The World's Largest Failed State

Coinciding with Hillary Clinton's trip, three experts offer insight and advice on Congo.

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A recent report called Congo "the most dangerous place on earth for women and children," owing to widespread violence fueled by illicit mineral exploitation and a long-standing rape epidemic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit there today has brought renewed focus on the country where 4 million people died between 2000 and 2004. Here, we provide the three best opinions on what happened in Congo and what to do about it.

There Is No Congo  As Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills put it in Foreign Policy, "The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not exist." The authors attacked the idea that "one sovereign power is present in this vast country" of "67 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups," arguing that any international efforts "predicated on the Congo myth" are "doomed to fail." From mineral-hungry colonialists to the unqualified son of a Che Guevara colleague who became president, the authors detail Congo's slide into "ungovernable fiefdoms" built on "repression and patronage."

Focusing on two large and especially troubled regions, the authors suggest splitting them off. "It is time to ask," they wrote, "if provinces such as the Kivus and Katanga (which are themselves the size of other African countries) can ever be improved as long as they fall under a fictional Congolese state." They also argue that the international community should work with local forces to develop infrastructure. "Deal with whomever exerted control on the ground rather than continuing to pretend that Kinshasa is ruling and running the country," they advised.

Systemic Corruption  Adam Hochschild reported in the New York Review of Books on the "unimaginably horrifying" culture of widespread rape and forced labor by warring militias in "the world's largest failed state." Hochschild explained that oppression has been "considered the right of armies" from the colonial Belgian occupiers through today. Hochschild blamed "ethnic warlords and their backers, especially Rwanda and Uganda" who exploit the country's massive natural resources to fuel endless civil wars, abetted by a government of bribe-seeking bureaucrats. "Government as a system of organized theft goes back to King Leopold II, who made a fortune," he wrote. He recounts being approached by a stranger in the streets offering to sell him uranium for $1.5 million.

The UN's 17,000 peacekeepers are insufficient, Hochschild wrote, quoting an off-the-record UN official who told him 250,000 are necessary. Stability must he come, he argued, from enforcing payment of soldiers. "The outside world has influence over the Congolese army, because we're partly paying for it," he wrote. "Underlying the army's long-standing practice of looting civilian goods and food is that soldiers often don't get paid." He went on to praise a small pilot program that oversees soldiers' salary payments. Hochschild criticized Herbst and Mills's position of dealing with militias, which he called the "incorporate-the-warlords" approach and argued is already common practice by Congo's government.

Economic Reform   "It is only by exposing and stopping the scam that Congo's tragedy will end," Pierre Englebert of the Christian Science Monitor wrote. Clinton should push for widespread change in the government by targeting top Congolese officials who are "getting rich from keeping their state dysfunctional, and promoting local violence to serve their interests." Clinton and the U.N., he wrote, could oversee the Rwandan army in rooting out rebel groups and demilitarizing the troubled Kivu region.

Helping to build a manufacturing sector, he suggested, would provide a competing revenue source to the economy of war of corruption. Englebert also argued for sweeping land reform. "The legal authority of local state agents must be curtailed," he wrote. "A land reform would deprive chiefs of the opportunity to give land to their ethnic kin, which feeds inter-communal grievances."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.