Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s continued refusal to step down after his constitutional mandate expired last December has not only put the already shaky state of democracy in the country at risk. It has also helped set off a humanitarian crisis that could amount to the world’s next Syria.
According to recent updates from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), more than 500,000 people have fled the south-eastern DRC so far this year as a result of worsening ethnic violence, which critics claim Kabila is exploiting as an excuse to further delay free and fair elections. The NRC has warned the region is on the cusp of a “deadly disaster,” with as many as 600,000 children close to starvation in Congo’s Kasai Province. The news comes after the UN declared a Level 3 (L3) emergency in the country last month, a rare move that is only triggered when senior officials believe a country or region is facing a complex and challenging emergency. Only three other crises – in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq – are currently designated L3 emergencies.
With the situation in the DRC reaching the breaking point, Donald Trump last month sent US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to the country as part of weeklong visit to Africa that also included stopovers in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Haley put on an emotional display after touring a camp for Congolese refugees displaced by violence in the country, but her trip appeared to have far more to do with American economic and strategic interests than concern for the worsening humanitarian situation gripping parts of the resource-rich nation.
This is a shame, since the humanitarian crisis in the DRC runs the risk of dragging in neighboring countries and setting off a regional catastrophe – which would be hugely detrimental to US interests. Instead of engaging in clichéd rhetoric, Haley should have pressed Kabila that Washington is running out of patience – and is willing to enact far stricter sanctions than those passed in June if he continues to stand his ground.
Announcing Haley’s visit to the Congo back in September, Trump opened his remarks by highlighting Africa’s “tremendous business potential”, telling reporters that strong and stable African nations can help create jobs both in the continent and the United States – leaving humanitarian concerns by the wayside. Only weeks after four US troops in Niger were killed, the White House pledged $60 million to a new, UN-backed multinational force to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region. Yet besides boosting the US military presence in Africa, the administration has so far failed to definitively outline its strategic interests in the continent and has made little effort to apply diplomatic pressure where it is most needed.
As a result, while Haley’s trip presented a critical opportunity for a senior US diplomat to publicly assess the dire humanitarian situation in the DRC, and examine the work carried out there by one of the most expensive UN peacekeeping missions, questions have been raised over what tangible benefits her visit delivered.
After all, other than tears and compassion for the people affected by the country’s ongoing crisis, Haley’s tour has still achieved little in the way of solid actions or policy shifts. To be fair, her warning that the death toll will continue to rise until Kabila commits to holding a national poll that will ultimately result in the end of his mandate was welcome.
Yet Haley’s demand that elections be held by the end of next year nullified the Saint-Sylvestre accords – a December 31st agreement between Kabila and opposition leaders to call votes by the end of 2017 – and postpones the democratic process still further, effectively handing the president more time to exploit the country’s deepening crisis for his own ends. The Electoral Commission announced shortly after her trip that the elections would finally be held in December 2018 – much to the ire of the opposition.
Last month, opposition leader and leading presidential candidate Moise Katumbi committed to return from exile by the end of the year to challenge Kabila, despite the fact that he might be arrested on trumped-up charges upon his return. He recently tweeted a message rejecting the postponement of the elections, saying: ”This predatory regime wants to prolong instability and the misery of the people. We do not accept this whimsical calendar. Kabila has to leave.”
He and other opposition politicians have also ramped up their calls to civil society to rise up against the regime, yet given the government forces’ propensity to use deadly violence against civilians, it is an open question how effective such protests would be. Given the steep odds facing the opposition, then, it is all the more imperative for the US to raise the pressure.
After all, what Haley learned during her visit will count for very little if she is unable to convince Trump and his advisers that the best way to bring an end to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Congo is to push for elections to be held at the earliest possible opportunity, under threat of sanctions. While the international community has its role to play in applying pressure to Kabila and his cronies, the US is uniquely placed to push for a poll that represents the best – and perhaps last – chance to bring peace and stability to the Congo.
Rather than pondering the potential economic openings the DRC and other countries in the region may present at an unspecified time in the future – which might never surface if the humanitarian situation does not improve – the Trump administration must now exploit all the leverage it has. At this point, scolding without the weight of stricter sanctions is simply not enough.