Africa In Turmoil Again: Why The US Holds The Key To The Heart Of The Continent

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Claude Gatebuke was 14 years old when militiamen ordered him to dig his own grave.

It was 1994, during the Rwandan genocide that ultimately killed more than half a million people. As Gatebuke worked, tensely anticipating the blow or the gunshot that would end his life, he held onto a vague hope that some benign force would swoop in to intervene.

“I had that feeling of loneliness when I was about to be killed,” he said. “It’s the worst feeling.”

Gatebuke was lucky. The militants did not execute him on that day, and shortly thereafter, he escaped altogether and made his way to the United States. The Rwandan genocide, which began in the spring of 1994, technically ended in late summer that year.

But Central Africa’s troubles are far from over. Forced grave-digging still occurs on Rwandan soil, as outlined in a November UN Security Council report. Similar human rights abuses have been carried out this year just over the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by the insurgent group M23. And by other militant groups in the region. And by members of the Congolese national army.

The problems plaguing the DRC and Rwanda are complicated, some say intractably so. Every few years, it seems, the conflict changes shape: a different setting, a new acronym, a fresh set of insurgent demands. 

But the underlying issues are essentially the same. This is a story on repeat.

Gatebuke’s desperate hope for intervention 18 years ago wasn’t entirely groundless; time and time again, the international community -- often led by the United States -- has played a major role in bringing antagonist parties to the negotiating table to end violent clashes.

Today, the United States has an important role to play, if only because it is still the world’s sole superpower and wields global diplomatic influence. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the same old short-term fixes won’t cut it.

Hutus, Tutsis And Minerals

Rwanda is a key player in the latest crisis in Central Africa, though most of the violence is taking place in the DRC. An insurgent group called the March 23 Movement, or M23, made headlines when it occupied the Congolese city of Goma for more than a week in late November. It is backed by Rwanda, according to reports from the UN Security Council, and supported on a smaller scale by Uganda.

The M23 is only the latest version of Rwanda-backed destabilization; similar forces of years past include the Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, which invaded the DRC in the 1990s, and the National Congress for the Defense of the People, which coalesced in 2004 and was absorbed into the Congolese army in an ill-fated March 23, 2009 agreement that would give the M23 its name.

Rwanda’s interference in the DRC has deep roots. It is partly tied to the Rwandan genocide, when the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups fought against each other. (Today many survivors, including Gatebuke, prefer not to discuss ethnic differences, insisting they were never the crux of the issue.) When it ended, many Hutus fled into the eastern DRC, and the current Tutsi-led Rwandan administration used old ethnic grudges as an excuse to meddle in its neighbor’s affairs.

Also at stake are vast riches. Despite being one of the poorest and least developed nations on earth, the DRC -- particularly the eastern provinces, which border Rwanda -- are full of valuable mineral deposits including gold, iron, tin, tungsten and coltan, which is essential to many electronic devices. Rwanda doesn’t need to seize these lands to reap the benefits. Criminal activities are already bringing Congolese riches across the border.

Further complicating the situation is a kaleidoscope of insurgent groups in the DRC, which thrive in the absence of a functional political system, undeterred -- and sometimes even absorbed -- by the corrupt national army.

And overshadowing everything is the memory of two massive wars that rocked the DRC and neighboring countries between 1996 and 2003. At least five million people died as a result of these clashes, which essentially pitted Rwanda and Uganda against the DRC and its allies.

Friends Of America

In late November of this year, the M23 agreed to withdraw from Goma following tense negotiations between the administrations of the DRC and Rwanda. The insurgents haven’t gone far; they are lying in wait on the outskirts of the city, making it clear that the situation is far from stable.

The Obama administration is facing pressure to intervene, particularly by taking stronger actions to convince Rwandan President Paul Kagame to give up his constant campaign of DRC destabilization.

“If we keep trying the old solutions again and again, it will not work,” said Fabienne Hara, the Vice President of Multilateral Affairs at the International Crisis Group. “If we send people to negotiate and they reach an agreement, in two or three years’ time we will have another crisis.”

Most analysts agree that actually holding Rwanda accountable will be essential to build lasting peace. But the United States has been a staunch ally of Kagame since 1994, partly because of his role in helping end the genocide.

According to Maurice Carney, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Friends of the Congo, cutting U.S. support for the Kagame administration is easier said than done.

“Rwanda is part and parcel of a U.S. policy supporting what they call a new breed of African Renaissance leaders -- [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni and Kagame included,” he said. “They actually serve U.S. interests in the region. They collect intelligence for the United States, and they provide peacekeeping troops in other parts of Africa that are important to the United States, including Somalia and Darfur. These factors are key to the United States basically running interference for Rwanda and Uganda at the international level: influencing UN reports, even providing diplomatic cover to shelter both countries from sanctions.”

Kagame staunchly denies backing the M23 insurgency; few analysts believe him. But members of the U.S. administration -- especially UN Ambassador Susan Rice -- have been criticized heavily for suppressing reports of Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC crisis, and watering down condemnations of M23 atrocities.

Supporting the M23 isn’t Kagame’s only offense. The president, who has won praise for his successful economic development initiatives in post-genocide Rwanda, has been widely accused of human rights violations in his own country, including suppression of dissent.

Gatebuke, who now lives in Tennessee, is one of the Rwandan administration's many critics. “Kagame has done a good job on economic development. However, it’s been a terrible government in terms of human rights,” he said.

“Inside of the country, any kind of criticism has led to people going to jail or being mysteriously assassinated, and some have been forced into exile. It’s embarrassing and difficult for the United States to admit that Kagame is not the kind of president who should be supported with U.S. taxpayer money.”

Aid (And Guns) For Rwanda  

Whether it is the responsibility of the United States to intervene in humanitarian crises is a perennial matter of debate. But analysts say that in the case of Central Africa, the world’s biggest economy must be a key player because of the millions of dollars it has poured into the region.

The United States has already bowed to international pressure once, announcing this summer that it would cut military aid to Rwanda.

“In light of information that Rwanda is supporting armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) … we will not obligate $200,000 in Fiscal Year 2012 FMF funds that were intended to support a Rwandan academy for non-commissioned officers,” the U.S. Department of State said in a July statement. FMF stands for Foreign Military Financing, a program that provides grants and loans to buy equipment made in the U.S.

The symbolism of the announcement was significant, but the numbers tell a different story. A $200,000 cut makes barely a dent in the $123 million that Rwanda allocated for defense in the 2011-12 national budget. More important, the United States did not scale back its official development assistance, or ODA. Rwanda relies heavily on international aid, which makes up about 40 percent of its budget of about $2 billion. According to data from USAID, Rwanda received over $140 million in U.S. ODA grants in 2010, the last year on record.

The United States wasn’t the only donor to withhold aid from Kigali this summer. Other development partners followed in Washington’s footsteps -- and they didn’t tread nearly as lightly. Such diverse entities as the United Kingdom, the African Development Bank, the Netherlands and the World Bank withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in funds and loans.

“The U.S. took the symbolic action of withholding a small amount,” said Carney of Friends of the Congo. “But it triggered a domino effect; Washington signaled to the rest of the world that it was willing to take action and institute some level of accountability for Rwanda.”

But while the token cut in American military aid helped spur other countries into action, which may have cajoled the Rwandan administration into reining in the M23 for now, it was still a short-term fix that left the overwhelming majority of Rwandan assistance intact.

Tellingly, Rwandan Finance Minister John Rwangombwa responded calmly to the overall aid withdrawal, which he sees as temporary.

“We think by the end of this year we should have resolved these issues of the donors. If it doesn't go beyond December it won't affect us. If it's prolonged, that's when we will have effects,” he told Reuters.

Weakness In The Congo

Withholding aid from Rwanda is only one part of a solution for Central Africa. The International Crisis Group’s Hara cautions that focusing solely on Kagame’s sins oversimplifies the issue.

“It’s such a complicated situation on the ground,” she said. “It’s not like you can take sides to help the good guys beat the bad guys.”

The DRC itself should be a key player in any stabilization efforts, but that will be hard to do if its government remains as weak as it is today. It’s not only the army that’s in shambles; the central administration in the capital city of Kinshasa, led by President Joseph Kabila, is also quite weak.

Since he became president in 2001, Kabila has been unable to turn the DRC’s mineral riches into revenue that could spur development in this poverty-stricken country of 68 million, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa and 11th biggest in the world. His power does not extend far beyond Kinshasa, much less the thousand-mile distance to Goma, the center of the current crisis.

In those eastern provinces, said Hara, legitimate local elections are nonexistent. “That basically encourages people to protect themselves through armed gangs. There are new militant groups being created all the time, because there’s no way for the people to express themselves politically.”

The United States -- which donates hundreds of millions of dollars to the DRC every year -- can effect change by strengthening its engagement with the Kabila administration, something that has fallen off in recent years. But in a region with myriad competing interests, it is essential that the United States not go it alone.

“There’s a need to coordinate the peace and security initiatives with the development agenda,” said Hara. “For the DRC, we need to get the UN Security Council on the same page with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the broader donor community and decide on an oversight mechanism that everyone will buy into.”

Similar efforts can also be undertaken in Rwanda, where impressive GDP growth (+8.6 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank) has masked the fact that political freedoms are still in short supply. Suppression of dissent has stopped critics from speaking out against Kagame’s activities in the DRC.

“Rwandans and Congolese people have been brothers and sisters since time immemorial, and always got along well,” said Gatebuke. “But the military regime in Rwanda has definitely caused some issues between Rwanda and the Congo. People in Rwanda would like to see the war ended. They would like to see Congolese peace. They would like to freely mingle with their brothers and sisters.”

Up To America, Again

Though the Central African crisis is notoriously complicated, the issue is easier to approach when taken as a whole. Weak political systems enable opportunistic power-grabbers to turn conflicts to their advantage, setting the stage for ethnic animosities, takeovers by militants and territorial battles.

That problem can be addressed if international powers take a broader view of the long-running crisis, and much of that burden falls on American shoulders. By imposing stronger aid conditions on Rwanda and rallying global action to stengthen regional democracies, Washington can make make a lasting difference for the DRC and all of its neighbors.

“The United States is the key player, without a doubt,” said Friends of the Congo’s Carney. “Whenever the United States moves, other nations move. It just takes the political will. No finances, no troops, just using strong diplomacy and putting pressure on regional players. Holding them to account.”

But if the past few months are any indication, the U.S. administration may need some nudging of its own.

“I think the American people need to know what is happening in the Congo today affects all of us,” said Gatebuke. “Let’s use the phones that are functioning because of minerals coming out of the Congo, and call our members of Congress and senators, and tell them: ‘We do not want to see butchers using our money, so please stop all aid to the perpetrators.’”

For him, the cause is an intensely personal one.

“The things that are happening today in the Congo were happening back in 1994 in Rwanda,” he explained. “I was scared staring down into the face of death. I don’t want to see any more kids digging their own graves, or made into child soldiers, or having to overcome the amount of obstacles I had to overcome to survive.”

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