During a panel discussion with the U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mr. Bill Garvelink hosted by the Washington DC chapter of the Society for International Development, Ambassador Garvelink started by saying that President Obama’s administration fully understand that a stable Congo implies a stable Central Africa given the fact that it shares frontiers with 9 nations. Congo is a very wealthy nation, he continued, with the second largest rain forest in the world, coltan found in our cells phones, and much more. To help Congo, the Obama administration’s priorities are in the following areas: security, governance, food security, anticorruption, health and gender based violence. The U.S like the Belgium, South African, and France, is also involved in military reform. At present, the U.S is training a battalion of officers and renovating a military base in Kisangani as well. The U.S has trained more officers in areas of human rights and investigation. The U.S believes that a more professional army will help the Congolese government restore the state’s authority nationwide.
In an earlier panel organized by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) African Studies and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), Congolese Human Rights activists, Prosper Bunzigiye challenged Ambassador Garvelink saying that U.S military involvement in African and in particular in the Congo has been disastrous and that there cannot be a success of the military reform in Congo if there is no government to hold the nation politically. Mr. Prosper believes that the Congolese problem is institutional. Government workers have to be paid and among these are the armed forces. Corruption is not only in the army, but it is widespread because the head of the nation is corrupt. Ambassador Garvelink discussed programs to work with the payroll system and other institutional challenges with the army, but he was vague about the need for both U.S. and Congolese military activities to be accountable to the people on the ground.
Although the Congolese issues are internal, there are external factors and influences to which the US continues to turn a blind eye. The U.S refuses to hold Congolese neighboring nations accountable for their involvement in illegal activities in the Congo particularly Rwanda and Uganda. The two nations have connections to natural resources smuggling networks which deprives the Congo from collecting its due tax on its imports. Instead these networks provide income to militias. There has been no answer as to why U.S policy priorities do not include addressing Presidents Paul Kagame and Yuweri Museveni’s connection to Congolese individuals and groups that have chosen war over peace as a way to access to power. It was those two leaders who in 1996 spearheaded the invasion against the Congo and, to better plunder its resources, created parallel rebel groups, some of which are in power today and other still fighting to get there. Through war, Museveni and Kagame helped former Congolese President Laurent Kabila to hold the office and they respectively, but separately helped rebel group members Jean Pierre Bemba and Azarias Rubarwa become vice presidents in the transitional government. During her trip to the Congo in August, Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton addressed the skepticism of the Congolese leadership on the intentions of the U.S in the Congo by saying to president Kabila that the U.S is opening a new page in its relationship with the Congo. Does this mean that Rwanda and Uganda are no longer the preferred allies after serving U.S interests in Congo? Based on current U.S policies in Rwanda and Uganda, this hypothesis is false. Instead, the U.S will continue to play multiple games and make the situation in DRC more complex as long as it fits its interests. To my question whether or not the Congolese people should trust U.S efforts in Congo, knowing its role in supporting the Rwanda and Uganda invasion of the Congo in 1996, Ambassador Garvelink, simply replied by saying that he was not the ambassador to Rwanda or Uganda. Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) believes that such a response downplays the complex ways in which U.S. activity in any of the region’s nations is interconnected and reflects an irresponsible approach to relations with these nations. Similarly, when asked for clarification about the activities of the U.S. military in the Congo, activities led by the U.S. command for Africa (AFRICOM), the Ambassador replied that such activities are not within his realm of expertise. The absence of reliable civilian oversight has been one of AFJN’s ongoing concerns about the increased involvement of AFRICOM in security endeavors throughout Africa. Without a clear understanding of how its activities impact the people of the Congo and fit within a context of U.S. engagement with the entire Great Lakes region, U.S. policy in the Congo risks contributing to insecurity, rather than fixing it. AFJN, looking to the U.S military record on the African continent, opposes the military approach to the Congolese problems. In fact, it is not in the interest of the Congolese people that the U.S is invested in training the Congolese army instead of supporting its civil society, whose involvement will be the key to the successful young democratic process in Congo. What has failed the Congo in part is not the army, but its political leaders. It is imperative that those who claim to help the Congo help in rebuilding its collapsed institutions. Corruption has been one of the tools used by by-standing nations to weaken the Congolese state. Consequently, it is by eradication corruption that the Congo can become a nation where laws protect all and punishes criminals. AFJN calls for a full review of U.S priorities in the Congo and the Great Lakes in general. A particular focus must be placed on the following: civil society strengthening, conflict prevention, pressure on Rwanda and Uganda with regard to security in Congo and natural resources smuggling networks, reconciliation programs within Congo, and ending corruption.