapped sanctions on four of Nkurunziza’s allies—should push the EAC to
take a stand on holding legitimate elections in 2020. In the meantime, there is
a pressing need to ensure the safety of Burundian opposition parties, namely by
pushing Nkurunziza to dismantle the Imbonerakure, a pro-government youth militia
eerily reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda’s Interahamwe, and pressuring the
government to enforce the post-civil war ethnic quotas for the civil service
and, most crucially, the army.

There is no guarantee, of course, that this
strategy would succeed. The situation is too multivariable, U.S. leverage is
limited, and the relevant regional players each have their own often conflicting
interests, to say nothing of strategic philosophies molded by years of warfare.
But efforts to resolve the crisis that narrowly focus on Kabila’s actions in
isolation from the wider geopolitical context are certain to fail. So long as
the state remains as fragile as it is, the Congo’s history will continue to be
disproportionately shaped by outside powers. For those of us who are realistic
about the country’s near-term prospects but nonetheless see a need for
international efforts to ameliorate the growing suffering and anarchy, we must
start by acknowledging this reality.



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