The Biden administration has made laudable efforts to focus more high-level attention on the giant at the heart of Africa, even after the end of President Felix Tshisekedi’s term as chairperson of the African Union. But more consistent involvement from Washington will need to be accompanied by a strategy that does not solely rely on finding alignment with Congolese elites.
It’s obvious that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) plays a central role in broader regional stability – or the lack of it. The recent resurgence of the March 23 Movement (M23) is only the latest in a long history of brutally violent armed movements, often with foreign sponsors, terrorizing civilians in the eastern part of the country, and exploiting natural resources through illicit channels. As neighboring states compete for dominance, they wage proxy conflict on Congolese soil, and heighten risks across borders. The potential costs are so great that the Angolan government has tried to broker a diplomatic solution, the East African Community plans to deploy forces to help stabilize the situation, and the senior UN official in the DRC has warned that the longstanding peacekeeping force in the country could be outgunned.
The country’s significance extends far beyond security issues in Central Africa. From a climate and green energy perspective, the DRC has a pivotal influence over the future of life on earth. The Congo Basin’s rainforest is not only an extraordinary treasure of biodiversity but also an essential carbon sink, absorbing more carbon than the entire African continent emits. A vital driver of rainfall in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the Congo Basin sustains life and agriculture across a huge swath of the continent.
The country is rich in minerals required for the transition to green energy, and is the site of intense competition for access to those resources. But it is also home to some of the world’s worst practices when it comes to transparency, respect for human rights, environmental protection, and responsible public stewardship of resource wealth. Congo both attracts and repels investment, generating too many stops and starts, complicating the supply chains the world needs for the future, and delivering suboptimal results for Congo’s development.
The stakes for external powers are incredibly high. But the United States’ crowded agenda in the DRC can succeed only if it is compatible with and complementary to the agenda of the Congolese people, who seek more security, more accountability, more service delivery, and more economic opportunity. The extraordinarily diverse and remarkably resilient Congolese population has bitter experience with geopolitics that subordinate the will and needs of the people to grand global ambitions, and their ability to hold their government officials accountable is tenuous at best. This disconnect between the offices and institutions of the state and the population keeps the DRC fragile and fractured, and stands in the way of lasting regional stability, a workable approach to protecting the forest, and reliable and responsible green energy investments. Addressing it requires an approach that extends far beyond consulting with officials in Kinshasa, and certainly beyond allowing the lobbyists employed by the Congolese government to dictate the agenda.
The country is due to hold national elections in 2023. Congressional leaders have rightly called on the Biden administration to prioritize support for an exercise that has real integrity, rather than another stage-managed affair designed to accommodate those at the top. The United States will have to pursue multiple objectives simultaneously and take care to listen and build trust with diverse actors, especially those in civil society, to succeed in setting the bilateral relationship on course for the future.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.