Absent in Central Africa

How the United States Risks Reigniting Chaos in Congo

Soldiers hold their weapons in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 2015. Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters

Fifteen years ago, the United States, in concert with African regional organizations, helped facilitate political settlements of wars that killed millions of people in Central Africa. The overwhelming majority of victims were citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where, beginning in 1996, the decay of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt and incompetent regime spawned what would become known as “Africa’s World War.” The conflict embroiled two successive Congolese governments, several African countries, and a jumble of armed groups. By 2002, however, the United States helped facilitate a peace accord that provided for the withdrawal of foreign forces and a democratic transition based on a new constitution and free elections. During the same period, U.S. and South African diplomacy, backed by states in the region, helped end a potentially genocidal civil war in neighboring Burundi by mediating a new democratic constitution.

Today, however, those agreements are unraveling as Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza attempt to bypass their two-term limits and cling to power. In Burundi, Nkurunziza’s last-minute decision to run for reelection this month touched off a constitutional crisis, with street protests, a military coup, and a counter-coup. The Obama administration has made diplomatic efforts to address that crisis, taking a strong anti-third-term position and reacting to violence on the part of the Burundian government with cuts in security assistance and visa restrictions. But Washington is missing a crucial opportunity to prevent the situation from deteriorating in the far more strategically consequential Congo. The country is the largest by size in sub-Saharan Africa, and third biggest in terms of population. It is extremely rich in natural resources—such as copper, cobalt, tantalum, and the world's second largest equatorial rain forest—and it shares borders with nine countries.

Ever since Belgium, the United States, and the UN engineered the fall of its first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, Congo has been the place where Africans have looked first to judge U.S. foreign policy

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